How the College Application Process is Changing in Big Ways

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Less than 50 years ago, only a quarter of young adults enrolled in postsecondary institutions. By 2014, that number had climbed to 40 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds. As a result of this steady climb in enrollment, colleges and universities are not only becoming more selective, but they’re also changing what they look for in their next class of students.

Jessica Yeager graduated from Harvard and MIT, and racked up an exemplary accomplishment during her college application efforts: she was accepted to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Northwestern, and Washington University in St. Louis. Inspired by Yeager’s roundup of college application tips, ASU Digital Prep pored over first-person accounts from college admissions professionals to see if—and how—the college application process is changing.

And, rest assured, what college admissions committees look for in students is certainly evolving.

“Being in 10 clubs, playing three sports, and volunteering at your local food kitchen an hour a week does not help you get into Harvard. In fact, it makes you look like you don’t really know yourself or what you want to do,” says Yeager. She goes on to give valuable advice about the college essay; namely, that this process should take months of brainstorming, several drafts and hefty reworks.

Whereas 10 years ago a college application may have served as a laundry list of accolades and achievements, today’s application should be a reflection of your passions, desires, interests and, most importantly, your character.

“About a decade ago, schools changed their focus from well-rounded students to those with a hyper-developed interest in one or two subjects,” says education writer Valerie Strauss in her myth-busting article for The Washington Post. “The best way to impress admissions counselors, as always, is to authentically pursue what interests you.”

Rebecca Sabky agrees in her New York Times piece about the value of kindness: “In the chaos of SAT scores, extracurriculars and recommendations, one quality is always irresistible in a candidate: kindness.”

In this CBS morning segment, author and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni dives into a groundbreaking report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that’s driving changes in the way postsecondary institutions evaluate and admit students. In the words of the report itself, this “marks the first time in history that a broad coalition of college admissions offices have joined forces to collectively encourage high school students to focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement.”

The bottom line: use your high school years to get to know yourself, develop care for others, and foster strong relationships that teach you the value of kindness. When it comes time to complete your college applications, put on your storytelling hat and tell those admissions committees about your personal evolution. What matters most, according to the pros, is that your values are as strong as your ambition.

Additional resources:

  • Read this article written by a former Ivy League admissions officer for tips on standing out “in a sea of excellent grades and test scores”
  • Listen to the Getting In: A College Coach Conversation podcast, which offers nearly 150 episodes that demystify the college application process and all of its nuances.