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Things That Matter in Admissions … Kinda?

By Robert LeVine

After 37 years of being involved in college and graduate admissions, I cannot count the number of times I have answered a question with “It depends.” Here are some answers to the vexing questions we are asked on a daily basis.

Do Rankings Matter? Once in the while, rankings indicate something valuable. Most of the time, they indicate only that admissions is big business. For medium and large schools (most small colleges avoid being part of the rankings game), rankings usually indicate an effort by a school to prove its worth to you, and the results are inconsistent. For example, U.S. News currently ranks the University of Washington as the 59th best college in America but the 7th best college in the world! How is that possible? Each ranking uses a different formula. So, when you look at rankings, realize you’re being marketed more than informed.

Do Grades Matter? How you did in school is the best indicator of how you will do in school. However, everybody knows that students like to play GPA games. Many take easy courses to get high grades. Many take dual enrollment and other non-traditional courses to “benefit” from higher weighting. These tricks are obvious to – and not favored by – admissions offices. In fact, top grades are not the single most significant factor used by highly selective schools.

Does Academic Rigor Matter? Colleges do not expect applicants to take all the most rigorous courses. In fact, the statistical difference between more and fewer AP courses is surprisingly small, and many top high schools limit the number of high level IB courses to three per semester. Students should challenge themselves in areas that are relevant to their interests and futures, but taking rigorous courses just for the sake of taking rigorous courses is not a winning strategy. Besides, taking a class is just absorption, not a pioneering intellectual effort.

Do Standardized Test Scores Matter? For the most selective schools, higher is better, but highest is not required. Stanford rejects an alarming number of perfect test scores in favor of students with other contributions. Even for medical school, where the MCAT seems to be the scariest thing this side of an apocalypse, we have seen students with lower test scores – in the 60th percentile – achieve great results because of other factors (including really good essays). And for undergraduate admissions in private colleges, “test optional” is likely here to stay.

Does Direct Experience Matter? If you’re applying to a graduate school, a U.K. university, or a specialized program, direct experience matters. Otherwise, while some experience in an academic or career direction is indicative of interest, “more” is not always the same as “better.”

Does Leadership Matter? A title may indicate popularity or seniority, but being president or captain but does not necessarily indicate world-class achievement. Don’t just be something; do something.

Does Service Matter? In a world where everyone is expected to perform some kind of service, the absence of service is a red flag. However, schools do not count service hours to differentiate between applicants. What matters to the applicant is what matters to the admissions office.

Does Athletics Matter? While it is true that “a strong body leads to a strong mind,” it is also true that alumni who were physically active during college donate money at a rate of three times more than the rest. You don’t have to be an Olympian but do something to indicate you are not limited to mental pursuits.

Do Recommendation Letters Matter? An average recommendation letter will lead to a below-average admissions result. Focus on your relationship with the recommender; it’s the caliber of the letter, not the caliber of the writer, that matters. Once there was a student who received a recommendation letter from the President of Georgetown … but did not get in to Georgetown.

Do Interviews Matter? A great interview won’t get you admitted if the rest of your application isn’t impressive, but great interviews do help differentiate between those who are “in the running” at the final stages of the selection process.

Does Being a Legacy Matter? Schools give great attention to children of alumni, but some alumni are more important than others. If the parent has contributed to the school over the years – either with money or time and effort – then another long-term contribution by the applicant can be expected. However, if there hasn’t been much contribution …

Any more questions?

Robert LeVine is the founder and CEO of University Consultants of America, an independent educational consultancy assisting students around the world with applications to colleges, universities and graduate schools. For more information, call University Consultants of America, Inc. at 1-800-465-5890 or visit



By Anu Varma Panchal

I was hard at work at my desk in my home office one day, vaguely conscious of the suburban afternoon outside. Somewhere, someone mowed their lawn. The occasional car drove by. Birds fluttered and chirped lazily in the heat.

Focused on the clicking of my computer keyboard and the words taking shape on my screen, I felt rather than heard the tempo of the day shift. Our neighborhood elementary school had let out. Kids skipped and ran or biked down the sidewalk, parents calling out to them to slow down in between the “uh huhs” as they listened to them chatter about their day.

Two women paused outside my window. “It was so nice to meet you,” one exclaimed. “Yes!” the other responded, and I could hear the excitement in her voice. “We have to go home now, but we’ll hang out later.”

I knew that voice. It was the voice of a mother who had found, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, a kindred spirit.

I remember being that mom, scoping out playgrounds and classrooms for The One who could help you get through the hour pushing a kid on the swing or waiting in the Kumon waiting room (pre-Covid). The one you could partner with backstage at India Fest in the thick of costumes and makeup. The one with whom you would wrap silent auction baskets or chaperone field trips or decorate cafeterias for year-end parties and graduation bashes.

In the grips of small-child parenting, I became adept at sizing up a potential buddy, mentally assessing the compatibility of the child and the friendliness of the (usually) mother. Sometimes all you wanted was adult conversation; common interests or background were a bonus. Some relationships were temporary, yet deep, like the “ballet friend” I had when my older daughter was about four. We started chatting one day before class, and soon we got into the habit of saving a spot for each other in the corridor or waiting room and hanging out. The two of us had deep, personal conversations about life and family when our daughters were in class, but we never took it beyond the studio; in fact, we didn’t even know each other’s names and never exchanged numbers. Perhaps it was the relative anonymity of the relationship that allowed us to confide in each other this way. And when the season ended, we went our separate ways, though I still think about her and wonder what her child is up to nowadays.

Relationships like these helped me stay sane when my daughters were very young by providing me with islands of adult interaction in a child-heavy world. While some such connections vanished after the situation ended, others lasted. One friend met another mom at Gymboree when they were both there with their first babies. They hit it off instantly, dropped out of Gymboree and now have six kids and 16 years of close-knit friendship between them.

When you find the ones that you click with, it’s such a joy. I’ve been fortunate enough that many mom friendships have continued even after our children have gone separate ways to different schools or acquired new interests. Some PTA moms with whom I spent hours in the trenches are among my closest friends, and we slip in and out of each other’s orbits even if we don’t meet as often as we used to. This decade or so of small-person parenting coincided with one of the largest influxes of new people into my circle, at least post-college days. It served the purpose of not just personal interaction, but of weaving me into the common fabric of our community and bestowing upon me the warmth of belonging.

Now that my children are older and I don’t have as much day-to-day involvement in their school lives, the opportunities to encounter their friends’ parents are fewer. The kids do their own thing socially. The older one either drives herself or is picked up by friends, and even the younger one hops out of the car with a backward wave. While the occasional new mom friend enters my orbit, I spend more time managing existing friendships than acquiring new ones.

Listening to those two women outside that afternoon, I wonder what it will be like for them. I wonder if they’ll spend hours in the playground or at the pool together, or volunteer together, or sip cocktails as they trick-or-treat around the neighborhood. I hope they enjoy their time together — whether it’s for an afternoon, a season, a few years — or forever.

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