What Colleges Want


Applying for college is both exciting and nerve-racking. You could get accepted into the college of your dreams, or you could be stuck with your last choice, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many people don’t know what to do when applying to college and make decisions that they look back on and regret. I recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. Michael Gaynor, the Director of University Admission at Villanova, to get more information about what students should know about applying to college and what they should do during high school to prepare.
There is often debate over when students should begin thinking about and preparing for college, with some saying at the beginning of high school and others saying not until junior year. When thinking about college, it is really never too early to begin, considering the immense variety of options that there are to pursue. Mr. Gaynor said, “Probably start visiting colleges in your junior year, but you should be mindful that what you do from the beginning of your first year, as freshmen, and that trend through senior year will impact your admissibility to colleges and universities.” Basically, you should be thinking about and doing what you want colleges to see on your transcript as soon as you start your freshmen year, but it isn’t necessary to start thinking about where you wish to apply until later in high school, though it is never too early to start.
Many people also think that they should take the hardest classes they can because even if they don’t do extremely well, colleges will be more inclined to accept them just from seeing the array of difficult courses. It seems, though, that colleges want students to be successful in a level they are more comfortable in content-wise than to fail a class they cannot succeed in because it is too difficult. When asked which he preferred, Mr. Gaynor replied, “I think that students should take the most rigorous curriculum that they can where they are going to be successful, so they should challenge themselves as much as they can.” He then recollected about a panel he was involved in: “I was on a panel in the South a few years ago, and I remember someone from the audience asking, ‘Would you rather see a B in an AP class, or an A in an Honors class and one of my presenters responded, ‘An A in an AP class.’” This response illustrates how you should challenge yourself and do the best that you can, if it’s an A in a lower level as opposed to a C in AP, then go with the lower level where you can be successful. Another thing to note, if you are planning to go into a specific field, such as Chemistry or Computer Science, you should take as many classes as you can while in high school that will prepare you for college in those subjects. On this Mr. Gaynor said, “Of course the engineer should take as much math and science, including physics, that they can. Each college is looking for subtle differences. Nursing may scrutinize biology and chemistry classes.” Although colleges try to reward students for taking rigorous AP (or IB – International Baccalaureate) courses, it depends on how many they’ve taken and how many are offered at their school as to keep it fairer for those who don’t have as many available. Radnor, for example, offers 26 AP courses, while other schools may have a greater or fewer amount. Lower Marion High School, for example, has 17 AP courses, and William Penn High School has only 14. Mr. Gaynor told me, “As a member of the Common Application, or by reviewing the high school profile, we see how many AP classes are available, and then we notice how many have been taken on the candidate’s transcript. So we always try to evaluate holistically in the context of opportunity. For instance, if someone attends a school where they only offer 4 AP classes, and they’ve taken two or three, they have challenged themselves academically.”
Regarding the SAT’s and ACT’s, until several years ago, most people on the East coast took the SAT, and many people in the Midwest took the ACT. Now, people all over the country take whichever one they decide , and some take both and then send in whichever score looks better. At Villanova specifically, Mr. Gaynor described the process as follows: “We have this concordance table which allows us to convert scores and select the best scores that allow us to present a student’s application in the most favorable light with the faculty members we work with on our admission committees.” Also, many schools in this day and age are test-optional or have different iterations of how they utilize standardized testing. Some schools don’t require a standardized test score no matter what, while others only require the standardized tests if you are below a certain GPA. According to fairtest.com, the website for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there are over 900 four-year colleges and universities that do not admit a substantial number of bachelor-degree applicants by using the SAT’s and ACT’s.
There are many things colleges look for when they see an application, like grades, extracurriculars, essays, recommendations, and, in many cases, standardized test scores. For Mr. Gaynor and Villanova University, “the number one criterion…is performance in the classroom. That is by far the first thing [they]look at: grades and the strength of the curriculum in the context of opportunity at that respective high school.” A way to shoot yourself in the foot, though, is to have bad grades but good standardized test scores. If your grades aren’t strong as well, you may not be considered as highly. Mr. Gaynor emphasized, “I can assure you that we are not rewarding potential, and we will not admit someone just because they had a great Saturday morning; they really need to work every day in the classroom. After that, selfishly, we look at everything else.” This is the outlook  at Villanova and at most colleges, but it may be different at other colleges and universities across the country and around the world. At Villanova, I was told they look for both leaders and followers. Clubs and involvement at school are important parts of an application, as they help you to stand out from the crowd. For the most part, one club isn’t held as more important or better than another, so a sport isn’t more important than an academic club and isn’t held with more esteem. Also, with extracurriculars, more isn’t necessarily better, and they don’t all have to be school clubs. Having a job, helping to care for siblings, or helping a grandparent or neighbor who isn’t doing well can be just as important, in many cases, as an extracurricular that will be considered on your college application.
Many students are worried about whether or not they will be able to afford college and will be saddled with student debts for many years to come, which, frankly, may be the case for some people, and it is sad it has to be that way. However, many colleges offer different forms of financial aid so that you will not have to pay full tuition. Scholarships are one thing most people know about and don’t believe they will be able to get because they aren’t athletic enough or smart enough, but that isn’t the only kind of financial assistance available. Many schools offer need-based financial aid to assist needy families. If you are in these situations and have a strong application, you should apply as it may provide you with an opportunity that you didn’t think was possible. Many colleges also offer merit scholarships that, for different reasons, can discount the cost of attendance. Two important forms to know about are the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile, which can help you and your family afford college.
As for wait lists, most schools maintain a waitlist that students are placed on should they not meet their enrollment goal for their incoming first-year class (if their admitted students choose to enroll elsewhere). When you are on the waiting list for a school, you can choose to remain on their active waiting list, which may be by for a specific academic major or college. The active waiting list at Villanova could be some 2,000 students. Mr. Gaynor said:
We design or engineer our process to go to the waiting list. It is best to inch the boat up to the proverbial dock in terms of our enrollment, so when you hear that colleges and universities had to go to their waitlist, often times they strategically want to go to their waitlist and not be over enrolled. Plus, most importantly, there are wonderful students who can be very successful on the waitlist. Being on a college waitlist shouldn’t be considered a failure since there is still a solid chance that you will be able to go to the college.
I’m sure you’ve heard over the morning announcements the information about the early decision deadline. That is only one possible way to apply. You can also apply for regular decision or an early action program. With early decision, you can only apply to one school, and if you get into that school, you have to go to that school no matter what; it is binding. With early action, in contrast, you can apply to as many schools as you want early action, and if you get into one, it is not binding. However, some colleges have restrictive or exclusive early action plans. For example, a school may allow you to apply early action but you can only apply to a certain amount of other early actions programs, or to no more early action programs, but you can still apply to regular decision. Also, a school could say that you can apply to as many schools early actions as you want, but if they accept you first you have to go there. Regular decision is simply applying, but some schools have deadline-driven admission release dates and others are on a rolling decision basis. Mr. Gaynor said, “I think early decision would benefit a student that knows they only want to go to one school.” If you have one school you know you want to go to, then early decision is for you. If you have a handful of schools that you want to go to, then you could apply either early action or regular decision.
Many schools take into consideration other factors that may increase your chances of being admitted, one of them being legacy. Legacy is not a major factor considered, but it can swing the pendulum to being admitted to a school. Mr. Gaynor said, “If we can continue a Villanova family tradition, we most certainly make every effort, but, of course, at the end of the day, we want to make certain for everyone applying that they can be successful in the classroom.”
College essays can be a very important part of the applications process, as well, because they allow the applicant to show the reviewers who they are. It is important to be yourself and represent yourself in a positive light. You shouldn’t try to write to the people who you believe will be reading it so they can hear what they want to hear, and you should definitely make sure you write to the question. When asked, Mr. Gaynor said:
Write in your own, authentic voice as a 17- or 18-year-old. Write in your own style. If you’re not a comedic writer, it’s probably not a good time to start. Don’t write to the perceived reader, because you want to be a good fit for the school for who you truly are. And, of course, answer the question. Please don’t submit a great school paper where you received an A. Simply answer the question; don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.
When Mr. Gaynor was asked for any final tips or pieces of advice, he said:

I would say that if you work hard in the classroom, that’s the number one criterion, and it’s important to start your college search early but you’re never going to get these high school years back at Radnor, so enjoy your high school years. It’s not mutually exclusive. You can still keep your head down, your arms swinging, and work really hard in the classroom, and enjoy high school, taking full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. And if not being admitted to someone’s first choice school is the harshest blow that life deals them, they will have lived a charmed existence.

Applying for colleges is a big step in someone’s life, and it is a good idea to have an idea of what you are doing beforehand to allow the process to be a smooth and as simple as it can possibly be. Always keep in mind that what you do now can affect things long down the line, so it is important to realize what it is you are doing, and the way in which you are doing it. As summer approaches, keep in mind what you can do to boost your application, whether it be a job, an internship, or a pre-college program. Good luck to our graduating seniors as they head off to college or into the workforce and as they prepare to take on the world.