What Do Colleges Look for in an Applicant? Insider Tips for Standing Out

College applications – those three little words can send shivers down even the most confident high school senior’s spine. Between transcripts, test scores, essays, and activities, it feels like there are a million things to juggle, and figuring out exactly what colleges are looking for can be like deciphering a secret code.

The truth is that colleges aren’t looking for robots programmed for perfect grades and a laundry list of extracurriculars. They want to see YOU – the unique individual with passions, experiences, and a drive to succeed. This guide will crack open the college admissions code, giving you the inside scoop on what admissions officers value and how you can make your application stand out from the pile. So, grab a cup of coffee (or your favorite study buddy!), settle in, and navigate the exciting (and sometimes stressful) journey toward your dream college.

High school students reviewing college application materials.
High school students

What Do Colleges Look For?

Colleges are building a dynamic student body filled with well-rounded individuals with diverse personal qualities those who will positively contribute to their campus community. But before anything else, when thinking about what colleges look for, it’s crucial to know when do you apply for college to meet all the deadlines and submit a robust application. To strengthen your chances, you also have to know the answer to the question: What exactly catches the eye of college admissions officers (or an admissions counselor in some countries)? Here’s a breakdown of the key factors they consider:

Academic excellence:

Strong high school grades and exposure to challenging classes are essential markers of your academic potential. Colleges want to see you’ve tackled rigorous coursework, like Advanced Placement AP classes or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. This exposure demonstrates you can handle the demands of college-level studies. However, a high GPA isn’t the whole story. You may have excelled in a particular subject that reflects your passion for a future major, or you overcame a learning challenge, showcasing your perseverance.

Extracurricular involvement

Admissions officers love to see applicants who are passionate outside their high school classes. Your extracurricular activities showcase your interests, strong leadership position, and commitment. Whether you’re the president of the debate team, a dedicated volunteer at the animal shelter, or you run a coding club in your basement, these activities paint a picture of who you are beyond academics. Look for opportunities to take initiative – maybe you organized a fundraising event for your club or spearheaded a community service project. Colleges highly value leadership qualities.

Your personal statement and college essay

Your personal statement is your chance to shine! Craft a captivating essay that tells your story, reveals your personality, and highlights your aspirations. Don’t just recount your achievements; weave a narrative that showcases your unique voice and what makes you tick. Perhaps you overcame a personal obstacle or discovered a passion through an unexpected experience. Tell your story with authenticity and let your personality shine through. Remember, this is your chance to make a lasting impression, separate from the numbers on your transcript.

Letters of recommendation

 Stellar recommendation letters can elevate your application by offering a well-rounded view of who you are beyond grades and test scores. Seek recommendations from teachers who have witnessed your work ethic and academic potential firsthand, particularly those who taught you in challenging courses. These teachers can speak to your intellectual curiosity, critical thinking skills, and ability to excel in a demanding environment. Additionally, consider requesting a letter from a coach or club leader who can highlight your leadership qualities, teamwork abilities, and dedication outside the classroom. Remember, these recommendations provide a human element to your application, showcasing your character traits and potential for future success.

Demonstrated interest:

Taking the time to research a college and showcase your genuine interest shows initiative and a good fit between you and the school. Go beyond just checking a box on the application. Research the college’s specific programs, faculty, and student life. Attend a virtual information session or, if possible, a campus tour. Reach out to the admissions office with specific questions about your academic interests or potential research opportunities. Demonstrating genuine interest shows you’re not just applying to a bunch of random schools or selective colleges but that you’ve thoughtfully considered how this particular one aligns with your goals and aspirations.

Unique qualities and experiences:

Feel free to highlight your unique experiences and background! Colleges value diversity and appreciate students who bring fresh perspectives to campus. Maybe you’ve traveled extensively, grown up in a multilingual household, or overcome a disability. These experiences have shaped who you are and can contribute to the richness of the student body. Don’t downplay what makes you unique – it’s one of your greatest strengths!

These are just some of the critical factors colleges consider when evaluating applications. By focusing on these areas and showcasing your strengths, you can craft a compelling application that gives you the best chance of landing a spot at your dream school.

Tips For Standing Out

Now that you’ve got the inside scoop on what colleges value, here are some winning strategies to make your application shine:

Showcase Your strengths holistically

Forget the myth of one perfect number or score guaranteeing admission. Colleges employ a holistic approach, considering your entire application package. This holistic review is your chance to showcase your strengths across the board!

Strong grades in a challenging course load demonstrate your academic potential and critical thinking skills. Extracurricular activities, like sports teams, debate clubs, or volunteering initiatives, highlight your passions, commitment, and initiative.

Craft a compelling narrative in personal essays

These essays are your chance to shine! Use your communication skills and creativity to tell your story and reveal your personality, aspirations, and intellectual curiosity. Don’t shy away from highlighting unique experiences or challenges you’ve overcome, showcasing your resilience and global perspective. By presenting a well-rounded picture, you convince admissions officers you’d be a valuable addition to their lively campus populace.

Diverse group of high school students discussing college applications.
Colleges look for academic excellence, extracurricular involvement, personal qualities and much more.

Stay organized and conquer deadlines

Missing deadlines can lead to application rejection. Create a calendar to track applications, financial aid (if applicable), and scholarship deadlines, and testing requirements. Read each document carefully every college has specific requirements. Don’t hesitate to set reminders or ask your school counselor for help staying on top of things. Give it the attention it deserves.

Seek trusted feedback

Don’t go it alone! Get feedback on your application materials from trusted sources like teachers, counselors, and even peers. Ask your English teacher to review your personal essays for clarity, flow, and strong writing skills. Have them look at your activity list and suggest ways to showcase your leadership skills. Even a friend can offer a fresh perspective on how well your application reflects your personality. Feedback helps you polish your application and ensures you’re presenting the strongest version of yourself to colleges.

By implementing these strategies and tailoring your application to each college, you’ll be well on your way to standing out from the crowd and securing your spot at your dream school!

Final Thoughts

College applications can feel overwhelming, but with the right approach, you can transform them from a burden to a launching pad for your future. Remember, colleges are searching for passionate, well-rounded individuals with strong personal qualities and unique character traits who will thrive in their vibrant communities. So, are you ready to write your college application success story?