What Do Colleges Look for in a Student

Wednesday, November 15, 2023
What Do Colleges Look For High School Students

Applying to colleges sometimes feels like trying to solve a complicated puzzle. What do colleges look for in students? And how can you make your application appealing? If that sounds familiar, you aren't alone: most high school students interested in attending college are asking the same thing.

The more you understand what colleges and universities are interested in, the better your position will be when it comes time to apply. By prioritizing the most essential elements of college admissions, you can maximize your potential in getting accepted to your top-choice colleges.

5 Things Colleges Look for in High School Students

1. High School Curriculum & Performance

It is no secret that getting good grades in your high school classes is one of the most essential elements of college admissions. But what does that mean?

Grades are often measured by a GPA or grade point average, calculated based on your performance in each class. A 4.0 is the highest possible GPA in traditional classes, but it can go even higher with things like AP and IB courses. While this number alone won't determine admission, the higher you can get your GPA, the better it will look on paper.

Beyond GPAs, college admissions also look at the courses you take during high school. It's advisable to have a challenging curriculum, with at least five courses per semester and advanced-level courses where available. Focus on core subjects like math, science, English, and social studies instead of loading up on electives and being consistent in your course levels and grades for all four years.

College admissions typically value students with a challenging course load and grades representing solid efforts. They may also look at other performance indicators, like SAT or ACT scores, to help create a holistic picture of your efforts and abilities.

2. College Application Essay

All colleges will require an essay of some sort as a part of your application. This may be the essay included in something like the Common App, which can be submitted to multiple schools, or a specific topic that a school requires.

Whatever you are writing about, a well-written application essay should offer insight into your personality, values, and goals. This personal element of an application can help you stand out among other applicants with similar academic performance. You can use the essay to highlight your writing skills and tell a unique story about yourself and what you will bring to the school.

3. Extracurricular Activities & Involvement

Some people are tempted to load up on extracurricular activities, including sports, theater, and volunteering on their high school roster. Extracurricular activities matter, but the goal indeed is to show you are passionate and committed, not that you are spread among many activities.

Involvement in extracurricular activities, especially those that demonstrate leadership, initiative, and community impact, shows a commitment and drive that can help you stand out. Admissions officers may also be looking to understand what you would participate in on their campus, and these activities are a good preview for that.

A perfect example is being an active and involved National Society of High School Scholars member. NSHSS offers several leadership programs, such as the NSHSS Ambassador program or starting up an NSHSS Chapter within the high school, that can help give students the experience and edge they need in applying to a competitive university.

Regarding activities, focus on the depth of your experience over the breadth. Colleges like to see angled and proficient students with focused passions, not necessarily those who are marginally adept in many things. The best thing you can do is show you are well-rounded by choosing and excelling at one or two activities.

When preparing your college applications, write a detailed outline or résumé to showcase any extracurricular activities or meaningful involvement outside the classroom.

4. Demonstrated Enthusiasm for Attending the University

Just like you want a college to feel excited about you attending, they want you to feel excited about joining their student body. Use your essay or admissions interviews to demonstrate enthusiasm specifically in that school - which may mean doing some research ahead of time.

Schedule a campus visit as early as possible during your college planning process. This should include an informational session, a tour of the campus, and an interview with an admissions representative, if available. You may learn about certain clubs you'd like to join, professors you look forward to working with, or the benefits of the local community that make a college appealing. All of this can be helpful to bring up during the admissions process to show your dedication to their school.

5. Letters of Recommendation

Many colleges will ask for letters of recommendation to be written on behalf of an applicant. These can come from teachers, counselors, coworkers and bosses, coaches, or others who can shed light on your positive traits. Be sure to choose someone who has seen your best work and will have compelling things to say in their letter.

You will have little say in the letter's contents - most of the time, you can't see the letter submitted. But what you can control is who you ask and when. Once you've chosen your recommenders, ask them to write the letter as early as possible before a massive rush of seniors asks the same thing.

Honorable Mentions

While these are the top things colleges look for in applicants, you can always increase your chances by making yourself stand out. Some ways you may do this could be:

Meaningful use of your free time outside of school. Such experiences may include summer activities, hobbies, or work that reflects areas of interest, responsibility, and dedication. You can include these experiences on your résumé.

Special talents, unique skills, or experiences of an exciting student body. A high school student who goes beyond their academic endeavors to develop skills in sports, creative arts, journalism, or anything else can gain an edge. In your application, consider including evidence of things that make you stand out (i.e., a CD, DVD, or YouTube video of your talent, a portfolio of your work, a research abstract, etc.).

Demonstrated intellectual curiosity. Show college admission counselors that you are eager to learn and grow by demonstrating your extracurricular pursuits, summer activities, and other academic interests.


So, what do colleges look for in applicants? They want to see who you are, how well you perform in school, and what you might add to their university. Start with a good educational and extracurricular rigor foundation, and then be creative to highlight yourself in a way that helps you stand out as a unique student genuinely interested in being a part of their university.