An Admissions Dean's Tips for Getting In

How to write a memorable essay and explain a bad grade.

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What can applicants do to increase their chances of getting in to a good college? Colleges usually just tell applicants the same old generalities about wanting students with good grades and test scores and community service. But Peter Van Buskirk, a former admissions dean at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa., has started spilling the beans about what really goes on behind those closed-door admissions meetings. Van Buskirk, author of Winning the College Admission Game, tells U.S. News how taking an extra test or community college course in the fall, for example, can make the difference between a thin and fat envelope the following spring.

Many high school students are torn between choosing easy classes so they will get A's and taking honors or Advanced Placement classes, in which they might get lower grades. What's your advice?

It depends on where you apply. The harder a school is to get into, the more you need to show that you are moving to the next logical level of rigor. It is quite a step from high school to college classes. If you take a "gut" in your senior year, you are not going to be at the top of your game. It's like if you've taken a year off of playing soccer. You're not in shape. If you're worried about your GPA, some colleges will recalculate it using weights that give higher scores to advanced or AP classes. What if a high school doesn't have many AP classes? Should a high school student take community college courses?

Absolutely. From a dean of admissions' point of view, it is really cool to see kids step out of the norm. Colleges that are picky want to see what kids do when they don't have to do anything. We like to see kids have some passion for learning. If the student maybe runs out of math classes in high school, and chooses to go to the community college for math classes, that's pretty impressive. What if the student doesn't do well on the SAT?

Many colleges—757 to date—are saying that such standardized tests are no longer useful and, to prove it, they have made the submission of test scores optional. Colleges that continue to require testing typically do so for two reasons. One, their volume of applications is such that they use test scores to help screen out weaker candidates. And two, they like big numbers. Even though these are not intelligence tests, the average test scores for a college's entering class are the most widely recognized metric for quality in that class. So I encourage kids to take both the SAT and the ACT. The SAT is designed to trick you. So if you do well at puzzles, you'll do well on that. The ACT is a subject test. If you take both, you give the college admissions officer options. They can let you in based on your ACT score, if it is higher, and don't have to report your lower SAT score to U.S. News to consider in its rankings.

If students get a bad grade, or a bad test score, or some other problem, should they explain it in their application essay?

You don't want the admissions officer to just guess about what was behind a poor grade, because we tend to be cynical and think that the student was lazy or disinterested, not that something horrible happened in your life. This [grade or test score] is something that can be addressed in an interview as well as a note that is attached to your application. In addition, you need to make sure the teachers and counselors who write on your behalf are prepared to speak to these circumstances as well. As you tell your story, though, make sure you provide explanations and insight, not excuses. You talk about résumé-building and how you can tell if it is phony. What extracurricular activities should students be involved in?

Kids need to follow their passions. I worry that there are a lot of young people right now who are being remade into the images of what somebody thinks a dean of admission wants to see, at the expense of lives well lived. The reality is that deans of admission are constantly looking for that something different in a young person that is genuine.