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What Do Colleges Want in an Applicant?

Knowing what colleges want to see in your application is key to presenting your best self to admission officers. Here are our best tips for figuring it out!

Planning for college may be on the backburner for you during the coronavirus pandemic; a lot of students are stressed and just not feeling the whole college search process right now. We know you’ll get back into it in your own time—and this advice will prove useful for when you do!

College admission counselors are often overwhelmed by the number of applications coming in for the upcoming academic year. If you happen to be one of the 45,000 freshmen thinking about applying to a major college like the University of Washington, you might be wondering how to stand out in the application process.

There are a few universal factors when it comes to college admission. For example, Austin Brass, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Daemen University, says academic success and rigor are the two traits every college will consider when it comes to important admission factors. Beyond that, each school has their own institutional needs or priorities they’re trying to fulfill. 

Before you hit submit on your application, make sure to check out these insider tips on how to figure out what colleges want in an applicant so you can stand out during the admission process.

Give them an opportunity to get to know you

Admission officers look at thousands of transcripts and test scores each year, so how are you going to let them get to know you separate from your courses, GPA, and test scores? Brass from Daemen College values passion and a student who is self-reflective. “Demonstrating and explaining what a student is passionate about leads to anecdotal stories that let the admission office inside what motivates the student,” he says. 

In order to be an attractive candidate, students should explain why they believe the college is a good fit for them and why they’re interested in attending, according to Brian Jones, Director of Admissions at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “It’s important for students to know a college’s admission requirements and showcase how they match up with those requirements in the recruitment and application process,” he explains.

Nail the admission essay

It may have taken four grueling years to build up your transcript, but the time you put into your admission essay can put you ahead of the pack. Yelena Shuster, a college essay writing coach who works as The Admissions Essay Guru, says students should spend more time than they think on their personal essays, which is their only chance to authentically differentiate themselves from the rest of the applicants. “One of the most common mistakes is too much parent interference, so the essay ends up sounding like a bland cover letter instead of a creative exercise in the student's voice,” she says. 

The application essay is the first chance admission officers get to really meet you, so Shuster says to write the way you naturally speak and don't shy away from humor or self-deprecation if you're naturally the class clown. If you need extra help writing your college essay, talk to your school counselor and/or favorite English teacher. They can advise you on topics, content, structure, and overall voice.

Related: 6 of the Worst College Admission Essay Myths You Shouldn't Listen To

Research the college’s institutional priorities

All colleges list the academic requirements applicants need to meet to be considered for admission. But beyond the transcript and test scores, a lot of schools also have institutional priorities they set to help them create a student body that fulfills their strategic plan.

To find out the secondary aspects a college is looking for, Brass recommends contacting the admission office to talk to an admission representative. This also gives you an opportunity to connect with someone at the college, which may help you later on. Jones says it’s important for students to remember that different colleges look for different things. “Just because a college may not offer admission to a student doesn’t mean they’re not a good applicant,” he says. Understanding the percentage of applicants a college admits and the culture of a campus can help students figure out which schools are right for them. 

Another important institutional need or priority to be aware of, Brass suggests, is if a university admits directly into the major or college you’re interested in. “Different programs will have different acceptance/yield rates, and a student should learn if the college will admit directly into specific programs,” he says. If a student applies into a college’s most selective major and their friend applies into their least selective major, Brass says there will be varying admission requirements for the two programs. 

Taking time to sort through a school’s institutional priorities can help you decide if moving forward with the application process is the right decision. “A college needs to be a good fit for the student, and in the same way the student needs to be a good fit for the college,” says Brass. 

Related: A Look at College Admission From a Top Official

How to find out what colleges want to see in your application

One way to research what a college is focusing on in the application process is by consulting the school’s Common Data Set (CDS). The CDS is a questionnaire that many (but not all) colleges and universities fill out yearly with relevant admission-related statistics and information. Eric Endlich, PhD, founder of Top College Consultants, says it’s an excellent resource to get the inside scoop on a school’s admission priorities.

To find out more information, Endlich says to Google “[name of college] Common Data Set” then scroll through the CDS to see the freshman admission section, which has a chart listing the importance of various application factors. “You may be surprised to find that in some cases, factors such as essays, letters of recommendation, or personal qualities are rated as 'very important,' right up there at the same level of importance as high school GPA,” he says. 

For example, Stanford University's CDS has a section detailing the importance of certain academic and nonacademic factors for first-time degree-seeking freshmen. Factors include rigor of secondary record, class rank, GPA, test scores, application essay, recommendations, interview, extracurricular activities, and more. The school then ranks each of these from “very important” to “not considered.”

If you can't find a CDS for a particular college, Endlich says another option is to comb through the school’s website. “The institution's mission statement tells you about its values, which can help you figure out if it's a good fit for you and possibly give you a few talking points for an interview or essay,” he says. Plus, the undergraduate admission section of the site may contain a "freshman profile" page with statistics about the incoming class (GPA, test scores, and so on), which Endlich says can give you an idea of what it takes to be admitted.

Related: 5 Easy Things to Do in Your College Search Today

Whether you’re interested in highly selective colleges or ones that are less so, knowing what they’re looking for in their incoming class is a sure way to find the schools that are the best fit for you and may give you a leg up when you send in your applications. 

Did you know the college profiles on CollegeXpress include data from the CDS? Start finding admission statistics for your schools of interest now with our College Search tool!

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