Applying to Colleges

It is natural to wonder what colleges look for in their applicants. The answer is as varied as the thousands of colleges and universities across the nation. For the most part, schools try to build a class that is "well-rounded," with a diversity of students who bring different strengths, backgrounds and experiences to the table.

Click on the links below to read about the various factors used to determine what a prospective applicant might bring to an individual college community:

Transcripts | Standardized Testing | Testing Accommodations | Beyond Grades and Test Scores | School Letter and Teacher Letters of Recommendation | The Essay | Employment | Other Factors

While colleges look at a variety of factors to determine what each applicant might bring to their community, most begin with an examination of the high school transcript, the official record of your courses and grades throughout high school.  In reviewing your transcript, admissions officers typically ask: What kind of grades has the applicant received over the years? Is there a trend (upward, downward, consistent, up and down) to her grades? Has she taken advantage of advanced classes? Did she have access to these classes? How does her senior year program look? Is she challenging herself during this important year? Is she taking the bare minimum requirements, or has she taken more than is required for graduation? Does she have a particular academic interest?


In examining your transcript, colleges are hoping to both understand your academic experience and assess your academic potential. Typically, schools focus on your English, math, history, science and foreign language courses, and look for a transcript that surpasses minimum graduation requirements. Along with your transcript, HB provides information about course selection policies and course offerings in order for colleges to be able to interpret individual transcripts. Hathaway Brown (along with many independent and public schools) does not rank students or supply class deciles or rankings to colleges.

Standardized Testing

Along with an examination of your academic program and grades, colleges also examine the results of your standardized testing. Most colleges continue to require the SAT or ACT, and some colleges also require the SAT Subject Tests. The SAT is designed to test your critical thinking skills in both the verbal and quantitative arenas. Some colleges place more emphasis on standardized testing than others, while there are a number of highly selective colleges that are "SAT optional." Some colleges understand that very able students don't always test well, and determine their true academic achievement and potential by examining their strong academic record rather than relying on a morning's testing experience. Colleges interpret standardized tests in a variety of ways, which are further discussed in individual sessions with the college counselors.

Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT)

The PSAT is given at Hathaway Brown to all upper school students in October. This is used as a practice test to acquaint you with the kinds of questions on the SAT Test. Scores are reported to you and to HB, and are used as rough predictors of later scores on the SAT Test. Based on these predictions, you will be aided in determining a plan of preparation for future testing.  The Junior Year results of this test are also used to select National Merit Scholarship Semi-Finalists and Commended Students.  Those students receiving these honors will be notified in the fall of the senior year.  

SAT Tests and SAT Subject Tests

These tests are given at centers in the local area. This test measures math and verbal ability and has an optional writing component. You must check with individual colleges to see if they require the test With Writing. Registration dates are about five weeks before the tests; you are responsible for meeting all registration deadlines.  You may register by mail, phone or at (preferred method). You should receive your scores about four weeks after the test date. You must check with each individual college regarding their policy on which scores you must send or whether you may choose which scores to send. 

Some colleges require two or three Subject Tests for admission and/or placement in college courses. Other schools do not require any subject tests for admission. Check college online information and applications for requirements. If you are thinking of applying for Early Decision or Early Action, you should plan to take the SAT Test and the requisite number of Subject Tests in your junior year.  Sometimes the Subject Tests are best taken in the same year that you complete the academic course in that subject area; other times it is best to take the tests in the junior or senior year.  Consult with your Counselors about the appropriate times to take Subject Tests.

American College Test (ACT)

This test measures skills in four major curriculum areas: English, Mathematics, Reading and Science. There is also an optional writing test. You must check with individual colleges to see if they require the ACT Plus Writing. HB's recommendation is that you take the ACT with the writing test in December of your junior year, and again later if necessary. Some out-of-state public universities require the ACT. Many other colleges accept either the SAT or the ACT. In some instances, a student who does not score well on the SAT may score well on the ACT, so it might be in your best interest to attempt both tests. There are also some Ohio financial aid and scholarship programs which require the results from an ACT testing. You must check with each individual college regarding their policy on which scores you must send or whether you may choose which scores to send. 

Advanced Placement Tests (AP)

AP Examinations are given in May at Hathaway Brown. These are three-hour, college-level subject tests used by some colleges for placement and credit, but not required for admission. Save and copy your AP Score reports if you plan to send them to colleges either with or as a supplement to your application. You are the only one who will send these scores to colleges, though higher levels of performance (scores of 4 or 5) may be cited by teachers or counselors within the written recommendations that are part of the application process. 

Sending Scores to Colleges

You are responsible for sending your test scores to the colleges to which you are applying. When you are ready to report your scores for the SAT Test, SAT Subject Test, or ACT, you should list the colleges to which you want your scores sent. Remember to use your given name when registering for these tests, as registering under two different names (such as a nickname) can cause great confusion when you begin applying to colleges. In your college folder, it is important to keep a record of each test date and your registration number for that test date, as you will probably be asked for that information at a later time.  

The Hathaway Brown School College Board Code Number (CEEB) is:  361260

SAT Test Preparation

A Challenge and an Opportunity: Few academic settings are as challenging as taking College Board tests because of the importance given to the results in the college admission process. Hathaway Brown's experience in test preparation and depth of resources allow us to meet that challenge along with you and your family. We work together as partners in shaping those habits of the mind that provide the best potential for maximum test performance.

The School's Role: The School examines its practices regarding test preparation yearly and currently provides the following for your benefit:

  • Updating information about the tests.
  • Including pertinent test content within course content.
  • Familiarizing students with test-taking strategies.
  • Assessing individual scores in each sub-section for counseling and review.
  • Holding in-school review sessions, giving full practice tests and bringing in professional review staff as coaches.

A Shared Responsibility for You, the Student: Just as winning at competitive sports involves a combination of motivation, developed skills and coached practice, so too does enhanced performance on standardized testing. Scores can be improved! And, year after year, students have taken ownership of the test preparation process through some of the following options:

  • Giving attention to quantitative and geometric information found in print or used in the media, including charts, graphs, statistics, percentages and comparative data
  • Reading widely and often, especially non-fiction prose, in a number of fields
  • Pursuing a personal quest to build word recognition
  • Taking timed SAT Reasoning practice tests for the double purpose of test familiarity and of benchmarking performance gains
  • Using the various handouts and test-prep manuals that identify the reasoning and problem solving skills asked for on the test

Formal Test Preparation Courses

Formal test preparation cannot, in truth, make up for years of non-reading and limited math or language development. Nonetheless, these courses have set a number of students on confident paths and eased their minds about the test as a test. If you desire the imposed discipline of a test-prep agenda, formal test preparation courses may be an effective means; we would be pleased to provide our counsel on this question.

Recommended Resources in Paperback

The following titles do not by any means exhaust the market of what is available, but come from the recommendations of our Math and English Departments: 

  • The Official SAT Study Guide – The College Board
  • Official Guide to SAT II Subject Tests – The College Board

Testing Accommodations

The College Board and ACT may provide testing accommodations to students who have a documented disability (Learning Disability, ADHD, or Health Impairment). The accommodations for students at HB have generally been in the form of 50 percent extended time, use of a computer for writing sections, extra breaks and preferential seating.

To be eligible to receive accommodations on College Board exams, you must have a documented diagnosed disability and approval from the College Board Services for Students with Disabilities, and for ACT exams approval from the ACT Accommodation Center. The College Board and ACT each have separate application processes and specific guidelines and application deadlines in order to submit your request for accommodations. These specific guidelines for eligibility and application deadlines are available at the College Board and ACT websites.

If you feel you may qualify for testing accommodations or wish to discuss the procedure to document a disability, please contact the Upper School Learning Specialist, Dr. Eric Wonderly.

Beyond Grades and Test Scores

Because the majority of applicants to competitive colleges meet the academic standards of these institutions, colleges find that they need to look beyond grades and scores in order to differentiate applicants and select those who will contribute most significantly to their campus community. Schools differ in terms of how much emphasis they place on an applicant's extracurricular pursuits, writing and letters of recommendation. Factors such as athletic or artistic talent, legacy status or geographic or ethnic diversity can also play a role in the admission decision. For additional information, please click on the links below:

School Letter and Teacher Letters of Recommendation

The College Office prepares a School Letter that details your academic and co-curricular strengths and attempts to convey the "essence" of who you are as a student and member of the HB community. You will also ask two teachers to prepare letters of recommendation on your behalf. The following guidelines have been established regarding teacher letters of recommendation for college applications: 

  1. In the spring, you should ask two 11th grade teachers, ideally one instructor from humanities and one from math or science, for a letter of recommendation. (A 12th grade teacher should be asked in the fall only if you have no deadlines before January 1.)
  2. You should have two academic subject teachers write letters of reference for most colleges. 
  3. Letters should be written by faculty who know you and your performance well; it is not necessary to have received an A in the course for faculty to write a good letter of support.
  4. You must submit to the College Office your list of teachers who have agreed to write letters of recommendation.
  5. When you are at the application phase, you must give your teachers at least one month's advance notice so they have enough time to prepare your letters.
  6. Teachers will use their own procedures for completing the recommendation forms.  Teachers will submit the letters of recommendation to the College Office prior to your first college application deadline. The College Office will communicate with all teachers to keep them informed of deadlines you provide us.
  7. Letters of recommendation written by faculty members or other school personnel are considered CONFIDENTIAL and will not be given to you or your parents.
  8. Each teacher will keep a copy of the letter of recommendation.
  9. You should follow up with a thank you, in writing, in a grateful acknowledgement of the hours that faculty spend on writing recommendations.

The Essay

The college essay and short answer sections are parts of the college application process over which you have a great deal of control. They can provide you with a powerful opportunity to make yourself "come alive" to the college admissions team and offer subjective information about you that is beyond "the numbers" found on your transcript and standardized test results. Make your essays and short answers work for you, and let them offer the best possible reflection of you as a person. When approaching the essay, keep the following in mind:

Goals of the College Essay

  • To show the admission committee something they could not know based on the rest of your application.

  • To illustrate your uniqueness as a thinking, motivated, curious, committed or creative person.

  • To enable the reader to evaluate your writing and thinking.

  • To help the reader get to know you – using the essay as a window to your personality, values, and goals.

  • To help the reader create a full (and hopefully memorable) picture of you. 

General Guidelines

  • Read the essay question carefully and be sure to answer the question asked.
  • Type, word-process or use neat handwriting if the college requires the essay to be handwritten.
  • Conform to guidelines relative to length; if a length limitation is not provided, one page single-spaced or two pages double-spaced are appropriate essay lengths.
  • Use your own voice – informal, conversational; not stilted.
  • Avoid humorous essays unless you are good at them, but freely use humor and wit if you can achieve the right tone.
  • Correct spelling mistakes and errors in standard usage. Proofread, and do not rely only on your computer's "spell check" feature!
  • Give fresh life to subjects like travel, Outward Bound, Mountain School or personal topics such as death – all need an interesting perspective; any topic can work if approached in an original way.
  • Don't repeat lists of activities or duplicate your resume.
  • Don't let mom or dad or anyone else write the essay!
  • Use dialogue effectively as an animating device.
  • Think small – anecdotes and rich details work.
  • Be free with format if it serves to enhance the content of your essay.
  • Don't write about SATs or the college process.
  • Accentuate the positive – even in a painful experience, show triumph over struggle or learning from mistakes.
  • Generate a clear direction and stimulate reader interest in the introductory paragraph.
  • Remember that the first few sentences are critical and must engage the reader.
  • Avoid the five paragraph essay as too mechanical; let your essay be purpose-driven.
  • Create a positive impact in your conclusion.
  • Treat every essay question, even the short answer questions, seriously, and give them your full, reflective response. 

How to Write

  • Decide what your message is first.
  • Spend as much time thinking as you do writing.
  • Use a technique that works for you, like brainstorming or free-writing before the first draft; afterward, revise.
  • If you are stuck, have a brainstorming session with someone close to you.
  • If you write about an activity or an experience, focus not on how good you are or what you have accomplished, but what it means to you.
  • Don't ask yourself or anyone else "What should I write about?" The appropriate question is, "What should I tell them about me?" 
  • Test the "success" of your essay by asking someone to read it; do not ask "Do you like it?" but rather "What do you think it says about me?"
  • Write your essay over time, so that you have the opportunity for considerable feedback and multiple revisions.
  • Ask yourself, "If college deans were to place me with roommates based on this essay, would they be able to choose compatible people? Would it give them something to go on?"
  • Ask yourself, "Is this a piece of self-advocacy that also reveals something true and authentic about me?"


Colleges typically offer you a place to note your employment experience and history. While they don't expect all students to have held a job during their summer vacations or during the school year, many colleges do recognize the value that can be gained from work experience.

Other Factors

Other factors may play a role in college admissions, such as "legacy" status (being the child of an alumnus or alumna of a college), geographic location, ethnic background or religious affiliation. These factors may or may not come into play as schools try to build a diverse class.

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