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By Robin Catalano
| March 4, 2019
In 2017, Boston University received a record 60,825 applications, up six percent from the previous year. It admitted just 25 percent of those students. These numbers may seem staggering, but they’re a drop in the bucket when you consider that BU actually hovers at the bottom of the top ten colleges with the highest applicant rate; eight other universities, mainly in California, received upwards of 80,000 applications the same year.
The disproportionate acceptance numbers aren’t an anomaly. In fact, only 13 percent of four-year colleges accept fewer than half of their applicants. This means that in addition to the long-revered trifecta of admissions requirements—grades, standardized test scores, and outside-the-classroom participation and achievements—students are having to dig deeper than before in order not to be caught adrift in a sea of applicants.
It turns out that many of the modern criteria admissions officers use to evaluate merit are key indicators of how a student will perform not just in the college classroom, but also in life. In addition to supplemental application paperwork, Harvard University, for example, has a long list of intangibles that it considers, from whether a student has reached his or her maximum academic and personal potential to whether he or she demonstrates initiative, leadership, and openness to new ideas. St. John Fisher College encourages an optional activities resume, which, theoretically at least, can help demonstrate similar personal qualities.
Meanwhile, Tufts University offers an optional interview with an alumnus, and both Tufts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have optional Maker Portfolios, where students can showcase projects that required creativity, technical skill, and a hands-on approach to learning.
Knowing what admissions officers are looking for can help students prepare earlier and set them up for success in the application process. Early preparation may also have the extra benefit of developing skills that will help the student thrive after school, as a young adult entering the workplace
Scholar Athletes (SA), a nonprofit established in 2009 and now located in 24 high schools in Massachusetts, addresses all of these admissions criteria through a program designed to maximize college readiness. To join SA, students must participate in sports or fitness, show an interest in academics and self-improvement, and be in good academic standing.
Students’ grades are the top factor in determining college admissions, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, so it’s crucial that high school students are given the time and support they need to excel on their coursework early. Beginning in their freshman year, SA participants use a dedicated learning space within their school called the Zone, where they can study, do homework, or get advice on specific topics, such as time management. “We find that the more kids visit the Zone, the better they do,” says Kristopher Magargal, the Scholar Athletes program coordinator for Brighton High School.
Indira Ortiz, a Zone member and Brighton High School senior from Roxbury, says she values her time in the Zone because she considers it a safe space to work. “English is not my first language, and I take AP literature. When I have to write papers for English, I can ask and they’re willing to help me,” she explains. “I’ve gained the knowledge that I can always ask for help; I don’t have to stay quiet.”
In addition to strengthening their academic performance, freshmen and sophomores within the SA program focus on improving physical fitness and learning about wellness to enhance their overall development and wellbeing. They also begin researching colleges and the steps needed for a particular career path, important lessons considering that many students don’t feel prepared for college or a career by their school’s basic curriculum.
As juniors, high school students should be taking a deeper dive into college and scholarship research and getting started on the Common Application. In collaboration with staff, Scholar Athletes do this and develop a timeline for completing applications and standardized tests.
Ortiz, who plans to study political science and law, credits the SA program with helping her identify scholarship opportunities, stay on top of application requirements and deadlines, and improve her time management. It has also helped her develop an awareness of different cultures and perspectives, she says, by encouraging sharing ideas between program participants, SA staff, and volunteers from nearby universities like Boston College.
By senior year, students are putting the finishing touches on their applications, including their essays, which about a fifth of colleges rate considerably important to admission and can serve as one of the best opportunities for students’ personalities to shine. SA mentors evaluate essays not just for their writing technique, but for the qualities admissions professionals are most likely to look for: hints of who students are and how they will contribute to the school should they be admitted.
According to the 2018 NACAC state of college admissions report, after grades, curriculum, and test scores, a student’s demonstrated interest—how likely admissions counselors think they are to attend the school if they’re admitted—is one of the next most important factors. This means more school-specific essays and application extras than ever, and all the more reason having a timeline and support system are key to helping students present themselves at their best.
Colleges these days look for students who are deeply engaged in their extracurricular activities of choice—in fact, being demonstrably passionate about one or two organizations can make students stand out more than being superficially involved in five or six. Admissions officers are looking for students who have shown leadership, initiative, and the potential for growth outside of the classroom.
Through all four years of high school, SA Zone members are encouraged to try activities of interest, such as volunteering in their community, that can make them stand out as college candidates. “We want to make sure they’re well-rounded human beings,” Magargal says. “They should be interested in being better students and better athletes, but it’s not just about that. It’s important that when they leave school, they feel confident and prepared. We want the next few years of their lives to be the best years of their lives.”
Curry College has Scholar Athletes alumni at each grade level, in majors ranging from nursing to business. President Kenneth Quigley notes that each SA alumnus and alumna is thriving as a result of the preparation they received through the SA program.
The difference, he says, is their dedication. “The students who have had the benefit of the Scholar Athletes program have developed goals and the commitment to achieve those goals. They’ve learned how to be successful academically, and how to take care of their own wellness. They’ve learned self-management. These skills are just as necessary for success in high school as they are for success in college and the real world,” he says.
“It changes young people’s lives,” Quigley adds. “There’s not many more important things you can do.”
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