What Do Colleges Want?

    04 August, 2018

    For many people, the college admissions process can seem mysterious.

    But what college admissions officials want is not a secret. Schools present what they want in the form of big data. That information is available to anyone online.

    Students can use big data when seeking admission to colleges or universities where they will be strong candidates. This increases their chances for admission and financial aid.

    Here is what college applicants should look for.

    Using data to find the best fit

    Colleges provide admissions and financial aid statistics, called the Common Data Set, to satisfy the demands of education publishers, notes Lynn O'Shaughnessy, a college consultant. The information can be found by searching for the college's name and the term "common data set" or at websites for comparing colleges.

    The statistics for each school include:

    • The cost to attend
    • How much student loan debt the average person builds up while in college.
    • What percentage of applicants are accepted.


    • Average class grades and test results of incoming first-year students.

    As an example, let's consider Stanford University in California. At Stanford, 75 percent of incoming students for the 2016-2017 school year had 700 or above on the mathematics part of the SAT.

    The SAT, once called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, is widely used for college admissions in the United States. It measures the math, reading and writing levels of high school students.

    Also at Stanford, 94 percent of incoming students had grade point averages above 3.75, 4.0 is considered perfect but higher grade point averages are possible. In addition, 95 percent of the new arrivals were in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

    Yet having fine grades and test results do not guarantee admission to a top college. Stanford accepts just five percent of people who apply. But knowing about the students who were accepted can help applicants. They can stop thinking about unlikely choices for higher education and focus instead on schools where they are more likely to gain admission.

    In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2016, an educator reviews a college test.
    In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2016, an educator reviews a college test.

    Target schools who want you

    Experts say having grades and test results that are above the school's average can help with both an applicant's chances of being accepted and getting financial aid.

    In the United States, the best financial aid deals do not always come from highly competitive schools or large public universities. Sometimes they come from smaller colleges that are trying harder to interest good applicants, says Vita Cohen, another college consultant.

    Information about how a school examines applicants can be found in the data set's "admissions factors". They show how each school rates 19 measures of admission, everything from class rank to after school activities.

    Many schools, for example, think the difficulty of an applicant's high school classes and their grade point average are "very important." Some schools consider standardized tests, like the SAT, as important, while others do not.

    "Level of applicant's interest" is another issue. Colleges care about the percentage of applicants who accept an offer of admission. Some schools want to see true evidence of interest from applicants. This includes their visits to the school and answering emails from the admissions office.

    Avoid schools that do not give much money

    Most U.S. colleges do not fully meet the financial needs of their students, even when federal student loans are considered. Families are expected to find the extra money themselves, often through parental or private student loans.

    The size of a student's need depends on how willing each school is to give them money.

    For example, the cost of attending New York University (NYU) and the University of Southern California (USC) is about the same: about $72,000 a year. USC, however, fully met the financial need of 80.4 percent of first-year students who received aid. NYU fully met the financial need of only 9.1 percent of its first-year aid recipients.

    Families who do not need student loans for school can still get the cost of a school reduced though something known as "merit" aid. Merit aid is less common at public and highly competitive schools that have many applicants. UCLA, for example, offered merit aid, which averaged $4,847, to only 2.6 percent of its first-year students.

    Cost is important, say most experts. They warn that while it is important to have a college education, you do not want to finish school with a large debt.

    I'm Phil Dierking.

    Liz Weston reported this story for the Associated Press. Phil Dierking adapted her story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    applicant - n. someone who formally asks for something (such as a job or admission to a college)

    big data - n. extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.

    consultant - n. a person who gives professional advice or services to companies for a fee

    focus - v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific

    grade - n. a number or letter that indicates how a student performed in a class or on a test

    online - adj. done over the Internet

    rank - n. a position in a society, organization, group, etc.

    standardized - adj. when something is conformed to a standard.

    statistic - n. a number that represents a piece of information (such as information about how often something is done, how common something is, etc.)