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5 Things Colleges Are Looking For in Applicants

Often, parents and students ask what the secret sauce is in the college admissions process. While there is no exact formula for getting into any particular school—and various colleges have different qualities they might be looking for in any given year—there are a few things that most agree on.

1. According to a 2020 survey of college admission experts organized by the Independent Educational Consultants Association, the number one thing that matters is that students challenge themselves. Colleges want to see that you are curious and have grit; one of the ways you demonstrate this is by choosing some of your school’s more rigorous classes. This does not mean that you have to kill yourself by taking every AP that your school offers; you do need to show that you have stretched yourself, however, and gotten out of your comfort zone.

If you love History, take two classes during your senior year. The same is true for language: if you might want to major in a language, take two in high school if your schedule allows it; or take one at school and one online or at a community college. Another possibility is taking a science or math class in the summer so that you can go into a more advanced course your senior year. 

2. Develop and follow your passions—commit to something and see it through. In IECA’s study, extra curriculars moved up the rankings to earn the 4th spot this year. But just joining every club doesn’t work: colleges want authentic, engaged, sustained involvement. 

If your passion is movies, start a film club; if you love basketball, play all four years; if you like to tinker, join the robotics team. Closely related to activities outside of the classroom is leadership, which earned the 6th spot in the rankings. If you follow a passion for multiple years, you will naturally take on leadership roles and mentor younger students—a win win.

3. Be intentional—this applies to the courses and clubs you join, but also to the application process. Think about what you really value and where you will flourish, and then research schools that fit that description. 

Make sure that you look beyond name brand schools and look at student satisfaction and graduation rates. Examine the majors offered and the social scene. If you really love the schools you are applying to, your application will be focused and compelling. The admissions process is like dating: everyone likes to be wanted for themselves.

4. Connect with your teachers and counselors (and be nice). They will write your letters of recommendation and advocate for you.  To do so well, they will need to know you as a person and learner. Participate in class (you will enjoy it more if you do); go to their office hours; keep your eye out for every day connections to their discipline and send them magazine or newspaper articles that show that you are engaged in the material. Also, don’t forget to write them thank you cards at holidays, at the end of the year, and when they write you a letter of recommendation!

5. Think about how you might be a good fit for the colleges you are applying to. What will you bring to their campus? You might bring a talent, or a diverse viewpoint, or add to student life by establishing and/or leading clubs, or by getting involved in research.