By now, we've heard the news about actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, among approximately 50 other people, who were arrested for unethical and illegal schemes to secure college admission for their children. No need to recap there, but for the rest of us who might have family members applying to college in the next few years, there's still hope to bolster those application packets that won't also require millions of dollars and shady backroom deals.
As if colleges don't crack down hard enough on academic dishonesty, plagiarism and the like (the current punishment ranges from a zero in the class to complete university expulsion), we've now brightened the spotlight on applicants before they've set freshman foot into the classroom. So that leaves the question, "If you don't have scrupulous morals and buckets of money to throw into a college admission scheme, what can high school students do to increase their chances of acceptance?"
Thankfully, Arthur Ortiz, vice president for enrollment management at The University of Saint Thomas, was able to provide a glimpse into what admissions departments might look for. College admission season is in full swing, so pay attention — some of these you already know, but others might surprise you.
"A university will look for performance in the classroom through GPA and transcripts," he said. "They also look for students' performance on standardized exams like the SAT or ACT."
However, if the student's performance with grades and standardized tests fall south of stellar, that won't blow their shot.
"There are a growing number of institutions that are adopting admission policies that are test optional. A student can apply in a traditional method, or they can [opt] not to take the SAT/ACT. Typically with test optional applications, there are more criteria like an interview, to write an essay or provide additional support materials," Ortiz added. He further expanded on the reasoning, "There’s always a debate on the fairness of standardized test. Does the SAT/ACT have its bias against those who come form a lower socioeconomic background, or they come from a school that doesn’t have an SAT/ACT prep program?"
Another typical component of the application packet is the letter of recommendation.
"We want them to come from someone from the academic side — a teacher, a guidance counselor, and also sometimes [someone else], if it's a part of the narrative of the student. It’s hard to tell who someone is by numbers on a transcript or a test score, so at St. Thomas, we want to know more about who they are," he said. "Perhaps they work and support their family, so in that case, if a letter or recommendation comes from an employer, that’s a good source because it speaks to their work ethic and character, and it can provide a lot of valuable information."
Don't forget about those extracurriculars. After all, it seems like the outside pressures tell us our chances of acceptance are crushed if we don't get elected student body president, but Ortiz advises otherwise.
"When I started 20 years ago, there was a movement of extracurriculars. Quantity was seen as quality. Now, it's mostly about quality. If they are involved in something and show commitment, that’s fantastic. We don’t have a template. Some students are involved in band or choir, some are involved in athletics, and others are involved in a community literacy group or a mentorship program with junior high kids or their church youth group," Ortiz said.
Also, don't feel afraid to speak about your passion as a way to stand out. Ortiz recalled one student who took up horseback riding when her family moved from London to Houston. Another one was competing at the Junior Olympic level for archery.
"It’s always interesting to see the diversity of interests that students have," he added.
He also provides the sage advice to go on a college visit if students are on the fence, applying at a couple of colleges, and remaining flexible.
"While they might have their heart set on an institution, they [alone] will ultimately be the determinant of their success. They can still achieve their goals, and it ends up being a blessing in disguise."
And while we're on the subject of remaining flexible, Ortiz says the traditional four-year degree straight out of high school might not be the best path for all people.
Whether it's "Vocation/Tech training, associate's degree, bachelor’s degree, or advanced degrees, not everyone has to feel obligated," he said. "Bill Gates and Steve Jobs tried college, and it wasn’t for them. It think it worked out quite well from them. I’m a proponent of college, but it would be elitist to say that everyone needs college to succeed or be happy."
He also added that four-year colleges also usually offer options for certificates, and don't forget the community colleges' role in supplying the local education and technical training needs in the Houston area. There's always the option of the gap year or applying to school later in life, too.
Whatever path the next wave of college-aged children take, good luck out there!
Author's Note: Houston Baptist University and Rice University were contacted for a comment. Neither institution responded by the time of publication. The author elected to not contact University of Houston due to a conflict of interest.
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