The college admissions process is constantly evolving. It is much different than it was 10 years ago, even a few years ago. Because of this, it is more important than ever to understand college admission trends, what influences them, and how best to prepare to apply to college.

Morgan Park Academy students begin the college process earlier than most of their peers at other high schools. As sophomores, they take College 101 in the second semester to begin identifying their strengths and passions and some colleges that they might like. Juniors take College 102, which is a year-long college counseling class in which they complete an ACT preparation class, finish their common application essay, and complete a resume. Seniors take College 103, a full-year class, to help them complete their college applications.

A recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling laid out the top factors in admission decision, all of which stand MPA applicants in good stead:

“The top factors … were: grades in college preparatory courses, strength of curriculum, overall high school GPA, and admission test scores. Among the next most important factors were the essay, a student’s demonstrated interest, counselor and teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and class rank.”

I took away several points from this report:

1. Grades are still the most important factor colleges consider when evaluating applicants. Seventy-nine percent of colleges place considerable importance on grades in college prep courses, and 60% weigh grades in all courses heavily.

At MPA, academic advisors, the Upper School principal, and the college counselor keep on top of students, ensuring that their grades don’t slip. Parents should monitor myMPA to make sure that students are keeping up in their classes. Consider decreasing workload or getting extra help to keep the grades up.

2. More colleges are going test-optional, but test scores are still important. Fifty-six percent of colleges still feel that test scores are an important part of the admission process. Yet while college entrance exams are still an important part of the admission process, a large number of colleges are moving toward test-optional.

At MPA, we feel that this is an important part of “college prep” school curriculum. We have incorporated an in-school ACT course for juniors in their College 102 class.

3. Teacher and counselor recommendations are important. Recommendations help to give context to a student’s application. Fifteen percent of colleges place considerable weight on teacher and counselor recommendations.

At MPA, as a small school, it is easier for faculty to get to know students. Our new process for requesting recommendations calls for students to ask faculty for recommendations before leaving for summer break. For students, it is vital to foster a relationship with teachers and their college counselor as early as possible.

4. Essay writing continues to be an important part of the application process. The college essay is the only way that institutions learn about the student’s personality to see if they would be a fit for their institution. It is vital that students spend the time putting together quality essays.

At MPA, juniors in College 102 work with the college counselor and English teachers to construct the common application essay before leaving for summer break. In College 103, seniors work on finalizing their supplemental essays and get feedback from the college counselor.

5. Extracurricular activities are the differentiating factor in selective college admissions. Most students applying to selective colleges — as many as 80 or 90 percent — have similar grades and test scores. What distinguishes one applicant from the other? Extracurricular activities. And this is not your typical slate of sports, student council, and yearbook. Students today need a differentiating extracurricular activity that shows their uniqueness.

At MPA, we work with students to identify ways to differentiate themselves in the college application process by identifying extracurricular activities that match their passions and strengths and having students complete a Capstone Project. Beginning with a career assessment, the college counselor conducts one-on-one meetings with students to brainstorm ideas for activities and their Capstone Project.

It is vital that the students work on finding their own unique story, which takes time, insight, and help to uncover.

College admissions will always be changing, but at Morgan Park Academy, we are constantly staying abreast of new trends in the college application process to help prepare our students to be strong candidates.

By Tanuja Rathi

Mrs. Rathi is our Director of College Counseling.