What do colleges look for in a student? It's one of the most commonly asked questions by high school students interested in attending a reputable college. But because students often have little understanding of what colleges look for in applicants, much of the stress as a college-bound high school student surrounds the admissions process.
With greater understanding as to what colleges look for in high school students, you can better prioritize your time, effort, and curriculum into the areas that matter most. In turn, 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
High achieving students should take on a challenging high school curriculum consisting of at least five core courses per semester. In fact, many colleges will recalculate GPA based only on core subjects alone, such as math, science, English, social studies, foreign languages, etc. It's also recommended to take AP and honors classes, as an advanced curriculum is preferred to straight A’s in less challenging courses.
Overall, college admissions typically value students with a difficult course load and grades that represent strong efforts and upward trending scores. But in addition to curriculum and grades, colleges also look at students’ scores on the SAT or ACT. While high scores on these exams do not compensate for low grades, colleges do value solid scores on the SAT or ACT, and like to see that they are consistent with high school grades.
2. College Application Essay
A well-written application essay that offers insight into your personality, values, and goals can go a long way in helping you stand out during the admissions process. Your college application essay should be both highly personal and thoughtful. Not only should your essay reflect well-constructed writing, but it's your opportunity to tell your unique story. Be creative and present yourself in such a way that embodies the real you.
3. Extracurricular Activities & Involvement
Students can standout by displaying passionate involvement in a few extracurricular activities, especially those that demonstrate leadership, initiative, and community impact. A perfect example is being an active and involved member of the National Society of High School Scholars. NSHSS offers a number of leadership programs, such as the NSHSS Ambassador program, and 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.
A common recurring theme that colleges look for in students is depth, not breadth, of experience. Colleges like to see angled and proficient students with focused passions, not necessarily well-rounded students who are marginally adept in many different things. In other words, substantive commitment to a few select activities is preferred over widespread participation in several activities that have minor significance. When preparing your college applications, write a detailed outline or résumé to showcase any extracurricular activities or meaningful involvement you’ve had outside the classroom.
4. Demonstrated Enthusiasm in Attending the University
Whether through the college application essay or by directly connecting with admission representatives, students should proactively demonstrate their enthusiasm in attending the colleges they’re interested in attending. This can be demonstrated with every campus visit and interview, and through ongoing contact with the admissions office.
During your college planning process, schedule a campus visit as early as possible. This should include an informational session, tour of the campus, and an interview with an admissions representative, if available. Also try to stay in contact with the college admissions office and attend any local presentations or informal orientations.
5. Letters of Recommendation
Anecdotal letters of recommendation from educators and counselors is one of the most overlooked factors that colleges consider in student applications. These letters can provide evidence of your intellectual curiosity, positive character traits, skills, and achievements. In addition to letters from educators and counselors, recommendations from supervisors, coaches, or someone who knows you well can also be helpful, but only if provides additional insight regarding your skills, talents, and character.
What else do college look for in high school students? Aside from the big five mentioned above, a few additional considerations may include:
- 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. These experiences can be included on your résumé.
- Special talents, unique skills, or experiences that lend to an interesting student body. A high school student who goes beyond his or her academic endeavors to develop skills in sports, creative arts, journalism, or anything else can gain an edge. In your application, consider including evidence of such 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.
Lastly, think outside the box in terms of how you present yourself. College admissions counselors often see hundreds and thousands of student applications, so it’s important to be creative and highlight yourself in a way that helps you stand out as a unique student who’s genuinely interested in being a part of their university.