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What Do Admission Counselors Look for in College Applications?

Students don't often know exactly what admission counselors are looking for on college applications. If you're wondering, here's the answer form an expert.

Judi RabinovitzJudi Robinovitz
Certified Educational Planner
Much of the stress surrounding the college admission process occurs because students and parents possess little firsthand knowledge of what colleges actually want to see in students. With that knowledge, you can increase your potential for acceptance to your top-choice colleges by focusing on those strengths that are priorities for the college. I regularly participate in the nationwide survey of IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association) members in the creation of an annual report, What Colleges Look for in High School Students, from which the following list was prepared.

  • A challenging high school curriculum: Academically successful students should take at least five core courses every semester. Include AP, IB, and honors classes if you believe can get good grades in them. Most colleges recalculate GPA based only on core subjects (English, math, science, social science, foreign language).
  • Grades that represent strong effort and an upward trend: Slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all A’s in less challenging courses.
  • Solid scores on the SAT or ACT—consistent with high school grades: High scores do not compensate for low grades.
  • Passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership, initiative, impact, and an angle: Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important. Colleges want to see “angled” students with a passion, not “well-rounded” students. Substantive commitment to a few activities is preferable to participation in several mini activities—and more rewarding! To complement your applications, create a detailed résumé to showcase your activities.
  • Demonstrated leadership and initiative in extracurricular activities: Students who arrive on campus prepared to lead clubs and activities are highly desirable to colleges.
  • Meaningful use of your free time: Out-of-school experiences could include summer activities, work, and hobbies that reflect responsibility, dedication, and areas of interest. Include these commitments on your résumé.
  • Special talents or experiences that you'll bring to campus: A student who goes the extra mile to develop a special talent in sports, research, writing, the arts, or anything else will gain an edge. Consider sending colleges some evidence of things that make you stand out (e.g., portfolio of your creative writing, research abstract, CD or DVD of your talent).
  • Personal characteristics that will contribute to a diverse and interesting student body: Many colleges seek to develop a freshman class that's diverse in many different ways: geographically, culturally, ethnically, economically, politically, etc. 
  • A well-written admission essay that provides insight into your personality, values, and goals: Your application essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should demonstrate careful and well-constructed writing. This is your chance to tell your story!
  • Anecdotal letters of recommendation from teachers and your counselor with evidence of your intellectual curiosity, special skills, and positive character traits: An extra recommendation from a coach, supervisor, or someone who knows you well can help only if it sheds new light on your talents. However, letters from family friends, even if they are well known, are rarely given much weight.
  • Demonstrated enthusiasm for attending the university: You show this with every campus visit and interview, and through ongoing contact with the admission office. Early in your college-planning process, schedule a campus visit, including an information session, tour, and interview if available. Stay in touch with an admission representative and attend local presentations too.
  • Demonstrated intellectual curiosity: Reading, school and extracurricular pursuits, summer activities, and so much more show admission counselors that you are eager to learn.

Learn more about college apps in our College Admission–College Application Process subsection.

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