What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?
Thalia Thompson, M.S., I.E.C., College Admissions Specialist - College Admissions Coaching, LLC
My Blog

What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?

Stanford University, California
While colleges and universities would have you think that you are working for them, the reality is, you are a very valued consumer! This subtle shift in thinking can make all the difference with regard to how you approach the college admissions process. To those of you for whom this process is fast approaching, you might be asking yourself, "Just what do colleges look for in an applicant?"
Much as we may have been led to believe, there is no admissions magic bullet to entry into a particular institution. College admissions officers will take a variety of factors into account when making acceptance decisions. Some of the factors taken into consideration by college admissions' committees are:
1. A challenging high school curriculum, which includes honors and advanced placement coursework in the liberal arts and sciences. Special emphasis is placed on high grades earned in coursework related to the applicant's intended major as well as to a consistency in grades or an upward trending of grades. While not every student will have a 4.0 GPA (or above), applicants who show consistency in grades semester after semester and those who show improvement will be viewed more favorably than those whose grades vary widely each semester or drop significantly after a promising start.
2. High SAT/ACT scores: The importance of high scores on standardized tests has been documented and cannot be overstated as colleges point to them as a predictive measure of one's academic success.
3. Participation in extracurricular activities and community service in which dedication, mastery, leadership and the quality of one's participation is emphasized. It is more impressive, for example, to have participated in a handful of musical extracurricular activities for all four years of high school, mastered an instrument, and have sung the lead in school plays, than to have participated in a ton of clubs on a superficial level.
4. The application, personal statement/essay, and interview: This is an important piece in the process and one that is often overlooked as applying to colleges is daunting and can often become a rushed affair. Admissions committees are looking for thoughtful and genuine essays that highlight the prospective student's creativity, leadership, maturity, uniqueness, personal insight as well as sincere desire to attend a particular institution. Highly packaged, phony, or clearly "coached" essays will be seen in a poor light as will generic essays. Grammar, sentence structure, and clarity are important too!
Letters of recommendation in which counselors, teachers, coaches, community leaders, etc. clearly indicate a student's strengths and can highlight those in a meaningful manner is key. Cursory letters which are non-specific will have much less impact.
Finally, while not all colleges require (or even offer) an interview option, for those that do, it would behoove the applicant to put forth her best effort. As with college admissions essays, interviewers will be looking for maturity, general intelligence, curiosity, self-awareness, and a sincere desire to attend their institution.
5. Legacy and special circumstances/unique experiences can tip the scales in favor of acceptance when all else is equal. Given the choice between two applicants with similar qualifications/attributes, the one whose parent attended the institution or who represents a cultural minority might win out. Regardless of perceived fairness, admissions personnel are mandated to select an incoming Freshman class that is diverse and committed to completing a degree at their institution.
Because admissions decisions are made by people, there is always room for human error. People make mistakes, and sometimes, a "perfect" applicant is disqualified for something as innocuous as an administrative slip-up or by someone having a less than stellar day. Knowing this, it is important to apply to an adequate number of colleges with varying acceptance rates.
I would encourage applicants (and their often anxious parents) to take a philosophical approach to college admissions. Much like searching for a job or potential mate, the right match in a college is imperative. (Besides, no one wants to be where they are not wanted!)
If you or your loved one does not get into their first choice, the world will not end! Indeed, there may be some great reasons as to why the chips fell where they did. So, relax and enjoy this process of self-discovery without the self-imposed judgments!