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College applicants in need of good grades, good deeds to gain admission

| Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Grades still reign supreme on the list of importance as far as admissions go, but today’s colleges are interested in learning as much as they can about each individual’s personal accomplishments, extracurricular activities and more before deciding whether to admit them, admissions administrators says.
Mark Brewer illustration

Kathleen Stevans knows colleges and universities are looking at more than her daughter's grades.

“There is a lot of pressure for high-school seniors to have really high GPAs and great SAT scores,” says Stevans, of Upper St. Clair. Her daughter, Tori, 17, a high-school senior, is an aspiring writer who's applying to several colleges.

“Schools also require them to be so well-rounded,” Stevans says. “They want to see community-based activities, and want them to be interesting, well-rounded people.”

Grades still reign supreme on the list of importance as far as admissions go, but today's colleges are interested in learning as much as they can about each individual's personal accomplishments, extracurricular activities and more before deciding whether to admit them, admissions administrators says.

Most schools require potential future freshman to submit an application along with official high-school transcripts and SAT or ACT scores to be reviewed for acceptance. Beyond that, it's often up to the individual to provide additional information they think will help them make the grade.

“The extracurriculum information helps us better understand the students' interest and get to know the student beyond the numbers,” says Joell Minford, director of admissions at Point Park University. For fall 2013, 2,900 freshmen applied to Point Park and 2,200 were accepted, she says.

Things like personal essays, statements of academic intent, letters of recommendation, examples of leadership activities, community service and additional interests can help “reveal more about the student” to the application-review committee, says Marc Harding, chief enrollment officer at University of Pittsburgh. The university received more than 27,000 applications for about 3,900 places in the fall 2013 freshmen class.

“As the applicant pool gets stronger each year, the admissions committee relies more heavily on the additional information that the applicant provides, especially the essay, in order to find the students we feel will be the best fit for Pitt,” Harding says.

When it comes to curriculum, schools want to see how the student challenged himself.

“The committee is looking for a well-rounded curriculum from all applicants across five major subject areas — English, math, science, social science and foreign language,” Harding says. “Students should go beyond the minimum requirements.”

For example, the fourth level of a class on a transcript is considered more favorably than the third, he says. Honors and advanced-placement classes and international baccalaureate work also can positively affect an admissions decision, he says — “unless a student takes so many he/she can't do reasonably well in them.”

In recent years, the biggest change in admissions procedures is the decreased importance of class rank, counselors says. Because many districts no longer compile that data, it's no longer used in many schools' admission processes.

One challenge admissions counselors face is the varying grading procedures school districts use, says Kellie Laurenzi, dean of admissions at Robert Morris University.

For example, an A in one district might be a score of 91-100, while, in another, it's 90-100. To overcome that, admissions counselors are in frequent contact with districts to determine the difficulty of courses and how they grade.

“We call numerous guidance offices to walk us through the complications,” Laurenzi says.

Robert Morris University receives around 8,000 freshman applications a year. This fall, more than half were accepted. Laurenzi says her department “always encourages students to send additional credentials if there are things that will help us make a decision.”

While other factors do matter, it's key for seniors to keep their grades up, despite the natural inclination to slack off toward the end of their high-school career, administrators say.

“A rigorous senior-year curriculum is strongly recommended and will work to the benefit of an applicant in the admissions review,” Harding says. “'Senioritis,' which could include a decline in grades or taking a lighter course load, could adversely affect the admissions decision.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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