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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. 


What should your child do over the summer?

What should your child do over the summer?

For students who work diligently all year, summer may seem like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Yes, summer should be a time to recharge and spend time with family and friends, but it’s also the perfect time to explore and develop new skills and interests.  And though it may seem early, February and March are prime times to make plans and apply to programs. 

Colleges want to see that your child is curious and motivated—and there are many ways to demonstrate that. Are some activities better than others? Not really. It’s more what the student does with the experience. If she has a job working at a pet store and wants to be a veterinarian, then that makes total sense. If the student wants to go into computer science and spends part of the summer taking a computer animation class, that works, too. In addition, when it comes time to write the personal essay for college applications, meaningful summer activities often provide fodder for the stories students tell.

  A few summer options that are fun and stretch students (so students AND parents will be happy):

Take a class

High schools, colleges, and community colleges offer myriad classes over the summer. These include standard academic classes which might help your child level up in a subject (like math or science), or explore a discipline that their school doesn’t offer, like Anthropology. But they could also take the opportunity to experience something that they are passionate about, like journalism or a language. A quick look at Santa Monica College’s offerings include animation, jewelry design, creative writing, fashion and design marketing, kinesiology, and religious studies. The California State School for the Arts also has a fabulous program where kids can live in real dorms for a month and take classes in dance, music, theater, visual arts, and more. Don’t wait just for the summer, though, the Grammy Museum offers a free photography camp in the spring.

Get an old fashioned job

Having a job shows that your child knows how to handle responsibility and money. It also demonstrates that she has grit and can stick with something. If a summer job also connects to an academic or extracurricular interest, even better! 

Explore Internships

If your student is interested in cinematography, HBO and Warner Brothers, among others, offer summer internships. Is art history your child’s passion? The Getty Museum offers summer internships where students can act as gallery guides, help with STEAM programming, or expand their classical Latin language skills. Stanford also has a cool, free internship program that is STEM focused and allows students to do cutting edge research. Microsoft also offers internships to students who live in a 50 mile radius of their campus.  Is your child a budding scientist? Places like the Lundquist Institute take a few students every year and give them hands on learning experiences in a lab. City of Hope also offers high school students research opportunities.


Volunteering at a patchwork of different places doesn’t make meaningful connections, and colleges aren’t impressed by sheer numbers of hours. What they want to see is a commitment and a passion for the work. Help your child find something that connects to her interests. Does she think that she might want to be a nurse or doctor? Check out a local hospitals’ needs. Does your child like animals? Perhaps he would like to volunteer at a Zoo, or with a city program, like LA Animal services?

Start a business

Entrepreneurial skills are highly coveted in this economy. Starting one’s own business or non profit shows curiosity and ingenuity. Does your child make something? Let her try her hand at creating a business plan and selling it. Does he like to walk dogs? Let him start a neighborhood business. 


Teachers fear the dreaded “Summer slide” that happens when students don’t attend daily classes. Studies support this,  showing that students lose up to 20% of the valuable reading skills that they build up during the school year. How to combat it? By reading. Reading continues to develop vocabulary, comprehension, and even help with writing. So over the summer, make a habit of visiting the library or bookstore every two weeks and make sure that you are modeling reading at home—this is one of the best ways to cultivate a reader.