• Beth & Tim Manners

Survey: What Do Colleges Really Want?

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

Getting into college can be a mysterious process. While it’s easy to grasp the importance of hard facts like grades, rigor and test scores, the softer metrics of extracurricular activities, teacher/counselor recommendations and the essays are more difficult to fathom. This is true both for the students who apply and the college admissions officers who decide.


Because of this double-barreled conundrum, The Manners Group, a Westport, CT college counseling practice, decided to reach out to admissions officers at about 100 colleges and universities across the country. Our goal was to get a better sense of how they view the role of admissions factors beyond the numbers.


We received a total of 54 complete responses, largely concentrated within highly selective, Eastern seaboard schools, but also including representation from the South, Midwest and West. We followed up with a series of 30-minute telephone interviews with a total of six, geographically diverse, admissions officers.

Before getting into specific results and our analysis, it’s important to note that admissions criteria vary from school to school, making it unwise to draw sweeping conclusions. In particular, the larger schools tend to be more numbers-oriented while the smaller ones may want to meet each applicant in person before making a decision.


For the purposes of this report, we are assuming the highest standard of acceptance on the theory that it’s usually advisable to exceed expectations. It is also important to remember that choosing appropriate schools to begin with is as important as what goes into the application itself.


That said, if there is one overarching theme that emerged from our survey it is this: Many students would be better positioned for admission if they put equal effort into all parts of the application. While no one section of the application is necessarily “make or break,” it is how clearly and consistently all parts of the application fit together that can make a difference.

In general, how often do most students tell a cohesive story about themselves across every part of the application?

Admissions officers often say that they read applications “holistically,” so it is imperative that students write them accordingly. This reality is evident in the response to our survey’s first question: “In general, how often do most students tell a cohesive story about themselves across every part of the application?” The responses were: Sometimes (58.5%); Usually (34%); and Almost Never (7.5%).


That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the quality of most applications.


The question then becomes: What does it mean to tell a cohesive story across the application? Based on our followup interviews with admissions officers, it can simply mean making sure that no conflicts create static between each section of the application. At a higher level, it can mean being mindful of potential connecting points between academics, activities, recommendations and essays. This does not mean relentlessly hammering away at a single idea throughout. That could appear forced. It does mean making sure that even ostensibly diverse attributes interact in ways that pull the applicant into multi-faceted focus. When that happens, the student becomes more interesting and memorable.

Next: The Art of the College Essay

About this Survey

A total of 54 admissions counselors completed our online survey, six of whom participated in follow-up telephone interviews of approximately 30 minutes each. Our special thanks to Lizzie Leonard of Northeastern University; Aaron Levine of Haverford College; Grace Marchena of Lafayette College; Loretta Kosterman of University of Oregon; Dalton Goodier of Texas Christian University; and Marco Blasco of Gettysburg College.


All online survey responses were aggregated and kept strictly anonymous. Participating schools included: Denison, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, CalTech, Claremont McKenna, Colgate, Emory, George Mason, Gettysburg, George Washington, Harvard, Haverford, Holy Cross, Kenyon, Lafayette, Lehigh, Macalester, Northeastern, Oberlin, Purdue, RIT, Santa Clara, Sarah Lawrence, Smith, Syracuse, Texas Christian University, U Alaska, U Chicago, U Cincinnati, U Delaware, U Miami, U Richmond, UNC/Chapel Hill, U New Hampshire, Union, and Virginia Tech.

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