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What do colleges really look for in applicants? Hofstra tells all.


Applying to colleges is an arduous task. There is a lot of confusing and conflicting information, and things can change year over year. You probably know the factors involved – but how do they stack up and what really matters?

We asked Jessica Eads, Hofstra’s senior vice president for Student Enrollment, Engagement, and Success, to give us the inside scoop. 

1. Where does a student even start? 

Most students know they should build a list of schools they are considering – based on major, location, size, campus life, and any number of individual preferences. Something else that is super important, but rarely thought of, is the teaching and learning environment. What percentage of classes are taught by grad students instead of professors? What are typical class sizes? How accessible is the faculty?

Students also need to research a school’s application criteria, deadlines, and averages for GPA and test scores. This can help determine if a school is an academic reach, match, or safety for you.  Best to have a mix of all three on your list. 

For example, a student should know that Hofstra University’s second early action deadline is December 15, with rolling admissions after that, and the average SAT scores for Hofstra students are 1210-1400 (ACT equivalent 26-32).  Plus if you are looking for a medium-size school, with an active and beautiful campus experience, convenient access to New York City, with world-class beaches nearby - then Hofstra will be on your list.  

2. What is the single most important factor in the application?

Your high school record – which includes your GPA, your grades, and your course load. All years of high school matter – but emphasis is placed on your junior year. Advanced, honors, AP, and IB courses are favored and can help you stand out in the application pool. 

I’ll note that a few weak grades aren’t the end of the world. Hofstra, like most schools, is looking for trends and continuous improvement. 

3. Should students take standardized tests and submit their scores? 

Most schools, including Hofstra, do not require standardized test scores for full-time undergraduate admission. This is not only a post-COVID reaction but also a recognition that SAT and ACT scores are not always a reflection of student ability.  

As part of your school research – where you identified the average test scores – decide if your scores help or hurt your academic portfolio. You can make the decision to submit your scores on a school-by-school basis. 

4. Does anyone even read the essay?

Absolutely, yes! Your essay will be reviewed carefully by the admission committee. The committee is looking to see how well you can express yourself and to learn more about you as a person. Essays should be written with these two goals in mind. 

While creativity should drive the process, structure matters! Have a teacher, counselor, parent, or tutor review your essay before submitting. It also helps to read it aloud; you’ll notice sentence structure issues in the process. 

5. Why do schools care about extracurricular activities? What do they have to do with academic performance?  

Colleges are admitting people – not transcripts. Involvement in your school, community, or social activities matters to admissions. Colleges want students who will add to the campus community and become peer leaders. The things you’ve done are a good indicator of the things you will do. 

Previous leadership positions in particular demonstrate your motivation to achieve.  

6. Most schools require letters of recommendation. What is your advice when it comes to the recommendations?

Having a teacher or counselor tell a school about you can round out your application. Make sure the person providing the recommendation knows you well, can speak to your character, highlight areas of your academic record, and/or share an obstacle you have overcome. 

At Hofstra, our approach to student applications is holistic. Letters of recommendation complete the picture of who you are.

7. Since the advent of the Common App – do all schools handle admissions the same way?

It’s important to check the criteria of every school, even if you are filling out the Common App.  The best way to know how your application will be reviewed is to ask. All schools share with students the factors they consider in reviewing applications.

Also, take advantage of items listed on applications as optional – extra questions or essays. These are opportunities to show more of who you are. 

8. Anything else to know?

It’s important to visit any schools you are serious about attending. Students often say that they knew which school was right for them the moment they stepped on campus.