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  • Jason Flurry, CFP

Answering the three most important questions colleges ask

How getting these few things right can make all the difference on a college application



Are you familiar with the Pareto’s principle? It’s also known by a few other names, like the 80/20 rule and the Law of the Vital Few. Regardless of what you call it, this principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It was named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who noted back in 1896 that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Since then, this principle has been used in many applications ranging from business to economics to computing to sports to personal development. And it has remained so popular that most people are at least somewhat familiar with it even if they don’t know exactly how it works.


In the area of college planning, I see this principle at work too. There’s a lot of information that goes into college applications, both for admissions and for scholarships, but there are three key areas that colleges are looking for in their ideal applicants. Getting these few essential items right can make all the difference in your outcomes and I’m going to show you what those three areas are today so that you can have the best chance possible to get the results you’re looking for too.


Now wouldn’t be very simple and save you and the colleges a lot of time if there were only three questions on each of their applications? Of course. But, regardless of how each college actually does design their applications, these are the three questions they ultimately want to know. Here’s the first one.


#1: What kind of student are you?

This question is asked several different ways. Colleges will want to see a copy of your high school transcript so they can see your grades and see how much rigor you’ve taken to make sure you’ve challenged yourself in high school. They also ask about test scores from standardized tests, like ACT and SAT. Many colleges are not making this a requirement of admissions anymore like they used to, but if you’re hoping for consideration for scholarships, it’s likely that you will have to send in an official copy of your test scores to be in the running for their top awards.


This question in the application process is purely quantitative. They can look at your test scores, your GPA, and how many AP classes, Honors classes and Dual Enrollment classes you’ve taken to determine how you might do academically at their college.


Implied in these numbers is a certain level of intelligence, persistence, work ethic, maturity, and diligence. So colleges infer that someone with a high GPA, high test scores, and a load of challenging classes likely has a level of personal intelligence, self-discipline, and character that would help them be successful at the next level. That’s why they want to know what type of student you are. And in each of these areas having these numbers as high as possible is usually the best answer to their question.


By answering the first question, you give a college a pretty good idea of how you do in the classroom. This next question gives the college an idea of what you do when you’re not in school and what types of extracurricular activities and organizations you’re involved in at school.


# 2: How you spend your free time?

On the actual admission applications and scholarship applications there’s usually a place to list activities and awards. These can be academic awards, athletic awards, community service awards, leadership awards, or any recognition that shows a student’s accomplishments. Colleges can see that in addition to being a good student, this person is also good in other areas of their life too. That builds momentum and adds a new positive dynamic to the mix as they consider inviting you to join their community.


Listing the extracurricular activities and organizations you’re involved in a school gives the college a peek into some of the areas where you may have personal interest or special talents and abilities. For instance, a college may see someone who is an athlete or someone who’s been in the marching band at school and take in consideration the many, many hours of practice and dedication it takes to play sports or play music. There is an element of teamwork and being coachable included in those activities and there can be opportunities for leadership there too. In activities like sports and music, plus in other activities too, colleges can see a willingness to expand a person’s comfort zone and personal confidence level through the public performance aspect inherent in both of these activities. It takes a certain amount of courage to step up on a stage in front of a crowd or be out competing on the field or a court when people are watching. Colleges recognize this and view this level of dedication and commitment very positively.


Other things colleges like to see our volunteer roles where a student gives of his or her time to make a positive impact on others. When you’re voluntarily doing something to help someone else, it demonstrates that your thinking beyond yourself and placing others’ needs ahead of your own. Of course, any type of volunteering or community service is good, both for the one doing it and for the one benefiting from that person’s efforts; but where you make a real impact on your college applications is by showing a consistent, dedicated effort to support a particular cause or serve a specific group over time. The actual cause or group itself isn’t as important as the message you send to the colleges by serving passionately.


To answer this question well of how you spend your free time find one or two areas, whether it’s music, sports, debate, model UN, dance, community service, work through a part-time job, or involvement in clubs and activities at school. Even in situations where a student is unable to participate in things outside of school because she has responsibilities at home helping with her siblings or caring for a disabled family member, colleges will respect that student’s commitment to serving at home and demonstrate that positively in the application process.


So now that colleges know what kind of student someone is and where they spend their free time, there’s one more question they still want to know from each of their applicants. Here’s their final big question


#3: Who are you?

I mentioned earlier how colleges will read between the lines of a strong transcript and a solid resume showing a consistent track record of excellence as a student and as an involved member of the community. For some colleges that may be enough for them to figure that where there’s smoke in the form of good grades and good activities, there’s probably also fire in the sense of strong, positive personality characteristics and personal character. Those colleges may get it so many applications that they’re not able to get to know a student very well in the application process. In those cases, we see the Pareto Principle work slightly differently.


Some colleges will use algorithms to assign a quality score based on the student’s GPA, test scores, and rigor. They may also look for key activities they can associate to previous successful students and add quality points for those activities in the student’s rankings. When colleges do take this approach, I’ve found that about 80% of their decision on who gets in and who doesn’t is accounted for in these few areas. But, there’s still an important need to share information about who you are as much as possible with every college when you’re applying for admissions and for scholarships.


The way most colleges ask the question of who are you is through a series of essay prompts and short answer questions. In some cases, they want to see if you’re able to creatively follow instructions and answer their prompt thoughtfully in the space provided. But, just as importantly - and probably more importantly - is the colleges desire to see who you are as a person. You may not automatically detect that this is the college’s motivation for this section of an application because some of the essay prompts can be kind of boring and bland. The challenge falls on you to make the answer interesting, persuasive, and compelling so that they understand you speak their love language and that you’re a natural, logical fit for their community.


For our private clients, we work with students to help them identify their best three or four personal characteristics and then write stories about those so they can develop a strong personal narrative about the essence of who they are. To answer question number two of where they spend their free time, we also help them build a solid resume. So, with a comprehensive, well organized resume in hand, and the self-awareness to know what qualities are essential for them to share with each college on their list, students are equipped to write stories that highlight those activities and those characteristics that would be most desirable for colleges to know.


In my experience, I’ve found that the best results come from preparing the resume and these personal stories first. It can be intimidating staring at an essay prompt and a blank page when you’re trying to write the perfect essay on a college application or for a big scholarship. But, it’s a lot easier to tell a story about something that was meaningful to you or describe the transformation you experienced as a result of something or someone that influenced your life.


With those stories written in advance, it’s much easier to then place those stories in the appropriate places to match many of the colleges essay prompts. Even if you don’t find that there’s a perfect fit for one of your stories, there’s usually a way to pull a theme or two from it and adapt it to that college’s essay prompt or short answer question. And, with this material on hand, you can survey all of the essay questions and all of the short answer questions and oftentimes repurpose some of your content to be used for different prompts and different essay lengths without having to spend so much time writing multiple, multiple essays about things that don’t highlight your greatest strengths.


Colleges want to know what kind of student you are, where you spend your free time, and who you are as a person because naturally they want to select the best and brightest to join them, just like a business wants to hire the most qualified person to do the job. And, while it’s one thing to demonstrate your accomplishments and highlight desirable character traits for admission purposes, doing this process well can elevate your status in the college’s eyes and improve your chances for them to recruit you with a large four-year merit scholarship as an incentive.


Many of our private clients have been awarded well over $100,000 in scholarships just by answering these three questions of shared with you today in the right way. We’ve used this approach to help students get into Ivy League schools, elite colleges like Stanford, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, Duke, and the very exclusive military academies, like West Point, the US Naval Academy, and the US Air Force Academy. We’ve helped students use this approach to get into elite colleges overseas, like Cambridge and Oxford in England. And we’ve also helped average students get above-average results at colleges of all shapes and sizes, at every level of difficulty, and in every place imaginable simply by taking advantage of this little-known strategy that helps make them be the logical choice for the colleges of their dreams.


I’m confident the strategy will work for you too and I hope you’ll take some time to develop good answers to these three key questions when it’s time for your children to apply to college. Although each college is different in the specifics they’re looking for, taking this approach will give you a huge advantage others don’t have, save you an enormous amount of time in the application process, and significantly increase your odds of success at some of the best schools in the country.


Spend at least 80% of your time working to answer these three questions. It’s one of the best things you can do to get the kind of results you’re looking for. And, as always, if you have any questions or need any help, please let me know.

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