what do colleges look for applicants

What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?

What do colleges look for in a successful applicant? College admissions officers get asked this question all the time by students hoping to get into their dream school. And it’s a fair question! Whether you’re a Harvard hopeful or you’re applying for less competitive schools, knowing what college admissions are looking for in applicants can be mega helpful for getting into your first-choice school.

So, what do colleges look for when your condensed life story — aka, your college application — hits their desk? The answer mostly depends on where you apply. For instance, private liberal arts colleges may place a higher emphasis on certain components of your application than public universities do.

But in general, all college admissions officers will want to see the following on your college application.

1. A Challenging High School Curriculum 

Chances are, your high school transcript is going to hold the most weight in your college application. That’s because high school transcripts — which include important information like the name of your high school, the courses you took, and your cumulative GPA — give admissions officers an idea about what kind of student you are. 

One of the top things that colleges are looking for is whether or not you challenged yourself in high school. What courses did you take? Did you take any AP or IB courses? What was your GPA? Basically, colleges want to know whether you took advantage of the opportunities that your school provided. 

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2. Good Test Scores 

The second-most important component of your college application transcript is your standardized test scores. In other words, how well did you do on college entrance exams like the ACT or the SAT? 

Since many ACT and SAT testing dates have been cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, some colleges have adopted “test-optional” policies that don’t require you to submit scores. That’s good news, right?

Well, here’s the thing: You may want to submit your test results anyway if you got a really good score. On top of potentially boosting your chances of acceptance, including a good test score could increase your college scholarship opportunities and help you win more money for school. 

3. A Memorable College Application Essay 

While all components of a college application are important, your college essay can hold a lot of sway in your application. This is your best opportunity to highlight things that can’t be conveyed through test scores and GPA alone, so be sure to make it good! The best college application essays tend to have a strong opening paragraph to hook the reader, followed by a memorable story that demonstrates a unique perspective. And don’t forget to proofread and edit. Run your essay through Grammarly to check for spelling errors and punctuation mistakes.

4. Letters of Recommendation

Selective colleges will typically require you to include one to three letters of recommendation in your application. But what are colleges looking for in these letters, anyway? Basically, hints about your moral character. 

In a recent survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 70 percent of admissions officers said that a student’s character was a “considerably” or “moderately” important factor in their selection process.

Bottom line? Start building professional relationships with your high school teachers and school counselors, ASAP. Their letters of recommendation could be vital to you getting into your dream school!

5. Enthusiasm 

On a scale of “meh” to “OMG, I CAN’T WAIT,” how excited are you to attend the college you’re applying for? Because believe it or not, colleges often take your level of enthusiasm into account for admissions. 

Every interaction you have with college reps, from college fairs to campus tours, is an opportunity to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the school. When meeting with college reps, try to be specific with your interest. For example, are you getting your bachelor’s degree in microbiology? Mention how excited you are because you’ve heard they have an amazing plant and microbial biology program.

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6. Involvement with Extracurricular Activities 

These days, getting involved with extracurricular activities is all but required for high school students. The right extracurricular activities can help jazz up a sparse-looking resume while significantly improving your chances of getting into a great school.

So, which extracurricular activities do colleges like the most? Honestly, there is no definitive answer. Most college admissions officers just want to see what you’re most passionate about. Whatever extracurriculars you do, make sure that you fully commit!

Standing Out from the Crowd

Remember: Colleges are trying to create a diverse and engaging student body. That’s why they want to know about your hobbies, passions, interests, and other non-academic pursuits. In addition to your academics, they want someone unique and interesting. If you can demonstrate that on your college application, you’ll be a serious contender! 

Need some additional help getting into your dream school? Be sure to read our blog – How to Apply for College – to get a full breakdown of the college application process.


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