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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Barnwell

What Colleges are Really Looking for on Your Application

When it comes to applying for colleges, we have all heard about the importance of being a well-rounded student. What does that actually mean, though? How important is it when it comes to getting in to a good school? Read on to find out what colleges are looking for in applicants, and what looks best on a college application.

What Are Colleges Actually Looking for in Applicants?

While many admissions factors vary from one college to another, there are some attributes that are universal. All colleges, for example, are interested in students who are smart, dedicated, passionate, and studious.

It makes perfect sense, then, that your application should showcase your best qualities. If you want to study business in college, for example, then you’ll definitely want to mention that time you started your own t-shirt business in middle school. If you are a musician and hope to study that further in college, you’ll want to be sure and highlight your experience with choir, band, or competitions involving your musical instrument.

The number-one goal with any college application is to help yourself to stand out from the crowd of other applicants. Doing so is no small feat, especially when you consider the sheer volume of applications that admissions officers have to sort through each year. According to the 2018 State of College Admission, a report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the average number of college applications per admissions officer is 791 for public schools, and 426 for private institutions. This is just the average, which means that some admissions officers process even more applications!

Strategy is key, since your application will need to make a lasting impression on college admissions officers if you hope to gain admittance into that school. Keep in mind that you do not need to be the best in your chosen focus- the whole point of a college application is to showcase your unique passions, gifts, and perspective- but you will need to take care to highlight your most impressive achievements, interests, and personal attributes to paint the best picture of yourself possible.

Also, different colleges will value different things. What looks good to one college might not carry the same weight with another, so finding the right schools for you is also important.

What Looks Good on a College Application? 7 Key Elements

In addition to showcasing yourself as a smart, ambitious, and passionate student, what else do colleges want to see on your application? Generally speaking, a great application will contain most or all of these elements:

  • A high GPA (compared to other admitted students) and a rigorous course load

  • Strong test scores (relative to other admitted students)

  • A thoughtful, honest, well-written personal essay

  • A unique extracurricular interest or passion

  • Volunteering experience with notable impact

  • Effective letters of recommendation

  • Work experience, ideally related to your academic or professional interests

Keep in mind that you may not have all of these- and that’s okay!- but your goal should be to have as many of them as possible, so that you can set yourself up to be noticed by your prospective colleges.

Let’s take a closer look at each element:

#1: Strong Grades in a Rigorous Curriculum

The first key aspect of your college application is your transcript, which provides details about your GPA and the names and types of classes you’ve taken in high school. You have probably heard that a high GPA will strengthen your application. That’s because it is true!

According to NACAC, 80.9% of colleges ranked grades in high school classes as considerably important. In fact, this factor was ranked the most important of any in the report. Ideally, you want to aim for a GPA that is higher than the average GPA of admitted students at your prospective colleges.

To find a college's average GPA, search "[School Name] admission requirements" on Google and then look for the link to that school’s website. This page will show you what the school's average GPA is, in addition to other admission requirements.

It’s not only about getting a high GPA, though; you must also take a rigorous course load throughout high school if you really want to stand out to an admissions committee. This means that, in addition to basic level courses, you will want to take some AP, honors, and/or IB courses, particularly in subjects that you might be interested in studying in college.

The 2018 NACAC report found that a staggering 80.6% of colleges ranked an applicant’s strength of curriculum at least moderately important.

If you consider this, it makes sense: while it might appear impressive at first glance to see a perfect 4.0 on a transcript, if that GPA was achieved by only taking the easiest classes available and that student didn’t challenge themself with higher-level coursework, that transcript is not likely to impress college admissions officers as much as another student who did.

What if you have a few lower grades on your transcript? The best thing to do in that case is to work on improving your grades moving forward. College admissions committees will look favorably on upward grade trends on applications. This suggests that you are a hard worker, and that you are able to bounce back after experiencing a setback or challenge, both of which are excellent skills for thriving in college.

#2 Strong test scores

Standardized test scores are another important component of college applications (unless you are applying to a school that does not require tests scores). For most students, this will either be the SAT or ACT, and some will need to complete SAT subject tests as well.

The NACAC reported that 83.1% of colleges consider admission test scores to be at least moderately important. For this reason, you should try to get the highest test score that you can, ideally scoring in at least the 75th percentile for your prospective schools.

If you scored in the 75th percentile, that means that 75% of students at that particular college scored either at or below your score. Reaching (or surpassing) this margin ensures that your scores will be above average compared to other students at that college, and give you a competitive advantage to admissions officers.

Since you will most likely be applying to several colleges, you will need to set an SAT/ACT goal score. This will be the minimum score that is high enough to get you into all of the colleges on your list. Here’s how to set an SAT/ACT goal score:

  • Make a list of the top 5-10 schools to which you are applying. You can make your own, or download a blank goal score worksheet here.

  • Visit the admissions pages on each school's website to obtain their SAT score requirements. Alternatively, you can also do a Google search for "[Name of school] average SAT scores”.

  • Enter the 25th and 75th percentile test scores for each of your schools

  • Choose/set a goal SAT score that is equal to, or higher than, the highest score on your list.


Need help with test prep? Find out about test prep tutoring here.


#3: Well-Written Essays

Another important part of your college application is your personal statement. Unlike the other components of your application, this is the one area where you have an opportunity to showcase your personality, and introduce the person behind the grades and test scores. This is a crucial aspect in allowing prospective schools to get to know you.

Colleges think so too: in fact, 53.6% of schools believe that student essays or writing samples are moderately or considerably important. So if your essay is important to admission officers, then the next question you’ll likely ask is this: what makes a good essay?

There are a few attributes that every college essay should have:

  • Your essay or personal statement should be honest. Admission committees are interested in learning about the real you, not hearing an exaggerated story of success that you think might impress them. When choosing anecdotes or details to share, make sure that they actually happened to you! By focusing on the truth of your actual experiences, you will provide the best picture of yourself to colleges.

  • Your writing should be specific. As you share personal stories, beliefs, or experiences in your personal statement/essay, take care to include specific details, so that your writing is not too vague or dispassionate.

  • Your essay should be well-written. No matter what you end up saying in your personal statement/essay, it should be thoughtfully written if you want to gain admission. The best way to do that is to take time and effort to organize your essay, making sure that is is easy to follow and engaging to the reader. Make sure your writing is free of grammatical errors, and tell a compelling story.

#4: A unique extracurricular interest or passion

Most colleges will want to know about what drives you as a person, what your interests and hobbies are, and what you care about.

A good way to give schools an idea about this is to list the sports, clubs, or other extracurricular activities you are involved with on your application. The key here is, rather than listing each and every random activity you have done, to focus on one or two activities that you are the most passionate about or the most involved in during high school.

Quality wins over quantity here, and it is ultimately better to have one focused ("primary") area of interest or ability to showcase than it is to be well-rounded. So take a close look at how you spend your free time, and highlight the clubs or organizations in which you spend most of your time. This gives admission officers a clearer understanding of where your interests and efforts lie, so that they can know more about you as a person.

For example, if you are hoping to study music in college, you’ll want to be sure to highlight the fact that you play an instrument. Perhaps you have been a member of your school’s orchestra, or a local group in your community, or have mentored/taught younger musicians. Sharing these experiences are a great way to showcase your knowledge and passion in this area.

You will also want to list any accolades you have received during your time in this area. This can include any competitions you placed in, or music-related scholarships or contests that you have won.

#5: Volunteering experience

Colleges want to know about your volunteering experience. Most of all, they want to hear about ways in which your services have brought about positive, impactful change. So rather than just listing the organization(s) and subsequent hours you volunteered at each, try to focus on how your efforts impacted the community.

For example, say you volunteered at your local food bank. Perhaps the food bank was struggling to get donations, and you came up with the idea to host monthly theme-related food drives (taco Tuesday, pizza party, etc.) throughout your school district. After your first successful food drive, you were able to collect enough food to stock the food bank’s reserves. This would be a solid indication that your efforts made a direct impact in your community. By including these details on your college application, you can mention how your initiative helped the food bank to stay in service during a challenging time.

College admission committees are always interested to hear about your leadership skills, and how you were able to apply them in service of others. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t need to have a leadership role during your volunteering experience in order to have made a substantial impact!

#6: Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges require at least one letter of recommendation from either a high school teacher or high school counselor (or both).

According to the NACAC survey, 53.5% of colleges consider a teacher recommendation at least moderately important, while 56.9% consider counselor recommendations the same. Based on these numbers, it is safe to say that acquiring solid, compelling letters of recommendation should be high on your list when it comes to college applications.

Give some thought to who you can ask. If you are asking a teacher, then take care to choose a teacher whose class you got a high grade in (ideally an A) and who is familiar with your strengths, interests, and future goals. Typically speaking, you will want to have one letter from a someone who teacher a core subject (math, science, English, or social studies/history).

You may also want to ask a teacher who works in the field you intend to pursue in college, so that your letter of recommendation aligns with your specific interests. For example, if you plan to study biology in college, a letter from your AP Biology teacher (the class in which you earned an A) can give a great boost to your application.

#7: Work experience

Work experience is one of those things that is not required, but can certainly help you to stand out to admission committees. If you have held a part-time job at any point during high school, you’ll want to be sure and list this on your applications, especially if your work experience is related to the what you want to study or do professionally.

Either way, sharing your work experience is a great way to showcase important personal attributes like maturity, work ethic, and responsibility. It highlights your willingness to work toward your goals, and to manage your time and efforts accordingly.

If you have any room on your application to do so, I would suggest sharing why you took the job that you did, and what, in particular, you learned from your time there. Perhaps you learned a valuable skill, or how to operate an important piece of equipment that you will use in the future. Show your prospective colleges that you have had your eye on the future, and have been taking steps to become the best student you can be!

Takeaways: What Looks Good on a College Application

Applying to college is tough, and knowing what to put on your applications to make yourself stand out is even tougher. What looks really good on a college application?

Generally speaking, colleges want to see your passion, intellectual curiosity, willingness to challenge yourself, and academic accomplishments.

More specifically, though, colleges typically prefer applicants who have most or all of the following characteristics:

  • Good grades and a challenging course load

  • Strong test scores

  • Honest, specific, and eloquent essays

  • A spike in your extracurricular activities

  • Compelling letters of recommendation

  • Volunteer experience with clear impact on the groups or places you’ve helped

  • Any relevant or impactful work experience

Finally, as you apply to college and try to think of good things to put on a college application, make sure you remember the following truths about the application process:

  • It’s better to have a specific area of interest/accomplishment than to be well rounded

  • Essays are important!

  • A B in a hard course is more impressive than an A in an easy course

  • You can still get into your dream school even if your application isn’t perfect

Wishing you success,


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