What are Colleges Looking For? 6 Tips to Perfect Your College Application
As a professional admissions coach and on-again, off-again application reader for a large university, I often get asked the question: what are colleges looking for? Meaning, what kind of traits do colleges look for in the students they admit?
Well, the answer is long, but not really that complicated. It all comes down to this- colleges want students who are ready to learn, ready to listen, and ready to lead. Said a different way, universities want to admit applicants who demonstrate that they’re academically prepared and able to collaborate and excel amongst the diverse community of people that make up a college campus. Universities and colleges exist to bring scholars together to learn, innovate, and build camaraderie, so any incoming student should be prepared to do the same.
Based on my experience in admissions and advice from experts, here are 6 other traits and attributes applicants should demonstrate when applying to college:
Dedication and Commitment
Curiosity and Forward-thinking
1. Academic Preparation
First and foremost, admissions representatives assess your academic readiness through an examination of your test scores (ACT/SAT), GPA, and course rigor. This assessment serves primarily to ensure incoming students can handle college-level work like first-year math and composition classes. For this reason, it’s important to take a full four years of core classes in high school including any IB, AP or dual credit classes that are available.
You can have all the smarts in the world, but if you don’t understand the world around you, or more importantly, yourself, you won’t get very far on a college campus. Colleges exist to bring people together to learn and collaborate in an environment that is diverse and centrally focused on advancing scholarship as well as fellowship. So, it’s important that students have the ability to be introspective as a means to examine their thoughts and feelings while navigating the nuances college life.
You can demonstrate the ability to be introspective through your personal statement by writing about a time in which you reflected on an experience or event and subsequently developed a new perspective or way of thinking.
Many colleges seek to attract students who will go on about to be leaders in their field as well as in our society as a whole. Colleges exist not only to better the world of today but to make tomorrow’s generations better by growing and developing our nation’s and the world’s next leaders. During their time in college, these students often serve as formal and informal peer leaders on campus helping to create a supportive and enriching culture led by the student body which is appealing to university officials.
You can demonstrate your leadership skills and experiences in your college application by listing and highlighting any leadership positions you’ve held in extracurricular clubs, sports teams, or community organizations.
4. Dedication and Commitment
To make it through a 4-year college degree or something as lengthy as a 7-year PhD, you’ve got to be dedicated and committed. For this reason, colleges look for signs that you as an applicant have the ability to stick with the same activity, field of study, or job for a substantial length of time. For most incoming freshmen, this means participating in a sport or club for the four years you are in high school. For those entering grad school, one indicator of commitment could be the length you stayed at your last job (anything less than two years in the same field might not be ideal).
5. Cultural Competency
As access to higher education increases, so does the diversity of people found on college campuses. College admissions team want to know that you can thrive and collaborate in this multicultural and inclusive environment that universities strive to be.
Focus on demonstrating that you understand the need for inclusivity and cultural competence by writing about these ideas in your personal essays, supplemental essays, and diversity statements. And yes, it's possible to talk intelligently about diversity, even if you are a white guy. Do this by focusing on the world around you (and how you think about it) as opposed to just talking about your own identity. You can also discuss any volunteer work or research you’ve completed on behalf of marginalized groups or community organizations. Try talking about how your academic and professional goals will promote diversity in the world. For instance, if you wanna be a doctor, you might discuss the inequitable access to healthcare that exists throughout most parts of the world.
6. Curiosity and forward-thinking
Lastly, colleges want to know that you a curious and forward-thinking learner, especially considering the fact that earning a degree is about learning new knowledge and developing your own new ideas as a scholar. Universities thrive when students are able to innovate and discover new ideas as they relate to improving technology, people, and the world around us. It's important that, as an applicant, you can demonstrate your curiosity for learning and a desire to advance new ways of thinking.
Communicate your curiosity and foresight in your college applications by listing any self-led projects or publications, clubs or businesses you’ve founded, or events you’ve planned and put on that are working to disrupt current conventions.
In general, the admission committee hopes to learn something about who you are as a student AND as a person when reading your application. So, you should think of your admissions file as your opportunity to show the best of who you are. Besides, it’s sometimes your only chance to make a good impression and communicate why you should be chosen for the incoming class. That being said, focus on these tips about what colleges want, and you’ll be well on your way to crafting an excellent college application.