What Do Colleges Look for in an Applicant?
Here's the question that seems to be on everyone's mind: What can I do to stand out? There's a lot of pressure to be the best and "look good" for colleges in an increasingly competitive environment. But what are colleges really looking for in students?
Admission Types 🎲
First, let's understand admission types. Here are three:
- Open Enrollment
- Highly Selective
The selectivity of a college represents the percentage of students that are accepted. While it is easy to associate this number with the difficulty of getting in, it also depends on the number of applicants. Colleges only have so many seats available, and the more people that apply, the lower the acceptance rate will be.
Learn the Acceptance Profile 🧩
Colleges report the profile of the average student admitted into their school. This can include:
- Average GPA, SAT, ACT
- Popular majors
Also, consider whether there are any new or expanding academic programs. For example, if a college is expanding its business program, it will want to accept more students planning on pursuing business majors.
Early Action, Early Decision, and Regular Decision 🗓️
Early Action 🐦
Submit your application early and get your decision back early. Early Action is not binding, so you can wait to receive other decisions and financial aid offers before committing to a college. If you are not accepted, you can defer to the Regular Decision round, where your application will be looked at again.
Early Decision 🤝
Early Decision is similar to Early Action, except that it is binding. You can still apply to other colleges but must decline all other admissions offers if you are accepted Early Decision. You must attend regardless of what your financial aid package looks like. Early Decision is a great option if you are sure of where you want to attend and are comfortable with any financial aid package. However, if financial aid matters to you, it could be a risky decision.
Regular Decision 🍃
This is a later application deadline that is not binding. You can apply to multiple colleges and consider all of your financial aid offers before making a decision.
Click here for help deciding on whether to apply early action, early decision, or regular decision.
What's on the Application? 🥁
This might vary depending on whether you're submitting the Common Application, Coalition Application, Region-specific application, or school specific application.
There are a lot of different sections on the college application, and it can get a little overwhelming. Watch these top 10 Tiktoks for college application tips. If you prefer the informative yet concise format of Tweets, these Tweets have the best college application advice. Or, why not check out both? 😉
Some of these categories will be more important to admission officers than others, depending on each school. Search for a specific college and then go to the "Applying" tab to see if the school reports which factors are most important to them in determining admissions decisions.
- Demographic Information
- Family information - education history
- Disciplinary issues
Rigor of Curriculum/GPA 💪
Colleges want to see if you're challenging yourself! They often care more if you take challenging classes and work hard in them than if you take classes for an "easy A." Admissions officers evaluate you within the context of your school (this is where the school report your counselor submits comes in). Admission officers will know the most rigorous courses offered at your school and how much opportunity students have to take them. If your school doesn't provide many, it won't harm you. Curriculum rigor is determined by the following:
- School report (submitted by the school counselor)
- Class rigor
- Course load
- Grade trends
- Weighted vs. unweighted GPA
- Class rank (if applicable)
- Test scores
- Are your scores consistent with your high school performance?
- SAT or ACT
- Are your scores consistent with high school performance?
Test-Optional Policies 👍 = 👎
Some schools are test-optional. This means that you can report your score if you believe it accurately supports the rest of your application, but if you choose not to report, it won't hurt you. Check out this page to determine if you should take the ACT or SAT if your school is test-optional.
Super Score 🦸
Schools that Super Score will take your highest score in each section across all the times you've taken the exam. Check with each school about their Super Score policy.
Colleges look for applicants who are involved and make an impact in their community. This is your chance to show what you do outside of the classroom. It should reflect your passions, interests, and responsibilities while showcasing your leadership, involvement, and impact. There isn't one activity that colleges are looking for more than another. It matters more what you make of that activity.
- Dedication - how long have you been a part of an activity?
- Leadership - did you take initiative?
- Jobs, internships - have you taken steps toward your career goals?
- Community service - how have you helped those around you?
- Family responsibilities - did taking care of your siblings/helping your family earn money cause you to prioritize these responsibilities over extracurriculars?
- Athletics - how did your involvement in a sport change your work ethic and opportunities?
- Going above and beyond in any area - how did you use your free time to develop your passion or interest?
Essay/Personal Statement 🎤
Before they accept you, colleges want to get to know you! This is your chance to showcase your unique voice. It's how colleges get to know the applicant as a person instead of just a bunch of numbers and accomplishments. There isn't one topic that is better than another, so choose wisely. It should be something unique to you, not something that anyone could write. Be authentic and genuine.
- Usually between 550-650 words
- Demonstrate carefully and well-constructed writing
- Provides insight into your unique personality, values, and goals
- Thoughtful and highly personal
- Discuss an idea or special interest
Supplemental Information 👐
Some colleges may ask for supplemental essays. Make sure you check with each college's specific requirements.
Recommendation Letters ✉️
What do others say about you? These should give additional insight into your character and work ethic and should come from someone who has watched you learn and grow enough to have the authority to speak on it.
- How many are required? From whom?
- Choose your recommender carefully: Who knows you best?
- Provides inside information about academic ability and personality
- Evidence of integrity, special skills, and positive character traits
To learn more about recommendation letters and how to ask for them, check out this guide!
Demonstrated Interest 💡
Colleges like to see demonstrated interest because it means a student is more likely to choose to go there if accepted than a student who is only applying as a backup option. You can demonstrate interest by attending a campus tour, reaching out to faculty, and interacting with the college's social media pages.
Portfolio/Video/Examples of Work 📁
This is important mostly for arts-based schools or majors. You may need to submit an audition or supplemental materials.
How are Applications Reviewed? 💻
Some colleges will have a formula approach to applications. They might have GPA or test score cutoffs and rely heavily on the numbers. However, many colleges are turning to a holistic approach. These schools will base your admissions decision on your entire application. In addition to your academic record, they will consider your personality, impact, goals, and other things. Each school will have its process for reviewing applications: some may sort applications by alphabetical order or region and assign each group an admissions officer; others may have applications read by a person or a team. You can find out who your admissions officer is at the college's website or a college fair.
What are the Different Admission Decisions? 🦉
Congrats, you're in! Depending on how you applied (Early Decision, Regular Decision, etc.), you can either commit to enrolling in that school or wait to consider offers from other
Conditional Admission Offer 🥺
You're offered admission, but they need a few more things before they can officially accept you. This might mean that they want to see that you keep up your hard work and will need to submit an updated transcript.
Your application wasn't accepted this round, but you have another shot! Your application will be reviewed again with a new pool of applicants. You'll want to write a Letter of Continued Interest.
Your application wasn't accepted, but you may be contacted if a seat opens up. You'll want to write a Letter of Continued Interest.
Your application wasn't accepted, but don't lose heart! There are other schools for which you'd make a great fit, so just keep looking forward and working hard!
What to Think About Next? 🤔
- What are the strong and weak points of your application? What can you do to work on your weak points?
- Make sure you keep up what you're doing even after you submit your application. If you receive a conditional admission offer, are deferred, or are waitlisted, you will most likely have to submit updated semester grades. Even if you are accepted, colleges have the right to revoke your admission if your performance falls.
- Remember never to do something just because it will "look good." Ask yourself, "would I still be interested in this if college admissions didn't matter?" There is no one route to college. Find the one you will enjoy and get the most out of your high school experience.
- Take care of yourself. College admissions is stressful, but your mental health matters. Check out this page on how to practice self care and take care of your mental health.
- View these top Twitter friends with expert college advice to learn what college is all about.