What applicant qualities matter to colleges
Preparing for college is equally exciting and nerve-wracking for high school students. Although stepping forward into the next chapter is something to look forward to, many might wonder what colleges look for as they make their admissions decisions.
College application volumes increased by 22% in 2021 following declining rates during the 2020 pandemic — from 2,534,127 to 3,089,107.
However, more applicants mean greater competition when trying to get into your top choices. That’s why learning about the strengths, experiences and qualities colleges look for in prospective students will prove invaluable as you navigate the admissions process. Here are seven factors you should consider.
Receiving good grades in high school governs most colleges’ admission decisions for first-year applicants. Essentially, this provides insight into whether you’ll apply yourself to your academic studies in college.
Check each school’s admissions requirements to determine the minimum grade point average (GPA) you need to have for consideration. On a 4.0 scale, the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC) recommends striving for a 3.8 GPA for acceptance to the most selective colleges, requiring students to receive mostly straight As.
Having a high GPA also demonstrates you have what it takes to succeed. For example, maintaining good grades shows you have strong time-management and organization skills, such as storing class notes for effective studying and staying on top of due dates and project guidelines.
Taking a challenging curriculum in high school shows well on your college application. Grades may be the most integral factor, but admissions officers will also look at the classes you earned them in.
Advanced Placement (AP), honors or college-prep courses can prove vital in your chances of being accepted.
Completing advanced courses shows you can handle — and perhaps enjoy — challenging yourself when it comes to academics. The range of electives you take can also make a difference by conveying your curiosity and interest in different topics.
Extracurricular Activities and Leadership
Authenticity is important to college admissions officers, and one way to showcase your personality and interests is by sharing your extracurricular activities.
Do you volunteer as a tutor to younger students outside of school? Are you involved in sports? Maybe you’re an active photography club member, sing with the chorus or participate in your school’s Model U.N.
Regardless, your involvement in extracurricular activities indicates time-efficiency, creativity, leadership and collaboration skills. Just remember that listing several activities isn’t as impressive as demonstrating a genuine commitment to them.
High Test Scores
Like your GPA, college may require you to meet a standardized test score requirement. Although the highest SAT score you can receive is 1600, the national average SAT score was 1050 in 2019 — meaning a score of 1350 put you in the country’s top 10% of test-takers.
During the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities made SATs optional for admission consideration. Some schools have begun requiring the submission of SAT or ACT scores again, while others have done away with them.
For instance, the University System of Maryland no longer mandates standardized test scores as part of college applications for its 12 campuses, stating that a student’s GPA is a better indication of potential success in college anyway.
Strong College Essays
Not all colleges ask students to write an essay, but they provide an opportunity for admissions officers to learn more about your character, values and aspirations.
It’s essential to read the essay specifications provided by the school carefully. Is there a maximum word count? What question do they want you to answer specifically? You can narrow your focus by brainstorming a general idea before personalizing it with your perspective.
Suppose a prompt asks you to describe an event that sparked personal growth or a new insight into yourself. In that case, you might want to discuss a traumatic situation that made you reconsider your belief system or a lesson you learned from failing at something.
Crafting a well-thought-out essay can set your application apart from other applicants and make a difference in a college’s admissions decision.
Demonstrated Interest in the School
Showing an interest in a school is another way to grab colleges’ attention. Sign up for email subscriptions, contact an admissions representative or connect with schools on social media. Many colleges take note of and track enthusiastic prospective students.
If your parents, siblings or another relative attended the school, that might also influence a college’s admissions decision. Many applications will ask you this question when you fill out the form.
Visiting college campuses and signing up for a tour is another way to express interest in attending. Additionally, occasionally following up to inform colleges that you’re still considering them never hurts your chances, either.
Letters of Recommendation
Colleges may ask students to submit a letter of recommendation with their application. These are invaluable in validating your skills, academic performance and qualities.
It’s essential you ask the right person to write a letter of recommendation for you, though. Usually, a teacher, coach, club adviser or mentor is your best option, but be sure they know you very well — preferably a couple of years — to speak to your abilities.
According to a recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey, 11% of colleges consider teacher recommendations to be of the utmost importance, while 46% say they’re of moderate importance.
Learn What’s Expected of You Before Applying
Contacting an admissions counselor helps you learn what colleges expect from their applicants, including minimum standards for test scores and GPAs. Not all colleges have the same enrollment criteria, so their decision to admit prospective students will also differ. Do your research, make connections and look for new ways to make your application stand out.