Erin Hays
Erin Hays
Discover what matters to you. Push yourself, but not over the edge. Be real. Learn to write, for crying out loud!

Those are tips from college admissions counselors to prospective applicants.

High school seniors finishing paperwork over Christmas break should know that colleges are looking not for the perfect student, but for someone who fits the school and has potential.

Erin Hays, director of undergraduate admission at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, counters the misperception that every applicant should be student body present or valedictorian.

“Not so,” Hays said. “We want a variety of people.”

Catholic colleges: It’s not just the GPA

“We are interested in preparation — rigor, grade trends, test scores, yes — but we also look at the stated purpose and potential for students to really evolve and grow at our institution,” said Nina Lococo, vice president for enrollment at Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

Many students get good grades, but not all flourish in student government, theater, debate, social justice work and community service. And service can come in many forms, Lococo said; a student caring for younger siblings may bring the kind of leadership and responsibility that Carroll and other colleges want to cultivate.

“We are looking for young people who are viewing their education as bigger than for just themselves,” Lococo


The key to applying for college is knowing yourself, said Angelica Moore, interim dean of admissions at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. “It may open your eyes to a college that will be a better fit.”

Smaller Catholic schools like Carroll and St. Mary’s can take more into account than grade-point average and SAT score.

“We can be more intimate,” said Moore. “We start with academics and test sores but can really drill in. We pay attention to the personal story.”

That’s when the admission essay becomes important. Moore says students should show they can be introspective. “Whatever that student is passionate enough to talk about in their life, they should write that in the application,” Moore said. “It’s being transparent.”

Write about what matters and be genuine

Essays are just one part of the process but they give students a chance to explain what fires them up.

Hays of Gonzaga said good essays dive below the surface, giving detail and proper self-revelation.

“Colleges want applicants to speak in their own voice,” said Kimberly Crouch, college counselor at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland. “Admissions counselors genuinely like 17-year-olds. Toss around a few different topics and then pick a topic where the student’s energy and interests can show.”

Admissions counselors agree that one essay motif is starting to wear thin: the sports injury. “We get so many, they stop being memorable,” said Matthew Deschner of the admissions office at University of Portland.

In an age of helicopter parenting, it must be said that students should fill out the application and write the essay, not mom and dad. “We can tell,” said Lococo of Carroll College.

“I think sometimes students try to do too much in their essays,” she added. “God bless them; they are always trying to figure out what we want to hear. There is something to be said for authenticity.”

Academics still matter

No essay will make up for a shabby transcript. Academics are still the most important criteria for college admission.

“We like to see students who have taken on some challenge, especially in the area they are best at or most interested in,” said Hays of Gonzaga University. One motto Gonzaga admissions counselors pass along: “We want you to bend but not snap.”

Hays said taking tough classes gives the brain exercise, preparing it for college-level work.

“Students need to be taking challenging classes all four years,” said Deschner of the University of Portland.

“We are not looking for students who zip up their high school requirements and then call it a day.”

Brush up on writing

AP and honors classes are good for many students and good for applications. Extracurricular activities are vital, too. But otherwise qualified applicants are hurting their causes with substandard writing, said Brian Heinze, college counselor at Blanchet High School in Salem. He has begun working with Blanchet’s English teachers to boost literary skills.

Like many observers, Heinze thinks social media culture has damaged “real writing.” Aware that storytelling will improve if students write about something that matters to them, Heinze tells families to have discussions over dinner and take note of what the student talks about. That will give clues for a college essay topic.

A student’s topic may be great, but it will fall flat if the writing is poor.

“We need to see solid writing skills,” said Hays of Gonzaga.

No cramming

Admissions counselors suggest getting involved early, trying clubs and activities and then sticking with the ones that feel best. Counselors discourage joining multiple clubs and signing up for AP classes just at the end of the high school career.

“When cramming happens, we know,” says Deschner of U.P. Usually, grades drop and the pressure boils over.

“Don’t just do something to put on your resume,” said Heinze of Blanchet School. “If you have a passion for it, you will have both an activity that means something and a story to write about.”

Engage the school

Colleges like to hear that applicants are enthused about the school.

“Demonstrated interest is something admissions officers track,” said Crouch of St. Mary’s Academy. “That plays out well for them. The students who know the most about the college do the best.”

“It is OK to express enthusiasm about a particular college,” said Lococo of Carroll College.

“We look for students who tell us why they want to attend U.P. specifically,” said Deschner. “Have they visited? Did they stop to see us at a fair?”

Keen on taking residential life to new heights, U.P. is looking for students of high character who exercise leadership and want to get involved in school and dormitory life. The hope is that their zeal for Catholic values will radiate beyond campus, Deschner said.

Relax a little

Ultimately, high school students angling for college should not dive in over their heads.

“What we want is appropriate rigor,” said Lococo of Carroll College. “Students can overschedule themselves.”

“At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that most colleges in America accept more than 50 percent of their applicant pool,” said Crouch of St. Mary’s Academy. She tells students that finding a college that fits is more important than clamoring for elite schools.

Admissions staff often are impressed if there is evidence of an upward trend, such as a student getting better grades as the years go by.

“Colleges know that 17-year-olds have been known to make mistakes,” said Crouch.

“If a student gets a bad grade, redo it,” said Hays of Gonzaga. “That story of the comeback, that is

just wonderful.”