Straight talk from a UVa admissions officer: everything’s important.

English: The Rotunda, the central historic str...

The Rotunda, the central historic structure on the campus of The University of Virginia (Photo: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago our high school offered a college planning night. One of the most popular sessions featured an admissions officer from the University of Virginia. We live near UVa and a lot of families are interested in the school.*

Ms. Admissions introduced herself as a neighbor; her children live in our district and will attend our high school. She also identifies more with the parent now than with the student when reading applications. That sympathetic stance–she’s one of us–helped shape her explanations of UVa’s perspective into something that sounded gentler than it will be for thousands of students. In 2012-2013 28,984 students applied, and 8,691 received offers of admission.

From my notes:

Selective admissions. The process is not about determining who is qualified and who is not, and letting in the qualified. That’s not the way it works. Selective admissions means we have more qualified applicants than we can admit. Who amongst the qualified applicants will we let into our university.

Every app is read by at least two; if I pulled up records from this high school last year, some of them will have been read by eight reviewers.

We look at the record. Where are you from? Did your parents go to college? Then I look at the transcript:  it is and always will be the most important part of the application.

When we look at the transcript, it will be with the school profile pulled up next to it, general info about the school. I look at what courses are available to the student. It’s not just about the grades, it’s about the rigor. It’s about the student taking what we consider the most rigorous courses.

Junior year is a very important year. If there’s a year to push that is it. It’s the last year for which I will see the full transcript for the year before the decision. The courses and grades matter probably more than any other year.

When I look at the transcript, I am looking for a trend. By junior year we want to see you hitting your stride. We’re going to take a close look at your courses and your grades. We want students at UVa who will really embrace the rigor of the academic opportunities.

One errant grade, we can overlook. If it becomes consistent, that will be a bit more of a problem.

We want to see a continued trend in academic work. We don’t want to see you step back from rigor.

On class rank, we consider whatever the school provides. We evaluate what we are given and the student is not penalized for what the school provides. We’re seeing less and less class rank nationally, a real trend. At strong high performing schools, the rank can be misleading. A student can be getting all As on top classes, and be ranked 125th class rank.

Grades and program are the most important thing. Transcript is king.

Qualitative measures are also important: Very rarely do people ask what type of student are we looking for. Character, integrity, honor, passionate, intellectuals, interested in community service, friendly, funny. Personal qualities matter.

Letters of recommendation give me a sense of the qualitative aspects. Teacher recs are a very underrated part of the process. Who taught the class where you showed the most growth, depth of thought, contributed the most, helped other students who were struggling?

Extra-curriculars are important in the same way. I’m looking for impact and contribution. If it’s not evident what you contributed, tell us. Write a phrase about what you did:  Coordinated, contributed, initiated — that’s what matters. It’s not about the laundry list of activities in which you’ve been moderately involved. It’s about the activities in which you were really involved, in which you made a difference.

The essay is also a really important aspect. Probably a little more so at UVa. We all read the essay. This is the chance for the student to have a captive audience with your admissions counselor. It’s one of my favorite aspects.

We will also look at test scores. The test is important, but never as important as the transcript. What you do every day in school is always more important than one test one morning, but the scores will be noticed.

Well, then. What isn’t important to a selective school?

Our household is in the midst of application season, with essays in flux, test scores being submitted, and early applications in the works. So what if it’s also homecoming week. Hope all is going smoothly for the seniors (and their families) out there! And for the juniors:  remember, yours is a very important year.

* I write about UVa a lot because of the proximity; UVa Dean J, through Twitter and Notes from Peabody, provides great information on the admission schedules and processes; and our oldest child, Mod Squad Pete, is a second year student there.

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7 responses to “Straight talk from a UVa admissions officer: everything’s important.

  1. Jen

    This is really helpful. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Thank you, Jane, for the insider perspective. Even Kaplan will tell you that the rigor of the coursework is the most important factor in schools with selective admissions. Did she go into any detail on why whether the parents went to college is important in the admissions process? That question could leading in a number of ways.

    • She didn’t, Chuck, and I wondered about that as well. She squeezed a load of information into the brief session and answered as many questions as there was time for–which wasn’t much. Great follow-up question, thanks!

  3. This reinforces the recommendations that are typically made as far as what is most important, but in a more personal way. It is great to hear it from an actual admissions officer! Thank you for posting this!

  4. Pingback: How admissions officers work. Pearls Before Swine weighs in. | Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

  5. Pingback: Q&A: Our daughter’s a freshman. Should we be concerned about her grades? | Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

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