- Do colleges prefer a high GPA with less challenging classes, or a lower one with more rigor? This may well be the most pressing issue for many families trying to do some academic planning early in high school. Say your student is selected for the most rigorous math track at your high school. Earning top grades in that class may be very tough and the slightly less rigorous class might be one in which he or she could earn a good grade without too much difficulty. There are variables of course, like if both would yield a completed AP or equivalent calculus class before graduation, but the bottom line is colleges like rigor. They want students who are not afraid of pushing themselves intellectually, and work hard to achieve goals. As we know, some of the biggest state flagships may not have the luxury of time for a close examination of transcripts so may not appreciate a 3.6 with a lot of rigor versus a 3.8 with less rigor so that is a consideration.
- What extracurricular activities do colleges like to see students engage in? I like to say that the karma of admissions dictates that phoniness is easily detected. If your student doesn't care deeply about Tibetan independence, he shouldn't join the Free Tibet club. If she isn't interested in robotics, joining the Robotics Club because she might want to apply to engineering programs is just silly. Depth and consistency in interest is what is viewed positively. Example: A student who is interested in medicine should volunteer at a local hospital, join the local volunteer ambulance corps if available, or work with a NGO that raises money and collects supplies for a rural clinic or similar. For a student interested in photography, photo editing for a school based publication, displaying work at a local nursing home for the benefit of the residents and interning with a local photography studio are all consistent with having photography classes on a transcript. This depth and passion is what colleges like to see. They want to build a class with diverse interests and passions. That makes campus life better for all. Be sincere and genuine and your student's unique profile will be hard to miss.
- How important is the application essay? I often tell students that if he or she is a highly qualified candidate, a boring essay probably won't get him or her denied, and if he or she has stats significantly below the middle 50% of accepted students, a brilliant flawless essay may not get him or her admitted. That doesn't mean a student shouldn't commit to creating a thoughtful well-constructed essay that isn't a regurgitation of the extracurricular list. Tell the admissions officers something they don't know about you! Make sure it makes for compelling reading and watch out for typos especially after you have pasted your essay into the Common App. Commas can move, spacing can disappear and paragraphs magically merge together. Take the time to brainstorm, ask parents or friends to help you be a little introspective and don't pick a prompt first. That comes later!
The conclusion I drew from these first several meetings is that both parents and students hear lots of misinformation about the process, what's involved and why students gain admission to or are denied by their top choices.