What College Admissions are Really Looking For: Insights from Dr. Luong at Yale University

About a week ago, a young speech and debate friend of mine introduced me to an article by Professor Minh A. Luong from Yale University. The article, titled “Forensics and College Admissions,” recorded Luong’s detailed research on how the nature of the beast, called college admissions, has changed.

As a home school graduate, this article stirred me. Luong articulated something that our homeschooling community is missing and a few things I wish my parents and I had known before we began picking extracurricular activities.

In regards to college admission, the first thing Luong pointed out was the erroneous assumption that the more activities your student participates in, the more admissions will like you. This is no longer the case:

“…in an increasingly complex world that demands in-depth knowledge and expertise in a chosen field of study, colleges and universities are now preferring applicants who choose to be the best at a single pursuit. ‘What counts,’ says Swarthmore College Dean of Admissions Robin Mamlet, ‘is how committed students are to an activity.’”

College admissions and scholarship committees are also beginning to value extracurricular activities over academic achievement because grade inflation and test preparation programs are distorting the reliability of those numbers.

“According to the Wall Street Journal (Interactive Edition, April 16, 1999), college admissions directors are relying less on grade point averages and standardized test scores, and are relying more on success in academically related extracurricular activities such as speech and debate as well as drama.”

Luong mentioned that at many of the top colleges, Harvard specifically, a perfect score on the SAT and a 4.0 GPA are no longer surefire ways to gain acceptance. Colleges are not looking for valedictorian students with perfect scores any more; rather they are looking for students who have demonstrated success in focus and dedication to a particular activity.

Colleges are looking for real world experience… But not just any real world experience:

“Colleges now acknowledge, based on years of experience, that students who demonstrate success in extracurricular activities which give them real-world skills like critical thinking, oral and written communication, and the ability to organize ideas and present them effectively, perform better in college and turn out to be successful alumni who give back generously to their alma mater… The Wall Street Journal report did specifically highlight a ‘consistent trend’ – one that forensic coaches have known for a long time – that dedicated participation in drama and debate has significantly increased the success rate of college applicants at all schools which track such data.”

Colleges are specifically looking for students with experience in speech and debate and drama.

“Even without winning major awards, participation in speech and debate develops valuable skills that colleges are seeking out and that is reflected in the above average acceptance rate (+4%). Colleges and universities today are looking for articulate thinkers and communicators who will become active citizens and leaders of tomorrow.”

Luong has been in the Forensic field for the majority of his career and he noted that the students who did the best in his classes had previously been very active in their high school speech and debate group. At Yale, where Luong teaches, the Ethics, Politics, and Economics major is often known to be the “debate major” because a majority of its students were former debaters. These students have the reputation of being, “some of the brightest undergraduates at Yale.”

Aside from teaching, Luong is also a corporate adviser. In his article, he maintained that the consensus among him and his peers was that, “effective communication, persuasion, and leadership skills [were] ‘absolutely essential’ for success and advancement in their respective organizations.”

Many of them, however, did not attribute these skills to their graduate degree:

“One vice president told me that ‘my Ivy-League MBA got me my first job here but my forensics experience gave me the tools to be effective which led to my promotion into my present position.’”

It is a great article. You can read the full text of Luong’s article, on Forensics and College Admissions, here.


As home schoolers, we should take this article very seriously

These skills that college admissions are looking for are the same skills that our young men and women need in order to change the world.

Can your student communicate effectively in a manner that glorifies God?

The last part of Luong’s article had a few points of advice for parents and students who were pursuing a top college or university. I have re-written them below with some added ideas for homeschooling parents who are looking to train their students to be effective communicators.


Five steps for equipping your student

    • Prioritize. Look over the activities you and your student are participating in and ask yourself if they are effectively equipping them to communicate and think critically. Remember, look for quality over quantity. Cut out activities that achieve minimal long term quality and focus in on one or two activities that do. Luong’s advice was to:

“… select an activity based on what you need to develop as a person, not necessarily what might look good on a college application or what your friends are doing. Consider the many benefits derived from participation in speech and debate that can help develop both personal and professional skills.”

    • Start early and for the right reasons.

“… parents should assist their children in selecting an activity as early in their high school career as possible but they must support them for the right reasons. Living vicariously through your children or forcing your children into an activity that is intended primarily to impress friends and college admissions directors will not yield the intended results.”

    • Go all out. This is where I think we trip up the most. Participating in speech and debate does equip student to do incredible things, but you can’t simply ‘add’ it to your current curriculum. It must ‘become’ your curriculum and you add the few things that it doesn’t cover.
    • Compile a Portfolio:

“Many colleges will accept portfolios of work where you can demonstrate your intellectual development and progress. Do not merely list on your college application from the forensic awards that you have won but instead discuss in your personal statement or essay how you have developed your intellectual curiosity and enhanced your ability to pursue your academic interests through participation in forensics. How has dedication in forensics made you a better person ready to pursue more advanced intellectual and professional challenges?”

    • Concentrate on learning rather than winning. Competition is crucial to learning how to communicate effectively, but winning is not. Winning just lets you know when your judges think you did a really good job at communicating effectively.



Forensic activities like speech and debate will help your student learn and exercise analytical and oratorical skills, but it requires a lot of commitment. However, by focusing on speech and debate, students can effectively cover the same required high school subjects and come out with twice the education.

“In my opinion, there is no better activity that will develop essential academic, professional, and life skills than dedicated involvement in speech and debate. Colleges and employers are actively seeking these skills and when it comes to selecting extracurricular activities, like many other things in life, those savvy high school students who will win admission to the best schools will select quality over quantity.”



What have been your experiences with speech and debate? Drop us a comment and let us know your thoughts!

Posted in Homeschooling Through Highschool, How to.