10 pencils, 9 black one red
About 69 percent of Minnesota high school graduates go to college, and the vast majority opt to study in-state. We asked representatives from three Minnesota institutions what specific traits make an applicant stand out from the crowd.
Take a look at these six characteristics our college reps say they value most, followed by tips from area high school administrators on how they’re preparing students to succeed in college and beyond.
1. A Solid Academic Background
Academic success, demonstrated by challenging coursework and high marks, is one of the key indicators of “consistency and potential for success at the collegiate level,” says Brad Nelson, associate director of admissions at Crown College in St. Bonifacius.
According to Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education, dual enrollment in high school and college courses doubled from 2004 to 2014. That’s just one example of Minnesota high schools’ commitment to preparing students for the rigor of college academics.
Here’s how five area high schools are empowering students to succeed academically.
St. Paul Academy’s Accountable Classroom allows students to actively engage with faculty “to learn both content knowledge and the essential skills of an independent, self-motivated student that will carry them through college and beyond,” says Mary Hill, director of college counseling and academic planning.
At Hopkins High School, staff encourage students to take honors, advanced placement, and College in the Schools courses. “We counsel students in ninth grade and even earlier, so they are aware of the importance of challenging themselves and working to their potential,” says Hopkins counselor Shanna Jadwin. “We also stress the importance of using high school as a time to explore interests by taking advantage of our wide variety of elective offerings.”
Golden Valley’s Breck School challenges students through Advanced Research Programs that “provide real-world experiences in science, history, and math,” says Jonathan Nicholson, Breck’s director of college counseling. “Through these research programs, students select a topic of their choice to research. They then work with professional mentors at local universities and corporations to pose questions, test hypotheses, and publish their findings.”
The Blake School in Minneapolis, Hopkins, and Wayzata focuses on a rigorous and balanced liberal arts curriculum and supportive faculty. “Blake teachers have high expectations of their students, while at the same time offering them the support needed to achieve those high expectations,” says Sara Kyle, associate director of college counseling.
Minnehaha Academy offers advanced placement courses in a wide range of subjects and ensures students learn to write and research at the college level. “In our Applied Research and Engineering class, students engage in authentic scientific research . . . [and] spend the year working with science and engineering mentors who provide thoughtful feedback and encouragement,” says president Donna Harris.
A solid academic foundation is key to success in college, but grades aren’t everything. Area college representatives also highlighted a variety of soft skills they look for in promising applicants.
2. Dedication and a Strong Work Ethic
“A strong work ethic, as seen through employment, sports, and other extracurricular activities, indicates both discipline and an ability to achieve goals,” Nelson says.
But many admissions offices most value the quality of an applicant’s involvement over the quantity.
“While many students think it’s important to have a long resume of involvement, colleges are also looking for students who have displayed commitment to a few activities that they’re passionate about,” explains Kirk Carlson, associate vice president for enrollment at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
Faculty and staff at Breck School encourage students to be involved in a variety of extracurricular activities and student leadership options, but also understand the value of learning to fail. “Extending oneself to the point of failure and bouncing back from that is what builds the resilience that underlies grit and the development of a solid work ethic,” says Daisy Pellant, director of Breck’s Peter Clark Center for Teaching and Learning. “At Breck, we embrace thoughtful risk-taking and intentionally support students through mistake-making as an integral part of learning and development.”
Long-Term Coaching and Support
St. Paul Academy faculty and staff take the long view, encouraging growth and development over the course of a student’s tenure at the school.
“Our teachers expect a lot from our students,” Hill says. “They set high standards for developing academic skills, but they also coach students to build upon those skills each year in grade-appropriate ways. As a result, students gain self-motivation to sustain daily work habits, pose original questions, and become independent, enthusiastic learners.”
“College is about growing as a whole person,” says Carlson. “You can’t do that without going outside your comfort zone.”
Students can show colleges they are open to new, challenging experiences by highlighting things they are passionate about—whether that’s mastering a new language or learning guitar. Students who are motivated to develop their interests even when they don’t have to are likely just the curious learners colleges are seeking.
Classes, Clubs, and Teams
High school is a great time to explore a wide variety of activities, from academics to athletics and more. Minnehaha Academy encourages students to try out what interests them and see what sticks.
“Students are encouraged to pursue their passions both in and out of the classroom,” says Harris. “Whether it is a co-curricular activity like debate, journalism, or jazz band; an athletic pursuit such as basketball or Nordic skiing; or a club such as diversity club or French club, students can try it all—and they do.”
Grades and extracurricular activities are important, but they can’t tell the whole story of a student’s identity. “Colleges are looking for students who are genuinely good people and are service-oriented,” Carlson says. “Whether you end up in the board room, the classroom, or the exam room, character counts at Gustavus.”
A Spirit of Service
“Although Blake has no requirement for community service, students are deeply engaged in sharing their talents,” Kyle says. “Our student-led Community Service Board organizes volunteer activities and many students receive recognition for volunteering more than 100 hours during the school year. Students also serve fellow students through our peer mentoring/tutoring programs.”
5. Socially Responsible Leadership
Colleges are looking for students who demonstrate a commitment to making a difference, whether in the local community or on a broader scope.
“We accept students to the university who demonstrate the ability to be academically successful and seek to be ethical, reflective, and socially responsible leaders who are prepared to lead and influence upon graduation,” says Cory Piper-Hauswirth, associate dean of admissions, College for Women at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
Hopkins High School features specific opportunities, like a Community Involvement course, for students to volunteer in an area of interest and then spend time in the classroom reflecting on that experience.
Students in Hopkins’ ProPEL program “learn work-related skills such as resume-writing and interviewing, and then go on to work with professionals serving as mentors in the community, in a career field of their interest,” Jadwin says. “Beyond academic opportunities, many of our students are extremely involved in clubs, which focus on activism and giving back to the community.”
6. Promise and Commitment to Personal Growth
Colleges know 17- and 18-year-olds are not finished products, and they don’t expect them to be. “At Gustavus, we’re looking for students who have shown potential for growth and the desire to make it happen,” Carlson says. “If you’re ready for a rigorous but supportive environment, we’re here to help you unlock your potential.”
Breck School values mindfulness and spirituality, allowing students space for reflection, which is key to personal growth. The school also has several programs that enable students to take ownership of their growth and development, starting with an expectation that all members of the school community continue to learn and grow.
“This creates an environment conducive to learning, in which the journey is celebrated as much as the destiny, and each community member celebrates in the successes of others,” Nicholson says.
College Application Dos and Don’ts
College admissions officers’ best tips for completing the application process:
Give yourself ample time to work on your applications. “Essays provide us great information about a student, so think about what you want to say in your essay and then take the time to put it into words that describe you well. This is difficult to do well without setting aside some dedicated time for the project.” –Brad Nelson, associate director of admission, School of Arts and Sciences, Crown College
Show your personality. “We love reading about what makes you, you. This is your opportunity to tell us what you’re passionate about, how you like to spend your time, and what you want your future to be.” –Cory Piper-Hauswirth, associate dean of admissions, College for Women, St. Catherine University
Proofread! “You want to put your best foot forward, especially since the application is all about you!” –Cory Piper-Hauswirth
Stress out about crafting the “perfect” application. “Admissons counselors are on your side. They want to help you find the right college and work with you to get through the process. They are here to help you.” –Brad Nelson
Pad your application with many activities that you spent little time doing. “Admission staff would rather see ongoing contribution and commitment to a club, sport, activity, or service.” –Cory Piper-Hauswirth