Getting Into a Good Catholic College: 5 Things You Need to Know
By Matt Archbold
Sure, finding the right college is important. But how does a student get accepted? It’s the all-important question for many families.
The first thing to realize is that the answer is not always the same for every college. So we asked several admissions directors and counselors at colleges featured in The Newman Guide: What is it that they are looking for when selecting students? What is unique about admissions to a faithful Catholic college?
Discarding the obvious answers, here are five helpful tips that may surprise you and might contradict the “free advice” you’ll hear from relatives and websites:
1) Yes, test scores matter.
Those standardized tests that many admissions counselors publicly downplay in the college admissions process are actually crucial, as they give admissions counselors a more objective record of a student’s abilities.
“We all say that the SATs and ACTs are not terribly important, but in reality they’re the only standardized tests we have,” said John Plotts, vice president of enrollment at the University of Dallas.
Many admissions counselors say they make it their business to know how rigorous and competitive various high schools are, but Plotts said there are so many high schools around the country that’s it’s nearly impossible to know what a grade point average (GPA) means from one school to the next. “A GPA is tough to standardize,” he said.
Given the importance of standardized tests, Marcus Mayllen, admissions counselor at Belmont Abbey College, advised students that a good SAT Prep course can increase student scores dramatically.
Dr. Louis Traina, vice president of institutional advancement at Ave Maria University, confirmed that institutions like Ave Maria “place a heavy emphasis on SAT and ACT scores.” Because of that, he urged students to take and re-take the SAT or ACT as often as possible. “Instead of waiting until senior year, students should take the test in their junior year,” advised Traina.
In fact, many college admissions boards allow what’s called “super scoring,” which involves taking the highest section scores from multiple SAT test sittings and creating a best-possible composite score that could both increase your chances of being accepted into a college as well as increase the amount of scholarship money available to you.
But standardized tests are not the entire picture.
Christine Mica, dean of university admissions at The Catholic University of America, said admissions counselors also look at the quality of classes taken by a high schooler, the extra-curricular activities, charitable work, and a student’s employment record. “If a student pushes their self, we absolutely take that into account,” she said.
But be aware. If you’re a student with a low GPA and a high SAT test score, that’s also a warning sign of sorts to admissions counselors. “If I see a student with an SAT of 1300 or 1400 but a 3.3 GPA, I’m concerned,” said Plotts. “That’s a sign of a lazy student.”
He said that studies have shown that GPAs are actually a better indicator of success than test scores, because grades indicate your work ethic—but SATs and ACTs are still vital to a college application.
2) Don’t say “Dude.”
Many admissions counselors have noted a “an alarming trend of informality” from students in their application essays and even during on-campus visits and interviews. They urge students to take the process and yourself seriously.
“Don’t wear shorts to your on-campus interview,” warned Mayllen. “A firm handshake, a look in the eye, and direct answers is my advice to impress. You’d be surprised how rare that is. It makes students stand out.”
Typos, misspellings, and lack of attention to detail can help doom an application, added Mica. Counselors urge students to have someone proofread their essay. “If someone puts the wrong college name down or has a lot of typos, it tells me they don’t really want to come here.”
Mayllen recalled a time when a student referred to him as “Dude.” “I said, ‘I’m not your dude,’” he remembered. “I’m all about casual if you’re at the beach, but life isn’t a beach.”
The good news is that it won’t take much for a well-mannered student to stand out.
“Very few high schools address how students should present themselves,” said Mayllen. “Parents should work on this with their children, and it starts at the dinner table.”
Lauren Hardegen, dean of women and admissions counselor at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, said she’s noticed a “slightly inappropriate level of informality,” especially in email and phone correspondence.
3) Sell yourself.
Catholic children are taught humility from a very young age. But it’s one thing to be humble and another to sell yourself short, admissions counselors warn. Some people find it difficult to talk about themselves in a positive manner and to praise themselves.
“Don’t be shy. Sell yourself,” said Mayllen. “Don’t be afraid to list your accomplishments.”
It is the responsibility of the student in an essay or an in-person interview to explain why they want to attend that particular college as well as why they believe the college could benefit from having them on campus.
“We are an admissions office. We’re looking for reasons to admit a person,” said Mica. “It’s up to the applicant to show us why they want to be here.”
Students, especially when seeking admission to the types of colleges profiled in this magazine, should exhibit a sincere desire to be challenged academically in a Catholic atmosphere.
“There is the right school out there for everyone,” Mica said. “It may not be the one your parents went to or the one that has football on Saturday, but there is the right school for you. And the more information we have from you, the better we can help decide what school that might be.”
“We really look for students who convey who they are,” said Hardegen. She advised students to be “confident and assertive.”
4) Mom and Dad, it’s okay to help, but don’t hover.
We’re big fans of significant parental involvement in choosing a faithful Catholic college. There’s too much that can go wrong at a poorly selected college, and students simply don’t know what to watch out for.
But admissions counselors want to get to know the students and help guide them in their college selection, so it’s important that students stand out as individuals.
Parents love their children and want their children to succeed. It’s that commitment that has brought their sons and daughters to the point of applying to college. The enticement for parents to involve themselves heavily in the application process, essays, and even on-campus interviews might be overwhelming.
Admissions counselors urge parents to guide students, but don’t become overly involved.
“We can usually tell how much involvement a parent had in an essay,” said Mica.
“We can spot if the student wrote it or not,” agreed Mayllen. “We can tell how heavily coached they were.”
Regarding the on-campus interview, Plotts said he can’t count the number of times he’s asked a question of a student, and the parent chimed in with the answer. “This is supposed to be a student interview, not a parent interview,” he said.
Parents should let students be themselves. “Help your son or daughter prepare,” said Hardegen. “But you have to let them do it.”
She added that parents should help students start searching for colleges early and teach them to write well, because “all counselors say writing skills have dwindled. If a student can write well, that will help.”
But don’t write for them.
5) Put your heart into it.
You don’t have to be Catholic to go to a faithful Catholic college, but getting accepted usually means showing that you value a distinctly Catholic education.
“What we’re looking for is people who bring a value system,” said Mica. “Regardless of their religion or faith, we look to see if there is a buy-in to what we’re selling. We ask ourselves if they might have problem with a community that’s faithful.”
She cited an example of a student with a perfect 1600 SAT score and a 4.0 GPA but without leadership or extracurricular activities, versus a student with an 1170 SAT score who runs races to cure a disease, has been a mentor to a children’s soccer team, was an altar server, and took honors classes.
“We’re looking for a well-rounded person,” she said. “We’re looking for a good match for our Catholic community, those who want to do good things with the gifts they’ve been given.”
Ortiz said it’s important for students to be open and honest with counselors so that they can help students find the right fit. “Having students come with unrealistic expectations hurts the students and the school,” he said. “It’s not beneficial to either party to force something.”
Hardegen agreed, saying, “It’s so important for students to have a sincere desire to be here in a Catholic atmosphere.”
For that reason, students from faithful Catholic families are often a good fit, and many Catholic colleges will even offer scholarships to attract serious Catholic students.
“We love to see students very involved in their faith,” said Hardegen. “They enhance the Catholic life on campus.”
Matt Archbold is writer for Campus Notes, the online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society, a regular blogger for the National Catholic Register, and the founder of the popular Catholic blog Creative Minority Report.