“What Do We Get?”

By Peter Van Buskirk

It is late in the admission process at many colleges and the question, “What do we get?” can be heard repeatedly as applications are reviewed one last time to determine who will make the “final cut.”

Faced with the prospect of having to choose between an abundance of academically able students, admission officers will examine a student’s credentials one more time for evidence of that “something extra” she might bring to the college if she is admitted. They will pore through essays, letters of recommendation and extracurricular profiles in search of the talent, interest or perspective that might make her a “difference-maker” on their campuses.

It is perhaps this part of the admission process that is most easily overlooked by students as they get started in the process. As a prospective applicant, much of your time and effort is spent working to achieve a strong academic record—and for good reason! When you are successful in this regard, you make yourself a viable candidate for admission—you put yourself on the “competitive playing fields” at the colleges that interest you. Failure to do so at a given school means that you have no chance of gaining admission. So, keep up the good work in the classroom. It is earning you the right to compete!

Once in the competition, though, you must be able to distinguish yourself from the other candidates who are similarly qualified. They can do the work, too. Unfortunately, not all can be admitted and this is when the question, “What do we get?” is often raised. It is heard first within the context of determining who will be admitted and, then, within the context of who will receive different types of financial aid or scholarship support.

To gain perspective on this part of the selection process, it might be helpful to think about what is going on through the eyes of the admission officers. Think of them as investors. As they consider whom to admit into their entering classes, they see opportunities to invest in young people, most of whom present superb academic records. After the academic credentials are thoroughly vetted, the point of inquiry invariably shifts to the question, “Who among these great students, will have a transformative influence on our campus?”

When they consider your credentials, then, admission offices want to know about their likely “return on investment” (ROI)—how will you make a difference in the quality of life on their respective campuses and, eventually, what is the likelihood that you will bring honor and distinction to their institutions. For example, are you likely to:

  • Engage as a critical thinker in the classroom?
  • Emerge as a creative influence in the arts?
  • Contribute to the success of the theatre program?
  • Write for the student newspaper?
  • Bring unusual talent to the music or athletic programs?
  • Give of your time and talent to those who are less fortunate?
  • Affect change through thoughtful and energetic leadership?
  • Show curiosity and tease ideas into inventions?
  • Challenge others to see the world differently?

And, when an institution’s investment is accompanied by financial support, either in the form of need-based financial aid or a merit scholarship, the expectations emerging from the “What do we get?” question tend to go up proportionately. The manner in which some universities use athletic scholarships to recruit talented athletes is a very visible illustration of the ROI concept at work.

Now, apply this concept to schools at varying levels of selectivity. At colleges and universities that are able to admit most of their applicants, it is entirely possible that you will present credentials that stand out in the competition. Why? Without the pressure of having to review a ton of applications, they don’t need to make as many fine distinctions between their applicants. As a result, your chances of being regarded as a potential difference-maker on their campuses are better, thereby improving your prospects for getting in and securing favorable financial assistance.

On the other hand, the scrutiny surrounding the “What do we get?” question increases with the degree of selectivity experienced at colleges and universities. The harder it is to get into a college, the greater is the pressure on admission committees to make fine distinctions. The same credential that earned you a scholarship at one school might not stand out at a more highly selective college.

While the competition for admission and financial aid might seem daunting, the reality is that literally thousands of colleges and universities are prepared to invest in new students each year. And most award tens of millions of dollars in financial aid and scholarships to students who are valued for what they have to offer—each year!

Keys to Success
The keys to your success in the college admission process are three-fold. First, take advantage of your high school years to invest in yourself. Become a difference-maker in the communities (home, school, church, volunteer organizations, places of employment) in which you function. When you invest in making yourself better and in improving the quality of life for those around you, you will inspire others to invest in you.

Two, be thoughtful—and purposeful—about your messaging as you consider your applications for admission. Beyond your obvious credentials, what is it you want admission officers to know about you? What will set you apart from the competition? 

The third key to success is to target colleges where you will be valued for what you have to offer—places where your credentials will answer the “What do we get?” question in a big way! These colleges and universities are good “fits” for you because they will regard you as a potential difference-maker on their campuses and be eager to invest in you.

Finding this fit will require some research on your part—research that does not include college ranking guides! Start by looking for colleges and universities where your testing profile (SAT or ACT) places you in the top half of the scores reported for students who enrolled the previous year. For good measure, especially at highly selective schools, your scores should be in the top 25%—just to give yourself a competitive chance with the “What do we get?” question!

The coming months, then, are a time for reflection as you prepare to compete for admission. Organize your thoughts around an understanding of “self” that becomes the foundation of the candidate you are about to become. In doing so, the “What do we get?” question will be answered and doors of new opportunity will begin to open around you.

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