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Putting Your Heart into Your College Search — Without Losing Your Head

The Sword Dance: Spikes

How does one gain the spotlight in their college application?

By highlighting your sharp points, your noteworthy points. A spike is an area in which you excel, and your spikes are most likely to garner attention. Spiky students do what they love, and descriptions of what you love will rise from your applications and display your grit and passion. As colleges build a well-rounded class of students, they often shape the class by drawing on an assortment of angles and special abilities. Communicate your strengths so that your story will make you a standout.

Then there’s the other side: college admissions is complicated. There are a number of critical details and undulating variables that come into play as a result of the needs of the college. One such variable is the size and quality of applicant pools for various majors: Is the School of Engineering school more competitive than the College of Arts and Sciences? Another is legacy: How many relatives of yours have attended that institution and how closely related are they to you — are they your aunt, your grandfather, or your mother?  Then there are questions of gender balance, recruited athletes, musicians for the marching band, and plenty more. The needs change from year to year, and these details remain the private information of the college, so keep yourself centered on the work you love and be proud to showcase it in your application.

Rogue Waves: Effects of the Scoreboard

While the natural ebb and flow of each application season is shaped by the needs of the college, there are, however, also rogue waves or unpredictable factors that influence admissions. Take the big win, for example. Did your school’s basketball team take home the title or make a Cinderella run in March? If so, expect a rise in fall applicants:

Colleges with successful basketball teams tend to see more applications the following year. Research by Devin and Jaren Pope, two economists, has found that colleges whose men’s basketball teams qualified for March Madness, the sport’s [Division I] championship tournament, saw a 2.4% average increase in the total number of applications, as measured by the number of SAT college-entrance exam results received. Colleges whose teams made the “Final Four” saw a 5.8% increase in applications, while colleges whose teams won the entire tournament saw a 10.9% increase in applications in the year after their victory.

Keep in mind that decisions about who colleges admit aren’t necessarily based solely on the qualifications of the student. In addition to the big win, factors beyond a student’s control may include the inside scoop on a recommendation, the nature of the person who reads the application, or who you are competing with to earn a spot. Remember that human beings are making these choices, and a subjective decision-making process plays a creative hand in acceptances and other outcomes.

The Improv Part: Act Natural 

Don’t try to predict what a college might want in a given year. Instead, just live your life. Finding a good match is a dynamic enterprise. Planning for college these days requires a sound evaluation of undergraduate programs, an accurate analysis of admissions data, and a good hard reality check when it comes to recognizing options aligned with your own grades and scores. Stay engaged and put your heart into it. This is the only surefire way to find your best match and fall in love with the school you will eventually attend.

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