10 Things College Admissions Officers Look For

As students prepare to send in their college applications for early admission deadlines, many can't help but wonder... did I do enough? Before you press the submit button, review this list of key factors to make sure your application stands out to admissions officers.

Challenging Coursework

As a student, your goal is not only to achieve the best grades you can, but also enroll in the most academically challenging courses you can. Most colleges will place greater weight on challenging courses, such as Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, or courses inside an International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. You do not need to enroll in every advanced class offered to you, however, the selections you make for your most challenging coursework should reflect your interests. For example, if you are interested in Medicine, it would be more impactful to seek out AP Biology instead of AP Literature and Composition.

General Increasing Trend (Grades)

Obviously, grades are an important part of your application, and colleges will request a copy of your transcripts to review and possibly recalculate your GPA. While having a high GPA is desirable, what's more important is that your grades reflect a general increasing trend, meaning that they rise over the course of your academic career. If you had a rough freshman year but are able to recover with stronger grades in the following years, that will reflect positively on your application. Even if your GPA is not as strong as you would like, a record of consistent improvement is a good sign for admissions officers.

Strong Test Scores

While many universities have adopted flexible testing policies in the recent years due to COVID-19, admissions officers do still strongly consider submitted test scores. Whether they are a good measure of your academic preparedness or not, standardized college entrance exam scores are still used as an objective measure of your college potential. When researching colleges, identify the middle 50% of test scores amongst incoming freshman; your goal is to perform within or above that range. While many universities are currently test-optional, it can still be advantageous to submit test scores (even if they are lower than you hoped) because they provide admissions officers with more information about you, which helps them make a confident decision.

Leadership Experience

Most admissions officers are looking for some type of leadership experience in candidates, and you can make sure you stand out by having one or two leadership positions on your application. Being a leader of a club, team, or organization demonstrates much more commitment than being involved in 20 different activities. Leadership experience doesn't exclusively mean being "president" or "captain" either, simply gaining experience as an officer reflects positively on your application.

Active Involvement

It's no secret that admissions officers value actively engaged candidates with well-rounded experience. But many students underestimate the power that the activities section holds in their application. Your extracurriculars signal to admissions officers how you spend your time, energy, and effort. Your activities should authentically match your interests and commitments; they should not just be a random list of one-off engagements. Pro tip: consider how you spend your (limited) free time. Do you pursue a personal hobby like photography, fishing, or gaming? These activities still count towards your extracurriculars even though they aren't inside a formal club or organization - just make sure they demonstrate a significant investment of your time and energy. Learn more about writing the activity section here: 50 Extracurricular Examples for the Common App Activities Section.


Volunteering Experience

While many students think admissions officers want to see volunteering on their application because it makes them look like a "good" person, that's really not the reason why volunteering is valued so highly in admissions. Students who volunteer in their community are more likely to make a meaningful, lasting impact on campus. Not only does volunteering signal to admissions that you are prepared to make a contribution, service to others demonstrates personal growth and fulfillment.

Thoughtful Essays

After COVID-19 majorly disrupted the academic landscape, well-written admissions essays have started to move to the top of admissions officers' lists - a contrast from the GPA- and test-heavy years. The essay portion is a way for universities to learn more about you and why you want to attend their school. Many admissions officers admit that an exceptional essay can push a borderline application into the accepted pile. The essays now have the potential to make-or-break your application, so you want to approach them with a strategy. Take the time to carefully consider the questions and write with intention.  Learn more about the writing process here: How to Brainstorm Your College Essay Topic.

Quality Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters from your teachers, counselor, coaches, or bosses can strongly influence your application. Quality over quantity matters here. One quality letter will reflect more highly on you than three generic letters. Ideally, ask your favorite teachers: the ones who not only see the quality of your work, but also know you (and connect with you!) on a personal level. Be sure to ask your teachers for letters of recommendation in advance, especially if they are popular teachers, so they have enough time to write a quality letter. If it's rushed, it won't be the best value-add for your application. Learn more in Asking for a Letter of Recommendation: A Guide.

Work, Entrepreneurial Experiences 

You definitely do not need to have an internship, part time job or started your own business, however, work experiences can offer key insight into your personality, as well as highlight your professionalism, unique skillset, and time management skills. Lately, colleges seem to push for an entrepreneurial spirit - admissions officers like self-starters because it shows they can take initiative.  

Passion Project, Unique Interest

Universities are interested in students who pursue their unique interests, by whatever means they have available to them. Showcasing a passion project within your application (like an investment portfolio, Etsy shop, or personal blog) demonstrates that you take initiative and cultivate unique interests independently. This is another great way for admissions officers to know what you're passion about, what you stand for, and how you spend your time.


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