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Kathleen Glynn-Sparrow

Founder and General Manager for The College Coaches.

Kathleen has spent over 23 years counseling families about the college process both in school leadership positions and with The College Coaches.

She is the co-author of Sex, Drugs, and the S.A.T., Getting out of High School and Getting in to College.

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Greg Schneider

Head Coach, College Essay for The College Coaches.

Most recently the Department Chair of the English and Literature Department at The McLean School of Maryland. Greg works extensively with students guiding them in crafting their college admissions essays

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How Will I Be Read: What Matters Most on College Applications


*Henry David Thoreau, American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher known for self-reliance and individuality; or Stephanie Meyer, American novelist known for, well, teenage vampires. 

So, what are the most important parts of your application? We have no idea. 

Kidding. The College Coaches do know a thing or two–and more. Read on to see the level of importance colleges place on each piece of your application, so you know where to focus your energy.

  1. Transcript. Your transcript is hands-down the most critical piece. 

The reps explain it this way: the transcript displays how well you have performed in different subject areas with different teaching styles and different grading policies. This, in their view, is the best predictor of success in college. 

It is not just your grades that matter, however. Admissions officers also focus on course selection and rigor. Did you challenge yourself where appropriate? 

Instead of Instagram Filters 101, did you take AP Art? Instead of TikTok Audio Captions, did you take Senior Humanities: Creative Writing? You don’t have to take high-level courses in every subject area–just in those which interest you. 

Had a bumpy freshman year? As long as you are hitting your stride by junior year, you will be fine. Colleges are looking for an upward trend, so you should not take your foot off the gas as you’re nearing the finish line. You might think, “great, I’ll just bomb freshman year on purpose to demonstrate more improvement? Win-win”

Um, no. 

Colleges want to see that not only have you challenged yourself by taking more exacting courses, but that you have done so with intentionality. You can’t go back and change your past. But you can change your future–starting now. And by continuing to read this blog.

  1. Essay. Topic and technique are key. 

Don’t write about your torn ACL, or the big comeback win, or the one-week service trip that opened your eyes. Write YOU. Yes, you are the best subject for the essay. Colleges want to glean something from your essay that is not apparent on your application. 

Do you raise ducks? Do you believe that the Big Mac will have a comeback? You can write with humor IF you are funny. How do you know if you are funny? If other people tell you that you are. Don’t worry if  you do not have a life-changing event to write about…but if you do, you might want to write about that. 

How you write is just as important as what you write. If the rep is nodding asleep before they have finished the first couple of sentences, they will not read further. Obviously, because they are sleeping. 

Short. Pithy. Sentences. With staunch, strapping, stalwart words. And…dramatic punctuation–frankly, yes. 

These techniques go a long way, as long as you take the time to proofread. Read your essay aloud to see how it sounds. Tell your family what you are doing first. That way they don’t worry you are talking to your imaginary friend…again. Or better yet, have them read your essay out loud to you. How do you sound to yourself? Like someone you’d want in your program? Or someone you wouldn’t trust to take down your to-go order correctly? Remember: good grammar counts. As well as that heart-rending, but ultimately, triumphantly, heartening personal story uniquely you. 

  1. Activities. Did you go to school and then go home to play video games? OK, well, you MUST have done something else besides that right? Think about clubs, sports, music, and drama (on, not off the stage) in school–and out of school. Jobs, family responsibilities, community service, and religious organizations all count. You don’t need a long list of activities; you just need to show commitment, depth, and growth to those which are important to you.

This one is important in that it presents a more well-rounded you to the admissions committee. A balanced activities list can lend weight to any transcript–augmenting the highs and abating the lows. As well as lending credence to your far flung yet captivating essay.

  1. Recommendations. Your high school college counselor will write one on your behalf. Fill out any forms they ask for with great detail as that can add specificity to their letter, especially if the counselor does not know you well. Teacher recommendations are important, too. These present another opportunity to demonstrate to the college who you are outside of grades and test scores. What do other people see in you that you may not see in yourself? 

A couple of quick rules of etiquette:

  • request early via in person or email, and follow up
  • include talking points
  • be clear about any guidelines, the submission process, and deadlines
  • cloak asks in compliments; 
  • and while it is a college counselor’s job and a teacher’s job to write letters of recommendation, follow up, thank them, and let them know that they’ve helped you get where you want to be. 

  1. Supplements. If a college asks, “Why do you want to attend our college?,” and they often do, make sure you are not responding in a generic way that could apply to any college or listing lame statistics like student/faculty ratio from the website. 

Don’t tell a college what they already know…and you know they know because they wrote it before you did.

A couple of tips: 

  • Take the time to explore a college’s website
  • Visit the school, virtual or otherwise
  • Talk to former and current students
  • Read the online student newspaper and check out the college’s social media–the official ones–not the Freddie* Frat posting about his Saturday shenanigans and the Sandra Dee* Sorority postings about her Friday feats (*apologies to all Freddies and Sandra Dees because we really do love all those horror movies and Grease is, well, the word, and we both would never change our experiences belonging to our respective fraternity and sorority). 

  1. Test Scores. The importance of these have dropped significantly with most colleges now going test optional or test free. If testing causes you undue anxiety, pass. It is better to spend the time you would have given to test prep to academics because remember…the most important piece of your application is the transcript. 

Oh, and a couple of last things before you hit submit. 

Use your school email or make a standard email address on your applications. Bizarre email addresses like redplasticcup@partyhard.com or negativenateandnancy@peoplesuck.com can take away from the sound application you just created. 

It’s a fact, and a human trait, that you will be read, fairly or not, as the sum of your parts: your transcript, your essay, your activities, your recommendations, your supplements, and, maybe, your test scores, until you get to campus, unpack your things, settle in, and start your first day of classes. And then you can be you and, like most of us, part Thoreau and part Meyer, part practical poet and part vigorous vampire–with a thirst for knowledge and all that college life hastens you to experience…of course!

Authors: Kathleen Glynn-Sparrow and Greg Schneider of The College Coaches. See more of their blogs here or subscribe for alerts below: