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How to Read an App Like a Counselor

December 9, 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog because I’ve been reading applications!

That’s right, it’s what we admissions counselors call reading season. Many of you are probably filling out your applications and may be wondering how your counselors will read it. While the process is different for every college, Oberlin (like many other liberal arts schools) uses a holistic review. This means that you will not be automatically admitted or rejected because of a test score or GPA. Instead we will look at every piece of your application and consider it as a whole.

The holistic process is also part of what makes it so difficult to predict someone’s chances of getting in as there are just so many factors. While every piece of your application is important and taken into consideration, there are some areas that we do place more emphasis on, so I’ll take you through the process a little. 

Academics: Are You Ready?

It seems obvious that academics are a significant part of your application; after all, you come to college to learn and everything else is just a fringe benefit. We look for students who have taken a rigorous curriculum in the context of their school’s offerings because we know they will be best prepared for college.

Often, counselors are asked if grades are more important than the classes themselves. Is it better to get an A in a basic level class, or a B in a higher level one? In a perfect world, we would like to see As in the most challenging class. However, I would rather see someone pushing themself by taking challenging classes and falling short of a perfect grade. 

Essay: Who Are You?

The essay is possibly the most personal part of every application—each one varies in tone, style, and story. I have read wonderful essays and I have read some not so wonderful ones. The personal essay is your chance to tell us who you are, not just in your classes and clubs, but in everyday life. A common mistake is telling counselors what you think they want to hear—we read enough to know when an essay is not authentic.

Counselors can also tell when an essay is a first draft, which always tells me that the student didn’t put much effort into it. If you and your teachers are trying to tell me that you work hard but your essay is filled with spelling mistakes and unfinished ideas, I might not be so inclined to believe that. Write multiple versions of your essay to make sure that you are actually saying what you want to help focus your writing. Often, students try to put too much into a short essay and lose focus on what they are really trying to say. 

Extracurriculars: Who Will You Be?

Your extracurriculars take on an important role by giving us a glimpse into how you will contribute to our community. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that certain activities will increase your chances of acceptance. We’d rather see a commitment to a few activities that you are passionate about, rather than 20 clubs that you only joined for a semester. That’s not to discourage you from trying new things, but commitment speaks to passion and that’s something we like to see.

Be sure to include a list of everything you do outside of school—don’t sell yourself short! If you have a job, take care of your siblings, or even just draw for fun, be sure to include it because it tells us how you spend your free time. Of course, if there are circumstances that prevent you from doing more than you would like, such as a long commute to school or a pandemic, provide this context in the section for additional information.

Now that you know how to read an application, I’ve got to get back to reading them. Maybe yours will be the next one I open!

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