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  • Bentham Admissions Team

What is the Admissions Office Looking For?

Your application to a selective college needs to be like a three-legged stool. Admissions officers rate you in three categories: academics, extracurricular activities, and something called intellectual vitality, which means having a genuine passion for a field of study that has driven you to learn about it on your own time, go to summer camps, work in a lab take a course online, even publish a paper.

Many students have stellar grades, and many extracurricular activities, but if they’re missing intellectual vitality, the stool topples. Or a student has stellar grades and has learned thirty Python programs online, but has never worked with other students in an extracurricular activity and assumed a position of leadership. Once again, you have a two-legged stool from the standpoint of the admissions office

So let’s go through the three legs - what does the admissions office want from each? First, let’s look at academics. Academics is another three-legged stool - grades, rigor, and test scores. Once again, you can’t have only two of the three. Many applicants don’t learn until they are ready to apply that the admissions office cares about more than their GPA. They also look at how rigorous your courses were. They will look at your school profile and see what courses you could have taken. If you took accelerated instead of honors, that will hurt you. If you only took two or three APs when you could have taken twelve or more, this will also hurt you. Did your school offer an IB diploma? If they do, earn that diploma! Your odds of getting accepted improve significantly if you have the IB diploma.

It’s better to get a couple of Bs but have taken a rigorous course load than to have earned straight As in courses the admissions office feels are lightweight. They may think you lack the will to succeed, that you are afraid to take chances, or that you aren’t very intellectually curious. Admissions officers are looking for exactly the opposite: driven risk-takers with strong intellectual curiosity. As for test scores, take these tests very seriously - take a test prep course, get a tutor, or prep on your own - there are lots of good test prep books out there.

You’ve taken a rigorous course load, have great grades, and aced the ACT, so you’re in a pretty good position, right? But wait, only three extracurriculars? Wind ensemble, some required community service through your school, and a varsity tennis player ranked 50th in the state? Nothing here indicates your leadership, or your success in academically inclined activities (Model UN, Mock Trial, Debate, Computer Science club, etc.). Admissions officers at selective colleges look for students who interact successfully with their peers, take on leadership roles, and pursue and apply knowledge outside of the classroom.

Sadly, unless you’re going to be recruited to play, sports are not what the admissions committee is looking for. As a rule of thumb, you should have ten extracurriculars on your college application. Admissions officers usually aren’t interested in sports, as they are not a predictor of how you will perform as a student at their college. If you were the team captain, the admissions committee might take note, as they value leadership. Leadership is a predictor of how you will function in group projects, in the clubs you join in college, and of how you might make a positive contribution in your living situation or campus community service organizations. Leadership suggests you will speak out in class discussions, and maybe take on a role as a teaching assistant.

Does this mean you should get involved with as many extracurriculars as possible? No. While the college admissions office wants to see that you were intellectually driven, comfortable in social situations, and have applied and developed your talents outside the classroom, a particular kind of student is desired. This student is not well-rounded but angular. Most students have been led to assume that the college is looking for a well-rounded student. This isn’t the case. The admissions office wants a well-rounded student body, definitely, but a well-rounded student body of angular students. Angularity means that the student has pursued a particular passion or talent somewhat single-mindedly throughout high school. How can you have several extracurriculars if this is the case? The answer to this question is alignment. If you are doing Debate, you should also be writing editorials for the newspaper, and delivering closing arguments in Mock Trial or arguing for a resolution in Model UN. If you are in the Finance Club, you could also be managing the concession stand at sports events. Build a profile that demonstrates your depth of interest, commitment, and knowledge.

And this discussion of angularity brings us to the third leg of the stool, the deciding factor among students with similar excellent GPAs, test scores, and extracurricular activities. That third factor is called Intellectual Vitality. Intellectual vitality means that you are intellectually curious, deeply driven, and motivated to learn and grow in a particular academic area on your own time, not only after school but during vacations and in the summer. Chances are, a selective college or university wants students who desire to take a profound intellectual journey of discovery during college. They are trying to weed out those who do not love learning for its own sake, but instead are just hoping to make a lot of money when they graduate. How do you demonstrate intellectual vitality? There are many things you can do, from taking courses online to getting involved in summer programs, to doing your own research and blogging about it, or vlogging. Bentham Admissions specializes in helping students to find the most persuasive ways to demonstrate their intellectual vitality. Our consultants provide timelines, reminders, and resources to keep students on track once they have engaged in a self-driven project outside of school.

The admissions office is looking for students who offer the complete package, every leg of the stool. It is a difficult balancing act for students, and Bentham Admissions can help. Contact us today!


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