Context Is Key

“Context is key.”  We heard this idea over and over again at the IECA Conference in Los Angeles this week.  Perhaps it was a response to the Harvard case that’s been in the news over the past month to demonstrate that grades and tests scores, while important, do not begin to tell the story of how a potential student fits within the context of the college’s needs.  Below are some key areas where admission officers explain how important it is for students to help them understand the context of their application.

High School Environment

College look at all students within the context of their high school. They love when a high school provides a strong school profile that shows:

  • What classes are available
  • What is the particular sequence of classes most kids take
  • Are there limits on classes or APs
  • Grade distributions by class


Here is an example of a strong school profile from Westfield High School in New Jersey. It’s also helpful for students to explain in the Additional Information section of an application if they have moved around a lot or why they have attended numerous high schools.


Class Selection- Extracurricular Complement

In a session called Class Selection for Highly Select Colleges, Adam Sapp, the Director of Admission for Pomona College said: ”We look at the pattern of courses and how you’ve done in them.” We also look at how your extracurricular choices complement and extend your curriculum.

For example, if a student is interested in the social sciences, has he taken AP US History, AP Economics, AP Euro or AP Government and Politics?  Has he continued that thread through deep participation in Model UN, Model Congress, Debate, or Youth and Government? What has he done over his summers to deepen this interest?  Has he done research with a professor in social sciences? Has he attended debate programs or taken classes at a pre-college program in an area of interest?

Becky Chassin, Assistant Dean of Admission at USC, echoed this idea. Admissions is much more interested in a student who pursues multiple foreign languages not as simply a check box to fulfill a requirement, but as a way to help them immerse themselves in another culture. Is a student studying through AP French and then spending a summer in a French speaking country to immerse herself in the culture? Is he taking AP Spanish and using his Spanish to teach English to immigrants or participate in a service/immersion program in a Spanish speaking country?

Colleges are interested in hearing how you talk about what you are doing and what you are gaining from these experiences. How are you growing?

Letters of Recommendation

All the panelists said: “We also look very closely at what teachers say about students to understand the contextual piece.“

The admission officer from Dickinson spoke about a student who consistently gotten Bs in her classes and got a 3 on her AP exam.  Yet, she wrote a fabulous essay. He didn’t understand why she didn’t have better grades until he read her teacher’s letter of recommendation who explained how this student was homeless and had to find ways to study despite her family situation. Suddenly her Bs and AP scores of a 3 seemed much more impressive by understanding her context.

Another student’s teacher described how when this young man stood at the math board at the front of the class, he took on the role of the teacher effortlessly and helped his classmates. This helped understand not only his high grades but how he would contribute to the college learning environment.

The panelists recommend that students provide teachers with a resume that showcases not only what you are doing outside of the classroom, but why you are interested in your activities.


Good essays help admission officers understand the context of your pursuits. They don’t want just a laundry list what you have done, but instead they use essays to help them understand why you do a particular activity or how a school or major fits into your longer-term goal.

Libby Browne, from the University of Rochester spoke about the Making Caring Common initiative at Harvard. She emphasized that they are not only concerned with the quantity of experience, but also the quality of the experience.  She wants students to talk about the context of an experience, for example, I had to take care of grandparents or my family and this is why I’m interested in X.  She wants to understand:

  • How is a student going to engage the campus and community?
  • How are we going to help them, but how will they contribute to our community and continue this beyond?

She also stressed that while polished personal statement essays show intentionality, supplements are more important. In the Why School essays, colleges want to understand how students will take and understand resources a college has and apply them to themselves.

So as you prepare your applications, remember that context is key.

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