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. What else do colleges look for from students?

Preparing for college is a lesson best learned backward. Look first at what colleges want and how they make decisions. Then, combine this information with your likes and your strengths to define yourself as a high school student and prepare yourself for college.

For many prospective students, applying to college can be a religious experience…there’s a lot of prayers involved (and sometimes a college application checklist).

“Please take me.”

“I hope I get in somewhere,” and the like.

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What do colleges look for?

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You have a need, which is to get into a college that you like and where you will thrive and grow. Colleges have needs too. They don’t simply admit the requisite number of students; instead, they build a class. They purposely construct a group of students that reflect the priorities of the institution, and those priorities often define who they take and who they don’t.

Think about who a college employs in determining what students they might accept. For example, University A offers majors in Business, Chemistry, English, and History among many others. They also have faculty who teach Botany (the study of plants), Peace and Conflict Resolution, and Mandarin Chinese. If they have no students who want to study in these departments, how can they a) continue paying these faculty and b) continue offering such a robust volume of courses across a very broad spectrum?

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.

Nothing will ever beat the value of hard work…period

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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.

The information on this page will hold true almost no matter where you go and what type of school you seek.

What do colleges look for in their applicants…specifically?

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You know that you need to be a “good” student to get into the college of your choice, but what does that really mean? It’s so important to understand what colleges want and what your high school transcript and extracurricular activities say about you. It’s also important to know this early so that you can make choices throughout your high school career that convey what you really want.

Virtually all colleges will tell you that there is an important factor in evaluating your admissions application — in fact, three, but before sharing those three items with you, it’s important to understand what the college itself is trying to accomplish. 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. So, to be 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.

They will look at you as a whole person, not just as a student.

Now that you know what colleges want, here is how they will evaluate you to see if you add value to their campus community:

Colleges look at your high school transcript

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The most important element in your review will be your high school transcript, but there are actually two ways in which colleges will look at your transcript:

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?

On the other hand, think about a student with a slightly lower but still respectable GPA who has shown academic rigor and taken challenging high school classes including higher-level foreign language. You have taken some honors classes and even a college-level class (like Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB)). The GPA, while a little lower, will be recognized as rigorous, and make you a more appealing candidate.


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Rigor is difficult to define because it means different things to different students. It 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 your personal fortitude and willingness to accept a challenge, and it is not hard for colleges to recognize this.

I had one student recently for whom math was clearly a struggle. It had been since elementary school, she indicated. As an entering high school junior, she could have opted to take a less rigorous math course than pre-calculus, which was the next course in the sequence. After some deliberation, she decided to enroll in the pre-calc class, albeit one taught at a slower pace. Because she stuck with the more challenging alternative, in what is clearly a challenging subject for her, she will no doubt earn some respect from colleges.

Rarely will you find a scenario where you can perfectly balance these three factors with the teachers you want, at the time of day you want them while giving you lunch with your friends, but consider this as you make your decisions:

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Only you and your parents, together with input from your teachers and counselors, can decide how best to build your schedule. Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. You don’t have to try to be good at everything, but you can 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!

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’, but then they rarely expound to give students a more complete answer. So, here it goes:

Let’s suppose you have the option of taking honors math or non-honors (called “Regents” in NY). 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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There is no one right answer to this question. 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.

Importance of extracurricular activities

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Students will often ask me what types of extracurricular activities they should choose. That is, what do colleges look for? The good news and the bad news is that there is no right answer. That’s bad news because if there were a clear concise formula, life would be much simpler, wouldn’t it? You would know what looked “good” and just go do it. Life is not so simple. The good news, though is that because there is no right answer, there is also no wrong answer.

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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.

Back in my day as a teenager (after color TV!), colleges talked about wanting “well-rounded” students. These students were 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? What they began to find, however, was that it was very easy to collect a laundry list of clubs and activities without establishing whether these activities were done 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, as opposed to breadth. It is fine to have 1, 2, or 3 areas of sincere interest that are evident to colleges.

One student had extracurricular activities that were almost exclusively related to environmental science. Seem too narrow? Consider the list of activities:

  • 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

Clearly, he would continue these substantive activities at whatever college he chose. That college will, one day, likely be able to brag about his accomplishments.

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A student applied for a ski patrol job at a time when there were a significant number of people competing for these positions. Because of the number applying, very few high school students were considered for the job. He was told that to even remain in the running, he would need to attend all of the training sessions with no pay and no guarantee of a job. The student made a commitment with a smile on his face and an eager attitude. He was not hired outright. But he received a call soon thereafter indicating a spot with very limited hours had become available. The student accepted the position and has since been asked back in subsequent seasons. He also volunteers at a program for disabled skiers and is on the school’s ski team.

One young lady was an accomplished softball pitcher. She could easily have been a college recruited athlete. She decided, however, that community service activities were more personally fulfilling and how she wanted to make her mark. Not only did she participate in numerous activities already in place at the high school, but she also created several of her own including a school supply fundraiser for an elementary school in Africa. She also established a leadership program for members of the student council in conjunction with a locally-based Fortune 500 company.

I have had several students who play musical instruments. In order to increase their comfort with playing in front of an audience, they would perform at a local senior citizens center. It’s volunteering and practice all wrapped up in one!

If you are going to join a community service club at your high school (such as Key Club), make sure you can tell colleges specifically the projects into which you really put your time and effort. It’s not enough to just say, “I belong to Key Club”. You need to be able to show that your involvement was meaningful.

“The secret to success is to become more of what you already are.”
–Marcus Buckingham, strength-based management expert

Standardized tests and college admissions

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We’ll talk more about how to prepare and when to take standardized tests in a later section. First, let’s look at how colleges view you and your test scores as part of the admissions process.

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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. 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.

Think of standardized testing as a little like playing in a championship sporting event, important concert, or theatrical opening night. You wouldn’t participate in any of the aforementioned without practicing your part. Nor should you show up for a standardized test without practicing. While you may not be able to memorize Webster’s Dictionary in preparation, the familiarity that comes with practicing will bring you a level of comfort that will ultimately aid in your performance.

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Test prep does not have to be prohibitively expensive; in fact, there is a great debate on the effectiveness of expensive test prep courses. Your local bookstore has some reasonably priced test prep materials. Better yet, the internet has some low cost or free test prep that is interactive. It even gives feedback specific to your own strengths and weaknesses. 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.

Use College Raptor to discover personalized college matches, cost estimates, acceptance odds, and potential financial aid for schools around the US—for FREE!

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