The typical list for getting young people prepared for college these days includes: get good grades, study like crazy, score well on the SAT, and then start applying. But, does this list serve your child's best interests and really help him/her prepare for and be accepted by the best colleges? We consulted with Jonathan Reider, former Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Stanford University, and asked him which type of education he thought would best prepare a child for higher education?  His answers may surprise you.

Q: How do I prepare my child for college?

A: Jonathan Reider: At Stanford, we tend to be tolerant of variety in types of education and curriculum as long as we can have some assurance that the school or education is rigorous and challenging, and that the program has some degree of breadth. We would be reluctant to admit a student who has taken only Math or Computer Science, but no foreign language, or vice-versa. I sometimes suggest to families who consult me about the best "education" to help their child gain admission to Stanford, that they pretend that there is no such thing as college. I know it's a farfetched thought experiment, but it's worth trying. Imagine that they go straight into "life" after high school. In that case, what educational setting will best give them the tools for lifelong learning, which one will stimulate their curiosity, provide some realistic competition and honest feedback? That's the right "education" and preparation for that student, and that will be the best choice.

Q: What do colleges really want to see?

A: Jonathan Reider: Most of our applicants have demonstrated through their high school records and test scores that they could do respectable work at any good college. The challenge of the admissions office is not to select the qualified from the unqualified, nor is it simply to select those with the finest quantitative records. A computer could do that easily, and in fact most public universities use some numerical formula to admit many, if not all, of their applicants. It is still true that fine quantitative records (i.e., consistently high grades in the strongest courses available and high test scores) receive positive attention and are more likely to be rewarded by admission. But this is not the point of the exercise.

Many applicants and parents believe that colleges use subtle formulae of race, geography, gender, socio-economic diversity, and activities (debate, music, athletics, etc.) to compose a class. All of these traits can influence an evaluation, it is true, but collectively they play less of a role than many people believe. Admission officers simply want to enroll the strongest class they can. I am frequently asked about the importance of these factors: what is the average SAT? GPA? How important are good AP scores? Or being a star ballerina or champion debater? And the answer is always the same: it depends on the overall strength of the file relative to others in the applicant pool. Admittedly, this is frustrating to hear when the parent wants at least some sense of the chances of admission, even if they know they can't get a guarantee. But this is the truth. It all depends.

What I am rarely asked about, however, is the importance of intellectual depth, imagination, creativity, or vitality. Yet, at the major national admission conference several years ago, a session on "Evaluating Intellectual Vitality" drew an overflow crowd. This is something all admission officers hunger to find, and most parents do what they can to encourage it in their children, yet somehow it gets lost in the crowd of "factors" or hooks and special interests. We may not be able to define it, but I am reminded of the famous Supreme Court decision on pornography a generation ago, when Judge Potter Stewart said that he could not define it, but he knew it when he saw it. We know intellectual vitality "when we see it." It's the student who takes personal pride in learning, not just in getting the highest grade. We don't give numbers to this quality, and neither the SAT nor the high school transcript measures it. But it's no less real for being unquantified. As I said, we all know it when we see it.