A few weeks ago, on one of the first days of 2023 that was consistently sunny enough to really feel like a Southern California spring day, the Waldorf School of Orange County High School hosted regional admissions counselors from various universities around the country for our Spring College Fair 2023. As the head college & career counselor for the school, I collaborated with the extremely helpful Regional Admissions Counselors of California (RACC) organization to plan the event. It was a fantastic experience overall, providing a forum for curious students to connect with college representatives who were eager to share about their institutions.
One particular interaction that I had with the admissions rep from the University of Missouri made an impression on me for what it might say about how college admissions staff perceive the students at our school. Shortly before the students were dismissed from class to attend the fair, I ran into Mizzou’s regional counselor and had the chance to say a few words of greeting. He had been present for last year’s Spring College Fair as well, and one detail stuck in his memory from that prior visit: he recalled the WSOC students sharing about some of their unique learning experiences with the practical arts, specifically mentioning carpentry, basketry, and sculpting with metal. He had a big smile on his face while relating this memory, and we both remarked on the fact that we wished our own high school experiences had included activities like those.
The fact that he recalled this specific detail from his brief interactions with the WSOC students a year prior indicates that participation in creative, hands-on practical activities is what he associates with the Waldorf School of Orange County.
College admissions counselors receive applications from students who attend thousands of schools around the world, and a detail like “carpentry, basketry, and metal sculpting” can serve as a sort of “tag” or “hook” that distinguishes a single high school from the crowd. Although this anecdote is limited to the observations of a single admissions counselor, I do think it provides food for thought for the Waldorf School of Orange County, as well as other Waldorf schools in the US and overseas, to reflect on how college admissions offices perceive the academic rigor and learning environment of Waldorf high schools.
The Common Data Set: What Criteria Colleges Look at
There is an element of mystery in how college applications are evaluated and how colleges make decisions on which students to offer acceptance to. However, there is some transparency in the admissions process in the form of the Common Data Set, a lengthy questionnaire that every college/university uses to share detailed information about enrollment, admissions, financial aid, academic offerings, and more. Within each school’s completed version of the Common Data Set is a section titled “Basis for Selection,” which allows colleges to categorize 19 different admissions factors based on how important they are in that college’s admissions decisions: Very Important, Important, Considered, or Not Considered. I strongly encourage Waldorf School counselors and administrators to use this resource when counseling students on how to apply to selective colleges. The full version of a specific college’s Common Data Set can easily be accessed through a simple Google search, and a more condensed version of the “Basis for Selection'' section can be found on College Data’s college profiles.
For the purposes of this article, though, I refer to the Common Data Set because I have personally reviewed dozens of these “Basis for Selection” charts in my work with students, and I’ve noticed a pretty clear trend across the board. There are two admissions factors that pretty much every college/university ranks as “Very Important”:
The rigor of Secondary School Record
In the majority of cases, those two factors stand alone in that maximum level of importance, while the other 17 factors are distributed across the other three categories. In other words, college admissions staff tend to focus, above all, on whether a student has taken challenging coursework in high school, and how that student has performed quantitatively in those courses.
So how do colleges view the level of rigor of a Waldorf high school curriculum?
It’s important to point out that context is key in this realm. Applicants are always evaluated in the “local context,” which means colleges look at the range of courses that students are allowed to take at their own school to determine whether they are choosing a rigorous course load. Another way of explaining “local context” is to say that students will not be penalized for not taking “advanced” courses if those courses are not available for them to take, as is largely the case at the Waldorf School of Orange County, where all high school students participate in a rigorous and wide-ranging curriculum that happens to be free of qualifiers such as “honors” and “Advanced Placement.” During my two years of working closely with Waldorf students and parents, I have frequently heard concerns about the fact that students at the school can’t take AP courses and can never have GPAs higher than 4.0. On the one hand, these concerns can be eased by explaining the concept of “local context,” but there is a larger issue that underlies them:
How can I/my student stand out and make a strong impression in my college applications when everyone at my school takes the same courses?
First, I want to clarify that these concerns about “standing out” are not restricted only to students who are applying to ultra-selective colleges like Stanford or Princeton. While the fact is that the majority of colleges in the United States offer acceptance to more than half of the students who apply there, most students whom I have worked with in the college list-building and application process do decide to submit applications to one or more colleges that would be classified as “Reach” schools for them, where the chances of acceptance are less certain. When it comes to how Waldorf School students can put their best foot forward when applying to their own “Reach” schools, they should consider two different questions:
First, how can I make the most of my high school years to explore and develop my interests/passions?
Second, how can I use the tools provided to me in the application process to eloquently share about my education?
And as college/career counselors and school administrators at Waldorf High Schools, how can we provide support for our students as they face these challenges of how to effectively introduce themselves to prospective colleges?