College admission can be very competitive, and it can be difficult to know what colleges want. Every year, there are top students who don’t get into their top-choice schools. While the admissions criteria and processes vary from school to school, there are the top seven factors all colleges consider when making admissions decisions.
1. Challenging Classes
Colleges want students who challenge themselves academically and actively pursue their interests. Most high school students are required to take English, math, science, history, and foreign language. Do you opt for the more advanced classes when appropriate? Once graduation requirements are met, do you continue to take academic classes, or do you chose less-rigorous options? Electives can show a student’s interests and strengths: A potential science major may take additional science courses as electives, while a future communications student may take journalism classes. The classes on your transcript give colleges a snapshot of your academic choices.
All colleges and universities want students who can do the work. High school grades are used to calculate your grade point average (GPA) and class rank, and they are a predictor of your ability to succeed academically in college. Highly selective colleges expect to see students who have earned top grades throughout high school; many students applying to these schools have earned all As in high school. However, there are less-competitive colleges that admit students who have earned Bs and Cs. (When colleges see Ds or Fs on a transcript it raises questions.) Throughout high school, you should strive to earn the best grades possible.
3. Test Scores
Many colleges and universities require students to submit scores from standardized admissions tests like the SAT or ACT. At some universities, test scores play a major role in the admissions decision; at other schools, scores are less important. There are some colleges that have made it optional for students to send test scores. At these “test optional” schools, students can send SAT or ACT scores if they think it will help their application, but scores are not required, and students who choose not to submit them are not penalized.
4. Participation in Activities
Colleges like students who have been involved in extracurricular activities, because sports, service organizations, and hobbies help high school students develop leadership skills, talents, and interests that prepare them to be good students in college. Active students in high school are likely to bring their enthusiasm to college. Commit to spending time on activities that meet your interests, talents, and goals each year of high school. Warning: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that involvement in clubs and organizations can take the place of good grades, challenging classes, and test scores; it can’t.
5. Quality Essays
College application essays allow the admissions officers to get to know students better. Essays should reflect written skills appropriate for a college-bound student, but they should also tell more about you as a person. Essays can describe your struggles or explain the long hours and hard work that went into achieving your goals. Essays should be written with an authentic voice so they sound like the student who wrote them—depending on your personality, they will sound serious, lighthearted, thoughtful, or funny. Look at application essays as a opportunity to share your stories in your own words.
6. Interest in Learning
Colleges need students who will come to class, participate in discussions, engage in research, earn top grades, and eventually graduate. They don’t want students who could do the work but would rather sleep in, cut class, and play video games back in the dorms. High school students can demonstrate an interest in learning through their choice of high school courses, extracurricular activities, and attitude at school. Many colleges ask for letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors. These letters address a student’s attitude towards school, willingness to accept instruction, and ability to work with others. A positive attitude and sincere desire to learn make a better student in both high school and college.
7. Unique Contribution to the College
College would be boring if everyone was the same. No school wants to admit an entire freshman class of English majors. Every college needs to find students who will contribute to the school in different ways. They need athletes, physics majors, dancers, writers, and business students. In addition to contributing to academic programs, students with different backgrounds and talents help shape class discussions and campus social life. Colleges are looking for students who bring different perspectives and backgrounds.
Understanding what colleges are looking for when making admissions decisions allows students and parents to plan ahead. Some colleges place greater weight on certain criteria, but these seven factors are important to all colleges. If you develop each of these areas to the best of your ability, you will be prepared for the challenges of admission and ready for success in college.
Each college and university has its own policies for admission. Look at online resources, talk to admissions personnel, and review application packets carefully. Find out what each school on your list wants, and always submit application materials on time.