What do colleges look for?

When you’re sending out your college applications, there’s something you should keep in mind: while they’re definitely looking for candidates who will do well in their classes, they’re also looking beyond graduation, when they get to add you to their list of alumni. So, grades and test scores are important, but do they tell admissions officers everything? And do they really indicate anything? The short answer is . . . yes, but not on their own. While a 2.5 GPA likely won’t get you into a T-10 regardless of the accomplishments you may have up your sleeve, a 3.5 (having done extraordinarily well in other areas) just might.

If you’re pretty high up on the GPA and test score scale, then your supplements and resume just might lead to you gaining acceptance over students with similar metrics. This is where your essays, community service projects, awards, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation come into play.

SAT/ACT

Because each high school has different expectations and grading techniques, it’s safe to assume that the most important part of your application is ultimately the SAT/ACT score. This is a metric by which all students are measured equally. Your score should fall in the score range that the university has posted for admitted students.

Academic Performance [GPA + Class Selection]

Schools are looking to know whether you challenged yourself in high school—and if you did well in rigorous courses. If you couldn’t handle rigorous courses at your school, will you be able to handle these courses at theirs? That’s the question on institutions’ minds as they balance priorities. This means that you should certainly be taking AP and IB courses (granted that your school offers them), and if your workload is evidently on the heavier side, admissions officers will understand if you earned occasional B grades. A competitive edge is useful as well—which would essentially indicate that you’re top of your class. After all, the Ivies and other top universities truly look for students who rank in the top 10% of their class. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that proves this, and the few who do get in otherwise, have shown exemplary talent elsewhere.

Leadership and Interests

It’s one thing to be involved in a thousand things and another to have impressive involvement in one or two things. Specialization and focus are important qualities when it comes to getting into college. However, you should have a combination of volunteer work, extracurricular activities that you treated like hobbies, and activities that you went the extra mile for. You should have a leadership role in at least one of your extracurricular activities. Maybe get something published if you hope to go into an academic field. At the end of the day, while you want the admissions officers to view a well-rounded profile filled with your accomplishments, there should be an area of focus. For example, maybe all of your internships were different in terms of responsibilities, but they were all for non-profits that focus on kids. Or you might have an affinity for numbers . . . a passion for the written word (in which case, you should write short stories or screenplays, publish papers, etc.) . . . a charisma that makes you love theater . . . an endless curiosity for science and technology. Passion is important to universities, and whatever yours is, roll with the punches. Make it count. Soak up as much knowledge and experience as you can, so that it’s clear to them (and to you) that you’d be comfortable pursuing it at their institutions—or, at the very least, will continue to pursue hobbies relentlessly.

Personal Essay and Supplements

Needless to say, this is a chance for you to show them who you are. Who are you, numbers and metrics aside? Delve deep into parts of yourself that you feel define you and have shaped you into the person you are. As cliché as this sounds, it’s important that you really show them the side of you that makes you awesome. You want to tell them your story. Use each supplement as an opportunity to connect what you’ve done to what you hope to do at the school. Take each chance to talk about parts of yourself that they might not necessarily see in the rest of the application. Tell anecdotes and truly paint a picture that they’re going to spend time analyzing.

Letters of Recommendation

This is the way that you put the rest of your application in ‘test mode’, if you will. This is the big-picture view, one that will set the admissions committee at ease—simply because it reaffirms your academic capabilities—and your potential to become a notable alum. Letters of recommendation should be requested strategically, and it should enhance your application. They should come from relevant individuals—i.e., professors, employers, former internship supervisors—who can attest to your ability to succeed.

Bottom Line. Ultimately, there are many factors that come into play when it comes to college admissions. However, the key point to keep in mind, is that you should enjoy your time in high school while making productivity a regular part of your routine. Be well-rounded, but don’t do it just for the resume—make sure you enjoy what you’re doing and focus in on an area you’re passionate about, because you’ll perform much better.

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