What do competitive colleges and universities seek from their applicants? As might be expected, the answer to that question varies from one school to another. Because more than half of all applicants to competitive colleges meet the academic standards, these colleges often look beyond the objective information (strong grades and scores) of qualified candidates to select the student who will contribute in a significant way to the campus community. One school may place special emphasis on your teacher’s recommendation, another may stress your commitments and contributions outside the classroom. Each school’s objective criteria may change slightly year to year, depending on the needs and priorities of the college in a given year. Despite the differences among the colleges, most admissions officers would echo the same advice to students. Some of the most important factors are included below:
SECONDARY SCHOOL RECORD
Your transcript (your academic history) remains the most important document you will submit. Colleges are interested in your academic experience and your academic potential. In evaluating performance, admissions officers focus not only on raw grades and averages, but also on the direction and trend of achievement. They will review the transcript carefully to determine not only how you have performed in the courses you have selected, but how challenging the courses have been, as well. Colleges are anxious to see that you have challenged yourself in a course when appropriate, rather than taking the easier course for the higher grade. Admissions committees look at the number of subjects and years of progression in the five core disciplines (English, language, math, science, history) and they will look for work that surpasses graduation requirements.
Colleges look carefully to see that you have enrolled in a challenging selection of classes through your sixth form year. While most admission committees will not review a candidate fully until the first-term sixth form grades are received, they care very much about the whole senior year. Colleges offer admission with the caveat, “successful completion of senior year.” We send your final transcript to the college at which you enroll.
RANK IN CLASS
After carefully looking at the effects of ranking on Westminster graduates, it was felt that ranking did not take into consideration the competitive nature of our school, of our academic programs, and the particular programs elected by our students. Therefore as a school policy, Westminster does not rank beyond the top ten students based on junior and senior year grades. Along with your application, we send our profile, which contains a grade distribution (from fifth form year), so that colleges can compare you to your classmates within the specific core courses you have taken.
GRADE POINT AVERAGE
Westminster calculates a cumulative grade point average based on the student’s fifth and sixth form grades. Our cumulative average uses a 100 point scale.
Most colleges continue to require the SAT or ACT and some will require the SAT Subject Tests. While required, they are not the most important criteria in the selection process. The current SAT is designed to test your critical thinking skills in both the verbal and quantitative areas. Many able students do not test to their true capability. A strong academic record may often offset a three-hour testing experience. However, high scores and a weak academic record often indicate a student who may be perceived by the admission committee as a greater risk. In an increasingly competitive landscape, the SAT/ACT offers colleges a way to make distinctions within a strong applicant pool.
We recommend taking the SAT and/or the ACT at least twice and often three times; twice in the fifth form year and again in the sixth form year (October). Most colleges will select your best scores regardless of administration date, while others will select your best ‘composite’ (Verbal/Math) from a single sitting. SAT Subject Tests are required by some colleges, many of which are of interest to students, and most will require two tests - Math (1C or 2C) and a second of your choice. You should take a Subject Test only in an area you feel secure. Please see the teacher of the subject area, your advisor, and the College Counselors.
ENGLISH LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY - TOEFL
Colleges will require the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language, for all students whose native language is other than English. The TOEFL is administered on computers and the closest public center is in Glastonbury. We will assist each student in making an appointment and coordinating transportation. Most colleges require a TOEFL score of at least a 100 for admission.
The way you present yourself through the application is very important and very much within your control. A neatly prepared application, typed or hand written, complete and easy to read, shows a level of seriousness on your part. You also have the option to apply through the Internet (on specific colleges’ web sites) or through Internet/CD ROM programs such as CollegeLink and Apply! The Common Application (also available on disk and Internet) is accepted by more than 125 colleges, but may require supplementary information. By whichever method you choose to apply, the application is the primary information document for you and begins your file for your candidacy.
The application is the opportunity to distinguish yourself within the applicant pool. This is especially relevant if you plan to apply to a highly selective school, since those applications are generally more thorough and demand more personal responses.
It is your responsibility to mail your portion of the application to the colleges by the deadline stated in their materials. Putting the application together, reporting your SAT scores, writing essays, and meeting deadlines are also indications of a student’s readiness to deal with the independence offered at the college level. The college office will be happy to help you get organized, assist with particularly difficult questions, and review your final application if you would like. The responsibility of getting your application to the colleges in time rests with you.
THE COLLEGE ESSAY
A well constructed, carefully composed and concise essay indicates your desire to be reviewed as a serious candidate. It is important to read and understand the question and be sure that you are answering the question asked, not submitting an essay that you hope will work. Essays written in English class are great starting points, but submitting unedited versions of these essays is unwise. Your writing should be current, personal, honest, and a means through which the admission committee can come to know more about you as a person. This is the best opportunity for your voice to be heard! Neatness counts! You (not a parent or secretary) should type or word-process the essay, unless otherwise directed (Brown University asks that you handwrite your essay). The essays do get read thoroughly. Writing a draft or two during the summer is very helpful!
The college counselors and other members of the faculty are prepared to review your essay drafts with you. If you would like one of us to take a look at your essays, please give us a draft a couple of days prior to a scheduled meeting to talk about your essays.
WESTMINSTER SCHOOL RECOMMENDATION LETTER
Westminster’s letter of recommendation for a student is written by your College Counselor. It is a compilation of information gleaned from you, your teachers, your academic record, etc., which presents you in the context of your experience here at Westminster. In it, we try to highlight the significant facts about you, explain what appears on your transcript, and when necessary, introduce extenuating circumstances that might enable an admissions committee to view an applicant in a greater light. It is an honest and accurate assessment that emphasizes your achievements and strengths.
Each college has its own requirement for teacher recommendations. Some schools will specify a particular subject teacher (English/science). Unless otherwise noted, we would encourage you to choose two teachers from the fifth form (or sixth form) year who know you and know your performance within the context of the classroom. It is not necessary that the teacher know you in other areas. The school letter of recommendation will touch upon issues of character, extracurricular activities, and special talents. In some cases, you may wish to have a coach or advisor submit an additional letter, but as a rule of thumb, we suggest two teacher recommendations for every school (even those who do not specifically require one). Think about the teachers you might ask in your fifth form year! In deciding on the teachers who will submit a recommendation for you, think about your performance in each class, your level of challenge, struggle, mastery in that class, and which teachers really know you as a student. You need not have received an “A” in the class to have a teacher write on your behalf. Keep in mind that many teachers are inundated with requests; you must give them, adequate notice (at least 4 weeks) if you wish them to write on your behalf. We are fortunate that the faculty at Westminster know their students well and take the responsibility of writing recommendations very seriously. Keep them updated on your progress and remember to thank each teacher who writes for you!
EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES AND WORK EXPERIENCE
While the academic record remains the most important information you will submit, how you choose to spend your time outside the classroom and how you commit yourself will be of special interest to the admission committee. Most colleges and universities are interested in students who can bring a special ability or experience to the collegiate community. If you have a special skill, you should include it with your application. Some students may be tempted to think that “more = better” in terms of activities, but a long list of clubs and groups has less meaning than your commitment and how your contribution has made a difference to a club or activity. Talk with your coaches, advisors, and your college counselors about how you might best present yourself relative to your contributions. You will want to think about how you would talk about your involvement, rather than simply chronicling it in a list or resume. Colleges are interested in your activities both on and off campus. If you have been particularly involved in an exciting opportunity off campus, write about it!
The common misconception that colleges are looking for the mythical “well-rounded” student may be more appropriately understood as colleges looking to build a “well-rounded” class. There are pockets on every campus for the scholar, the soccer goalie, the saxophone player, the alumni child, etc. Presenting yourself honestly and thoughtfully with an eye toward what makes you unique is most important.