The College Canvas – Cracking the College Code

Examining Colleges’ True Expectations of Applicants and What Their Admissions Decisions Mean for You


   Imagine a code so complex and seemingly undecipherable that even the most qualified computer scientists cannot evaluate it with certainty. It is essentially a mystery, twisting and shape-shifting each time a student attempts to win it over. That code is the college code.

   Each time students apply to a college, they pit themselves against an acceptance rate, whether that be 85%, 35%, or even 5.2%, hoping to be one of those qualified applicants who gain admission. These admission chances, though, are not as simple as a general percentage.

   A few factors that hide behind the often intimidating percent sign include choice of major, having a well-angled lifestyle inside and outside of school, and demonstrated writing ability in application essays. Colleges look for any combination of these, making the formula for success difficult to master.

   Because choice of major is a significant factor in admissions decisions for many large colleges, particularly in the UC system and in colleges with renowned schools, students may find that their superior academic ability does not always translate to admission into their preferred schools.

   Competition among popular majors at certain colleges is high, which yields unlimited applicants competing for limited spots. A prime example of this is Cal Poly’s journalism program, which is a smaller major. Some journalism majors may be more qualified to attend Cal Poly than their engineering counterparts, but they may not gain admission due to the lack of available spots for journalism majors.

   In regards to maintaining a “well-angled lifestyle,” colleges look favorably upon applicants who have a couple interests and are very dedicated to each of them. This part of the college algorithm can take many forms depending on an individual’s involvement in extracurricular activities or classes.

   It may seem counterintuitive to focus more intensely on a few interests, than to focus less intensely on many interests when attempting to impress colleges, but this is part of what makes the college code so cryptic.

   The code becomes even harder to crack when essay writing is taken into account. Everyone has a different writing style, but if an applicant writes persuasively and honestly, their dedication to the topic really shows. Expressing genuine investment in studies and hobbies is likely the best way to break this segment of code.

   The examination of the college code is not aimed to dissuade any student from braving the sea of a low acceptance rate; rather, it is here to remind students that there are numerous factors (even aside from the ones presented) that go into the college decision process.

   It is completely understandable that students get disappointed about their college rejections, but they should remember that there are parts to the decision process over which we as students have no control. 

   What we can control is how we present ourselves to colleges. Without interviews, we are letters and numbers on a screen, and it is up to us how we ensure that colleges can put a personality to our applications.

   For now, that is how we navigate the college code.

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