What Colleges Want: Valuable Insight from College Admission Directors
February 22, 2021

By early April, most college-bound high school seniors will have received admission decisions from the schools to which they applied. The coveted acceptance letter is the end of a journey that starts months—sometimes years—earlier, as students navigate a process that can be fun and exciting, but also stressful and time-consuming.

As a college preparatory school, Notre Dame’s faculty commits itself to helping every student achieve readiness for the next level. Our counseling staff assists students with identifying the colleges or universities that will help them on their path. A school that’s a perfect fit for one student may not be quite right for another.

But once a student has identified a school(s) of choice, how can that student better ensure acceptance? We reached out to a few college admissions officers for insight on what they look for in an applicant when making decisions. John Ambrose, executive director of admissions at Michigan State University, represents an in-state public school with one of the largest undergraduate enrollments in the United States. Marni Blair, the associate director of recruitment at Indiana University, represents an out-of-state and highly regarded Big 10 school. Matt Greene, the assistant director of admissions at University of Notre Dame, represents a highly selective Catholic institution, while Samantha Addington, the assistant director of admission at Albion College, represents a small liberal arts college a few hours’ drive from Metro Detroit.

We hope you will find their professional wisdom helpful when your child starts the admission process at the next level.

What's the first or most important thing you want to learn about an applicant when you begin reviewing his/her file?

  • “What kind of grades has the student earned? That gives us a baseline for the student’s approach to their studies. Even if they are not high it does not mean an immediate denial.” – Michigan State University
  • “A student's academic progression, including the rigor of college preparatory classes, grade trends, senior schedule and GPA.” – Indiana University
  • “We want to get a sense of how the student is as a well-rounded individual. Particularly, we want to understand how their characteristics, activities, and interactions with others would impact our campus community positively while also determining how our community will positively impact them.” – University of Notre Dame
  • “The most important thing I want to know are indicators of academic preparedness. We have a holistic review process, so that doesn't necessarily mean GPA. We can determine preparedness through the classes they took, letters of recommendation from teachers/counselors, and activities that demonstrate organization and ambition. While a GPA can be a great way to tell if a student takes their grades seriously, there are a lot more components that we consider.” – Albion College

How important are standardized test scores?

  • “Prior to COVID-19 they were right behind grades. But just like grades, if they were low it was not an immediate denial. Test scores are the only standardized piece of data in the student’s application. MSU is now test optional, and we continue to use a holistic approach to the review process.” – MSU
  • “As of this year, we moved to a test-optional review structure, a move we were planning on even before the pandemic occurred.” – IU
  • “Starting in the 2020-21 application cycle, we became test optional in our admissions process. So, we currently do not require a test score with our application. It is up to the student if they believe their test scores help create the best, holistic application they can submit. If they do not want to submit a test score, they definitely do not need to do so.” – UND
  • “At this time we are test optional. A student’s SAT/ACT score is only one piece of many of the puzzle that we construct before making a decision. Right now, students can share their test scores if they believe that will help us better understand their potential at Albion. However, that is not the case for everyone. A holistic approach means we don't focus on one sole piece of a student’s application. If it is a strength, great! If not, we look for other evidence that demonstrates a student's readiness.” – AC

How important is co-curricular involvement?

  • “This is critical to help us as we review applications for students who share similar grades and test scores. This information tells us more about the student's commitment to themselves and their future interests. These activities can be used by the student to explore their interests or enhance them depending on where they are in their pursuit of discovery.” – MSU
  • “Supporting documentation like extracurriculars, resumes, and recommendation letters are a supplement to our primary academic evaluation.” – IU
  • “At Notre Dame we want to see students who have gotten involved and illustrated what their passions are outside of the classroom. We have an involved, others-centered student body, so evaluating students' involvement outside of the classroom is definitely a part of our holistic application review process.” – UND
  • “Co-curricular involvement is important. Athletics, clubs, NHS, fine arts … those are all wonderful. However, students learn and grow in other opportunities like part-time jobs, community service, and hobbies that show a development of skills. Students at Albion are involved in a lot of different co-curriculars, and those are important components to their experience on campus. We get excited to know students are choosing Albion partially to take advantage of those opportunities.” – AC

What advice do you have when it comes to writing an essay?

  • “Give us more information about you that is not in your application. Too often students share the same information in their essay that we have already read. This is an opportunity to share another aspect of who you are. Many times students miss this opportunity by trying to tell us what they think we want to know.” – MSU
  • “What do you want the committee to know that isn't already discussed as part of your application file? How would you like to fill in the blanks about who you are as a student and as a future scholar? This is the best advice I can give!” – IU
  • “When writing application essays, be as genuine as possible. The essays are really the only part of the application where we can receive responses to questions in your own words. Answer the prompts to the best of your ability, showcase your passions, illustrate how you genuinely are as a person in your daily life, and tell us what drives you to succeed.” – UND
  • “Number one is proofread! It is such a bummer when I read a great essay and it ends with ‘... and that's why I want to attend the University of Toledo.’ Number two, find your unique voice, and tell us what you'll contribute to our campus with that voice. Learning about how you've handled some adversity is a great way to get to know you as a future college student. Not comfortable sharing something that personal? There are lots of other prompts to consider. You may not be the valedictorian or involved in sports, but you are the first you.” – AC

What tips can you share—things to do/things to avoid—for students and parents embarking on the college admission process?

  • “Take the essays seriously. Granted, it's not a research paper, but communicate clearly what you want us to know about you.” – MSU
  • “Do your research, communicate with your admissions counselor, visit virtually or in person, and know your deadlines. Be organized.” – IU
  • “Please use admissions counselors as a resource for questions on the application process. That is why we are here! We want to help you through what could be an overwhelming process.” – UND
  • “It is important that students participate in this process with the professionals who are here to help, even if it seems uncomfortable at first. My advice is to be the one to call, email, coordinate visits, even understand financial aid, as much as possible. Parents: let them test drive their independence. They're going to find themselves in need of answers or information once they're at school. The more confident they are in their ability to seek it out themselves, the more successful their freshman year will be. And, of course, get to know your admission counselors. We are here to help. Regarding financial aid, don't take a Google search for a college's tuition as official cost information. Oftentimes that information is out-of-date or, more importantly, does not include any scholarships or financial aid that most students qualify for. Trust the process with FAFSA and decide if a school is affordable or not after you've received all the information. At the beginning, shop ‘cost-blind’ and build a list of schools that fit what you're looking for. Then, after collecting all the information—usually by spring of senior year—make decisions based on the investment.” – AC

Any final words of wisdom?

  • “Parents should provide their students with a list of criteria they want for their student. Give it to the student so they can be on the lookout for those things during their college search. This will make it much easier when it comes time to make a final selection, and it can help to keep the whole family on the same page.” – MSU
  • “Take a breath. This process can be overwhelming in the best of times, and then you add the pandemic. Even if it ends tomorrow, it will have lasting effects. Give yourself some grace and know that there are people in your school, in your family and in every institution who want to do what they can to help you with this process. Let them. Give yourself a break.” – IU
  • “Take the time to put forth the best application you can, but please ask for help if needed. It is quite fine to do that, and that will help alleviate any unnecessary pressure/stress.” – UND
  • “Enjoy it! Colleges are so fun to learn about. Have fun exploring your options and trust that no matter what you decide, you'll do great.” – AC

Notre Dame thanks Mr. Ambrose, Ms. Blair, Mr. Greene and Ms. Addington for taking the time out of their busy schedules to share their valuable insights and advice with our community.

Interested in learning more about our college-prep school? We invite you to attend one of our upcoming virtual events. Click here to learn more and to register in advance.

We also invite you to call our Office of Admissions at 248-373-1061, or e-mail Before calling, you can get started by completing an inquiry form here. We look forward to engaging with you!

Notre Dame Office of Admissions


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