What Colleges Look For: A Complete Guide

Although the college admissions process can be grueling at times, there are some ways to make it easier on yourself. In a recent webinar presented by BeyondDreams, "What Colleges Look For: NCSU College Workshop," Jaqueline Lopez, an admission officer from NC State University, answers frequently asked questions about the college admission process. She offers invaluable advice from a tutorial on the common app to brainstorming essay ideas for upcoming applicants! The full webinar is posted on the BeyondDreams YouTube channel, but here are a few summarized tips and tricks!

How do you know if a university is the right fit for you?

There are many factors when considering which university is the best for you. First, understand how far you would be comfortable with being away from home. Next, look at what the colleges have to offer and evaluate if it aligns with your goals and financial range. Do they have the major that you want to study? Also, think about what your ideal environment is and whether you prefer larger or smaller campuses and class sizes.


Keep in mind that once you get to a college, it may not be a good fit for you, and that is completely okay! Transferring is an option that is becoming more common for students. It is okay to not have all of the answers right away; rather, take this time to explore what fits you best.


What do you recommend when choosing to submit test scores or not?

Test optional has been a fairly new policy among many colleges in the U.S. which has raised a lot of questions among students. How do you know if you should submit them if the scores are on the fence?


Check in with different colleges that you are applying for and see how they review test scores. For example, if you decide to submit your test scores to NC State, they can be used to enhance your application if the scores are strong. If they are not as strong as you want them to be, NC State will not use test scores to disadvantage a student. However, this may not be how all schools will review. For schools like NC State, Jaqueline Lopez recommends submitting them, no matter the score.


If you do not want to call schools to ask how they review test scores, they usually have the information such as average test scores on their website, which can help you make a better decision on whether or not to submit test scores. If you decide not to submit the scores, it usually will not hurt you in the application process. When schools say that they are optional, they truly mean it.


How can a student find the right topic of their essay if there are multiple things they value?

Jaqueline Lopez says that writing a lot about a little is better than writing a little about a lot. In other words, choose a topic based on what would fit the common application prompts best. If there are multiple ways that you feel like you can respond to an essay question, talk through your different thoughts, either with yourself or to a close friend, family member, or guardian. This can help clarify your thoughts to narrow down your options.


What are some unnecessary things to put on your resume, and what are some mistakes to avoid in the application?

Try not to use your essay as a second resume. Since there is already a place on your application where you can list your activities, you do not need to use your essay to do the same. Instead, write about a topic or experience that you enjoyed, even if it is about an extracurricular activity.


A common mistake is minimizing the activities that you take part in. Contrary to popular belief, even your family responsibilities can go on your extracurricular list. For example, if you are at home and tasked to take care of your siblings, make dinner, or perform other activities that require your time and energy, put that down on your application. You can place these activities in the area that asks, “Do you have any activities that you wish to report?” Here, you can also organize your activities by sports, career-oriented, art-related, community service, computer technology, and family responsibilities.


What are some misconceptions of the college process?

When colleges review applications, they really do take a holistic approach, meaning that each aspect of your application plays a role in how they review your application. A common misconception is that if you have a low test score, you are automatically denied. Most admissions officers really do read every single application and essay that gets on their table. Everything holds weight on your application review, so no one thing will not make or break your application.


What is your #1 tip for upcoming applicants?

The best tip for upcoming applicants is to apply early. Many colleges have two or three application deadlines. For example, NC State offers early action and regular decision deadlines. Applying early action will put you into more consideration for university scholarships, housing choices, honors and scholars programs.


Also, understand the difference between early action and early decision. Early decision is binding, meaning you sign a contract that says “I will attend this school if I am admitted”. Therefore, apply early decision to a school that you are fully committed to. On the other hand, if you apply early action and are admitted, you still have the option to accept or decline.


How do we make the essay stand out and what are you looking for in the personal essay?

Your essay does not have to be the five paragraph essay that you learned in your high school English class and does not need to have an introduction, body paragraphs, or a conclusion. The best essays that admissions officers have read feel conversational, story-like, and as if you are talking to your best friend. Do not be scared to be casual! Usually when you structure it in the five paragraph essay style, it can lose the message that you are trying to convey, which is to show the admissions officers who you are beyond your transcript.


What is the solution if you have too many activities that go over the 10 activity limit?

Whenever possible, do not merge your activities because you can put the extras in the additional information section. This is also a great space to explain other situations. For example, if you have gotten a grade that you do not like, you can explain here what happened during that time and give context. Additionally, there is an optional essay prompt pertaining to community disruptions, including the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and more. Here, you can write about possible issues that you faced which could affect your admission.


How much will a low AP score affect admissions?

The effect of a low AP score depends on if schools consider AP scores. For instance, NC State does not consider or even look at AP scores. Therefore, a low AP score (2 or below) would not get you a college credit, but it would not affect your admission chances either.


Since some schools might consider AP scores, it is important to check in with various schools that you are applying for to see how they handle different situations. University admissions policies vary, so be sure to check before making decisions.


To conclude, writing about who you truly are can help you stand out in the college admissions process. Apply early, work hard, and good luck!


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