What do colleges look for in applicants? 

What do colleges look for in applicants?

    While it can be easy for college applicants to feel like nothing more than data points or lists of accomplishments, admission officers rarely see it that way. Instead, they are asking, “Who is this person, and what will they bring to our community?”

    It is your job to tell them. The application is your primary opportunity to share all that you want colleges to know about who you are, what you value, and what you have accomplished. It does not all begin and end with your GPA or writing the perfect essay. Instead, think of your application as a book. Any one chapter in isolation might not tell much, but when bound together, a cohesive story emerges.

    Who you are

    Whether you apply with Scoir, the Common App, the Universal College App, or directly to the college, the first step usually involves sharing basic information like:

    • your name, address, and contact details
    • your race and ethnicity (optional)
    • whether you identify with a specific gender
    • if you speak languages other than English
    • your citizenship status

    U.S. Citizens applying for need-based financial aid will also be asked for their social security number.

    Where you come from

    The “Family” section of your application is how colleges attempt to understand the context in which you were raised. For example, they may be interested in the following:

    • Are you a first-generation college student? (This means that neither of your parents graduated from a 4-year college.)
    • Did either of your parents attend the college you’re applying to? (If yes, this makes you a “legacy applicant”, which could prove advantageous.)
    • Do you come from a single-parent/guardian household?
    • Do you have siblings, and if so, did they attend college?
    • Were you raised by a grandparent, older sibling, or another adult?
    • Do your parents work, and if so, where? Are they retired?

    The very fact that colleges ask such questions tells you that you are much more than a data point – they want to know your “story” – what background, experiences, or circumstances have shaped you?

    Your educational journey

    Colleges also want to know your high school educational journey. When did you enter your current school? Where were you before? When do you plan to graduate? Was there any circumstance that changed the progression of your schooling? (In other words, did you transfer schools, take time off for health or other reasons, repeat a grade, or anything else outside the traditional 4-year trajectory?)

    » Read: Managing stress during the admissions process

    You will also be asked to list the courses you are taking or plan to take during senior year and their levels (AP, IB, honors, college prep, etc.). An increasing number of colleges allow you to self-report the grades you received, which can save you some time and money, but others will ask that your high school sends your transcript.

    Your test scores and other accomplishments

    Around 73% of colleges offering bachelor’s degrees employ test-optional and test-blind policies, a trend that was kicked into high gear by the pandemic. However, scores remain a necessary evil at many schools. Whether you are sharing SAT, ACT, IB, TOEFL, or other scores, consider what they say about you in relation to the rest of your journey. If you have the option to decide whether or not to submit scores, ask yourself if they add or detract from the story you want to tell.

    Whether you are sharing SAT, ACT, IB, TOEFL, or other scores, consider what they say about you in relation to the rest of your story.

    They will also want to know how many students are in your grade, and, if your school ranks or has grade point averages (GPA), where you stand. This is all to show how you have challenged yourself academically in the context of what was available to you.

    What you’re interested in

    Depending on the application platform you are using, you will likely be able to list up to 10 different activities you were involved in. This list should include anything you did outside of the classroom during high school, whether at school, home, or in the community.

    It could include any of the following:

    • clubs
    • sports
    • music
    • arts
    • paid or volunteer work
    • family responsibilities
    • internships
    • research

    There is no right answer or one activity that colleges are looking for. They want to know what you are interested in, how much you are involved, and what impact you have had.

    There is no one perfect extracurricular that colleges are looking for. They want to know what you are interested in.

    List your extracurriculars in order of importance (to you) so they can see what your priorities are and get a better feel for your personality.

    The application essay

    The college essay or personal statement is your chance to tell admissions committees something that may not have emerged in other parts of your application. You should consider what aspects of you and your experiences, background, strengths, or interests have not been shared. What is missing?

    » Read: Writing a scholarship essay

    It is also a chance for colleges to gage your writing and communication skills. Most applications will have a series of prompts from which you can choose or will allow you to write about any topic of your choice. Be creative but also be sure you take advantage of the opportunity to expand on what makes you who you are.

    Be creative in your essay but also be sure you take advantage of the opportunity to expand on what makes you who you are.

    The application essay is also the space to share additional information you didn’t have space for elsewhere. Perhaps you want to describe medical or personal circumstances that impacted your academic performance (e.g., a serious injury, parents’ divorce, or learning differences). Did scheduling issues at home make it hard to do extracurriculars? This is your chance to round out your story.

    Letters of recommendation

    Most colleges will require or allow you to have letters of recommendation submitted on your behalf. Consider what voices are missing from your application and what parts of your story would best be told by someone other than you.

    Your counselor will write a recommendation and you will need to ask teachers to do so as well. Some schools may allow personal recommendations from an employer, mentor, friend, or another individual who can shed light on you.

    » Read: How many colleges should you apply to?

    Other considerations 


    Some colleges want to know more about you or have questions beyond the general essay that you are submitting to all colleges. They might want to know why you are applying to their college specifically or why you chose the major or program you are considering. They also might ask if you have extended family who attended that college. These are just ways they are seeking to know how your story applies to their community.


    Not all colleges offer interviews, and those that do vary in how much weight they give to the interview. If it is an option, you should take advantage of this opportunity to share more about yourself in person. College interview are often free-flowing conversations, so relax and be your (best) self.

    Portfolios and auditions

    For students applying to performance programs or specific majors in the arts, an audition or portfolio are usually required. The requirements and deadlines are unique for every school so be sure you understand exactly what is expected.

    Final thoughts

    Think of your college application as a story rather than discrete sets of details. You are so much more than numbers, and this is your chance to show that. Make it work for you. Write the story you want to tell, as it is uniquely yours.

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