Besides good grades and test scores, what are top colleges looking for when they select their freshman class? Students and parents often get it wrong. Unsurprisingly, they have trouble cutting through the myths. That’s why it pays to ask.
At the Fourth Annual NYC Directors of Admission Panel this week, senior admissions staff from some of New York’s most selective colleges answered questions about what they want. Two, in particular, impressed me with their clarity and candor.
Cooper Union, long known for its high-quality programs in art, architecture and engineering, as well as its appealingly low cost, had an acceptance rate of just 13% last year. That’s partly because tuition is subsidized, making it one of the most affordable and coveted schools in New York. It’s also because it offers a fine technical education, right in the heart of one of the great cities of the world.
Counterintuitive Cooper Union
At Cooper Union, admissions assumes you’ll have good grades and test scores and, for art and architecture, portfolios are required. But Mitchell Lipton, Dean of Admissions, was more eager to emphasize the rest of the package.
“Of course intelligence is important,” he said, “but we’re especially looking for the soft skills. We want to know students have the ability to deal with the obstacles that will come their way. You can call it grit. It’s something students don’t have as much of today as they did 20 years ago.”
On previous panels, Lipton has lamented the prevalence of coddled students and over-involved parents. He’s told stories about parents who try to meet with professors on behalf of their offspring. Cooper Union, he made clear, is intent on avoiding that sort of student in the future.
Columbia wants curiosity
The admissions folks at Columbia University, on the other hand, are especially concerned with intellectual curiosity, or—as they like to refer to it—“the life of the mind.” That’s one reason they ask what students are reading, said Peter V. Johnson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions. “Columbia wants to know what students pursue independently, when they are outside of school,” he said.
If a student’s planning to be an English major, that means the books he or she devours that aren’t on the school reading list. For students applying to Columbia’s engineering programs, it means time devoted to related passions.
“We want students who do engineering activities during the summer or on weekends. It could be robotics or other projects involving engineering skills,” Johnson said.
He also praised Columbia students for their tradition of social and political engagement, demonstrated over the years by teach-ins and protests on issues ranging from the South African divestment movement in the 1980s, to Climate Justice, the fossil fuel divestment movement today. A resume featuring social activism won’t be viewed as a blemish on an application to Columbia, at least not on Johnson’s watch. And there’s a good chance it may be an asset.
What colleges really want
If there’s a lesson to be learned from these two senior admissions professionals, it’s that the conventional wisdom about admissions is often wrong. Impressive grades and test scores are, of course, a prerequisite for the most selective schools. But beyond that, some of the top schools are looking for what makes a student different.
Don’t assume you know what a college is looking for. Instead ask questions, read interviews with admissions deans, visit a school’s website. Put your preconceptions aside, and get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
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