What Do Colleges Look for From Students?

Colleges look for more than just grades and test scores. Of course, high school grades and standardized test scores are important. But there’s also your extracurricular activities, your course selection, and some other things we detail below. Comprehensively, what do colleges look for in a student?

Before detailing what colleges look for, it helps to understand how colleges make this all-important decision.

How colleges evaluate applications

Colleges aren’t simply looking to admit the requisite number of students into their schools. They want to do more than admit “good” students. Colleges see themselves as communities, and they want students who will strengthen that sense of community. Every college has its own vision and philosophy. When evaluating applications, they intentionally construct a group of students that reflect the priorities of the institution. Being prepared to do college-level work is not enough. Colleges will want to know what else you bring with you to enhance this sense of community. When seeking answers to what do colleges look for in a student, it helps to remember that they will look at you as a whole person, not just as a student.

Colleges also have to take into consideration what programs they will offer and who they will employ to teach these programs. For example, a university may offer majors in Business, Chemistry, English, and History among many others. They also have faculty who teach Botany, Peace and Conflict Resolution, and Mandarin Chinese. If they have no students who want to study in these departments, they cannot continue paying these faculty. That means colleges have to look for students who are interested in taking the classes they offer.

Additionally, if they have a field hockey team, they need to make sure they have a goalie. The marching band needs a French horn player. Schools will want a student body that comes close to reflecting the diversity seen in society at large.

This information has important ramifications for you as you prepare for college.

What are colleges looking for in students…specifically?

It’s important to understand early on what colleges want. This will help you make the right choices throughout your high school career. Here’s what colleges are looking for in students:

1. high school transcript

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The most important element in your review will be your high school transcript.
So what do college admissions look for in your transcript? These are some of the things they will look at:

The grades you have received

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First, and not surprisingly, colleges will look at the grades you received in the coursework you have taken. Are you an A- student or a C+ student? Is your Grade Point Average (GPA) a 72 or a 92? While the answer to this will indicate a good bit about you, it tells only part of the story. In order to properly understand your GPA, colleges must understand the framework in which it was earned. To do this, they must look at:

The courses you’ve taken

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Suppose, for example, you have a 97 GPA…not bad! Consider, however, that during high school you have opted never to take an honors or AP/IB class, despite breezing through your coursework. Consider, also, that you dropped your foreign language after only 2 years and science after 3 years in favor of less rigorous electives. Are you (gasp)…lazy??? Do mere grades mean more than substance?

2. Academic Rigor

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So what do college admissions look for when they say ‘rigor’. This can be a big vague because it means different things to different students. It also means different things to different colleges.

Essentially, rigor means stretching yourself and being willing to accept a challenge academically. There are some students for whom a full load of honors classes might be natural. For others, however, taking just one honors class may speak volumes about their personal fortitude and willingness to accept a challenge. The key lies in understanding your skills, weaknesses and limits.

It’s a good idea to sit down with your parents and teachers or counselors to determine how best to build your schedule. Don’t try to do it all and be good at everything. However, you should aim to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. Recognize that more challenging coursework may require a little bit more study time, but the reward can be significant both with regard to the way you see yourself and the way colleges view you!

Remember, at whatever level, “NOTHING beats hard work”. Take what you like, take what you need, but whatever you do, work hard. The payoff, both in terms of your future options and in terms of your own personal satisfaction, is great!

3. High school course selection

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Perhaps the most often asked question among high school students/parents planning for college is: Am I better off taking an advanced class and getting a lower grade or taking an easier class and getting an A?

This is a difficult question to answer because it really depends on a number of factors and on the nature of the student in question. Admission officers half-jokingly say that they want you to take the advanced class AND get the ‘A’.

So, here’s how you can make your choices to ensure that college admissions get what they are looking for.

Let’s suppose you have the option of taking honors math or non-honors. You’re confident you can take the non-honors and get an ‘A’, but the honors class is much more rigorous.

There isn’t one answer as to which class you should take, but consider these factors:

  • What are your academic interests? If math/science are your strengths, taking higher-level courses might be in your best interest. Challenge yourself in the area of a potential college major/related field will send a strong message to colleges. Your preparedness in this field may also lay a good foundation for college coursework.
  • How is this course likely to impact your other coursework? Sure, maybe you CAN get a great grade if you give up sleep and sacrifice the quality of your other courses. In this case, simply having the advanced standing in this class won’t help you, your transcript OR your mental state.
  • Where does this class fit in the grand scheme of things? If the rest of your transcript is strong but you’re feeling very uncertain about your ability to do respectably in this class or simply don’t love the subject, then perhaps it’s okay to skip it. However, if you have straight A’s but virtually no advanced classes, colleges may well see you as someone who doesn’t take a challenge or someone who is (gasp) a little lazy.

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If you opt-out of one challenging class, your chances of gaining entrance to a competitive college are by no means over. If you accept the challenge and don’t get the ‘A’, no one is likely to write you off over one class. Can you stretch yourself a little more and rise to a new challenge? Or will it drive you over the edge and negatively affect the rest of your work? Consider everything in a broader context and what it says about you.

4. Extracurricular activities

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As with all the factors above, there is no one right answer to the question of what do colleges look for in a student’s extracurricular activities.

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Let me reinforce the idea that colleges are communities, and they want students that will enhance that sense of community. If we all had the same resume, a college would be a mighty boring place.

Any activity in which you engage is likely to enrich some aspect of their campus as long as you do something. You just need to have meaningful activities to bring to the table, so it’s important to examine your interests. Choose activities that support these preferences, and you are bound to like what you do. That enthusiasm will shine through and reflect positively on you.

Colleges often talk about wanting “well-rounded” students, which meant students who are involved in activities across a broad spectrum. There could have been nothing better than to have a violin playing, soccer athlete who was a member of 4 high school clubs. Sounds great, right? However, it can be easy to collect a laundry list of clubs and activities without participating in any meaningfully or with any depth.

The reigning thought on extracurricular activities is that schools would rather have students who demonstrate depth in a limited number of activities. It is better to have one, two, or three areas of sincere interest that are evident to colleges rather than a long list of activities with limited participation in each.

For example, it’s not enough to just say, “I belong to Key Club”. You need to be able to show that your involvement was meaningful and that you contributed in some way to the activity. Here are some examples:

  • President of the high school’s recycling club (the most active club in the h.s.) where he helped oversee a significant increase in the volume of materials collected by using the funds from returnable bottles to purchase additional recycling containers.
  • Conducted an independent research project under the guidance of a local college professor on elements in local wastewater that must be trucked (at great expense) to a sealed landfill precluding the use of the waste sludge as fertilizer
  • Won an environmental science award
  • Spent a summer as a research assistant at a university laboratory
  • Served as a volunteer peer tutor in science

5. Performance in Standardized tests

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Most four-year colleges will tell you that standardized testing (SAT and ACT) is the third most important factor in their decision. It can sometimes be a distant third in importance behind the high school transcript and extracurricular activities. For a growing number of schools, standardized testing has become an optional part of the admissions process (go to www.fairtest.org for more information).

For a great many schools, though, standardized testing is still a factor in the admission process. These tests are intended to reflect what you’ve learned in the classroom. They are sometimes referred to as a “common yardstick”. It allows colleges to evaluate prospective students from different backgrounds, high schools, and even countries on a level playing field. While you may agree or disagree, like or dislike them, they are a necessary evil for most high school students.

If standardized testing is an area where you shine, use it to your advantage. But, if you believe your standardized test scores are not an accurate reflection of your ability and your high school grades, seeking out schools with a test-optional policy may be advantageous for you. If spending a little bit of money on test prep is in your budget, try the test prep from the test-makers themselves at www.collegeboard.com for SAT prep and www.actstudent.org for ACT prep.

A few final thoughts on what college admissions look for in a student

Preparing for college is a lesson best learned backward. First consider what are colleges looking for in students and how they make decisions on who to accept. Then, combine this information with your likes and your strengths to define yourself as a high school student and prepare yourself for college.

Ultimately, keep in mind that nothing will ever beat the value of hard work. Do what you enjoy, find your interests, and pursue them with some depth. You will never be able to guess what particular colleges want or need. However, if you define yourself as someone who is passionate and hardworking, rest assured there are schools out there that will value that and want you to join their community.

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