As a college admission consultant, parents often ask me if their student’s credentials are “good enough” to merit acceptance to a specific college. They want to know if colleges will be impressed by their student’s seven AP courses, Eagle Scout rank, commitment to a sport, or special talent. Unsure what colleges are looking for in applicants, students and families hope an impressive résumé will give an edge in the admission process.
The question is difficult—nearly impossible—to answer because there isn’t one single achievement that universally impresses admission officers and guarantees an applicant an acceptance letter. Most colleges read applications holistically. A holistic review of an application includes consideration of grades, strength of curriculum, test scores, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, essays, the high school’s profile, and financial need. So if colleges are considering everything, what are they really looking for? Here are five things college admission officers take note of as they read your application.
1. Can you handle the workload?
College admission officers want to know that you’ll be academically successful on their campus. Your grades, courses, class rank, and test scores provide evidence that you’re capable of conducting college-level work. Your extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and essays can provide additional context by demonstrating a strong work ethic, a desire for academic challenges, a willingness to ask for help if needed, and/or your intellectual curiosity. Colleges are looking for all these positive characteristics in their ideal applicants.
2. What contribution will you make to the campus community?
Colleges want students who will be actively engaged on campus. Your current extracurricular activities, counselor letters of recommendation, and college essay(s) can also provide admission officers with clues as to what types of activities in which you’ll participate once you get to school. Some colleges seek students with very specific interests. For example, polytechnic institutes often look for applicants likely to engage in STEM activities on campus. Other colleges will want to accept a freshman class with a variety of interests; they want leaders, followers, musicians, artists, techies, foodies, avid readers, nature lovers, athletes, etc. Colleges aren’t necessarily looking for well-rounded students but a well-rounded class.
3. What kind of person are you?
A student's character is often evaluated as part of admission decisions. Admission officers want to know who you are beyond just your grades and test scores. Evidence of empathy, initiative, resilience, integrity, grit, and concern for others in your college application can boost your chances of acceptance. You can utilize your college essay or an “additional information” section on an application to let these traits shine through.
4. Can you afford to attend this college?
Most colleges are "need-aware," which means they take an applicant’s ability to pay for college into consideration when deciding whether to offer an acceptance. Colleges don’t have unlimited funds for financial aid, so they need to understand an applicant’s ability to pay when offering admission to plan the allocation of their limited resources. As unfair as it may seem, limited resources necessitate that full-pay students are often accepted over students who need financial aid.
5. How likely are you to attend this college if you’re offered an acceptance?
Colleges accept more students than they have space for because they know some students who receive an acceptance will choose to attend another college—but still, a college’s goal is to accept the least number of students necessary to fill its freshman class because the fewer students who are accepted, the higher the colleges will rank in publications like U.S. News & World Report. Students are more likely to receive an acceptance letter if they demonstrate interest in attending the college by participating in virtual events, visiting campus, following the college on social media, and opening and interacting with emails from the college.
There’s no one thing that will gain a student acceptance to a university. And while there are things some schools may look at more closely than others, a holistically strong application is going to take you far. Beyond your application, colleges want to know these five things about you to ensure you’re a good fit for their school—and that their school is a good fit for you.
For more expert- and student-based advice on getting accepted to college, check out our College Admission section.