It’s fall, which means that universities all over the country have opened their college application process. Unfortunately, admission rates have shrunk over the years due to severe budget cuts. Because of this, it’s crucial that you apply to a number of schools (5-10 is realistic), including your top choice that you don’t necessarily expect to get in, as well as a “safe school” which will most likely accept you.

For a successful application, you should strive to provide a comprehensive depiction of who you are and demonstrate why you would be a great candidate for this particular school or program. It’s important that you give your application an “edge” that will set you apart from all the other submissions.

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The following will help you identify what college admissions look for in a student.

Grades & Test Scores

Having good grades in high school and scoring high in standardized tests like the SAT or ACT are probably the most obvious factors in the college admissions process. But that doesn’t mean you need to have all A’s and a very high SAT score to get into your dream school.

Colleges prefer lower grades in a challenging program than straight A’s in easy ones. Your grades should represent strong effort and an upward trend. They also look at the kind of classes you took. Outstanding students should at least take five classes per semester and preferably participate in AP, IB, and honors classes.

Most colleges recalculate GPA based only on core subjects (English, math, science, social science, foreign language). Your standardized test scores are supposed to be consistent with your grades; high scores don’t completely make up for low grades. Some schools also have score cutoffs. You should check if the schools to which you apply have cutoffs or what the test score ranges of recently enrolled freshmen were.

Intellectual Abilities & Ambitions

If you wish to pursue higher education, you naturally have to demonstrate intellectual ability and a desire to learn. While your high school transcript reveals your academic performance and your test scores demonstrate your educational dedication, there are many other factors that act as indicators of your intellectual abilities and academic ambitions.

For instance, extracurricular pursuits or summer activities can show admission counselors that you’re passionate about learning and looking to grow. Examples can range from participation in forensics or mathematics competitions to tutoring at a low-income school or excelling in rock-climbing.

Generally speaking, the quality of your activities matters more than quantity. Admission counselors pay attention to whether your activities have been productive, meaningful, or inspiring. Most importantly, they want to see if you grew both personally and intellectually through your involvement.

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Universities care about the character they admit. Your school and extracurricular activities are already good indicators of your personality, but the most important part of your college application that shows off your character is your application essay. Naturally, your essay should be well written (spell-check and proof read for typos and grammar errors multiple times). It will stand out if it is well-structured, thoughtful, and succinct. The application essay is supposed to show who you really are, what matters to you, and what your aspirations are.

Furthermore, it’s an opportunity to address potential shortcomings, such as low grades or any criminal records. While the latter might seem risky to include in your application, keep in mind that a growing number of universities are now conducting background checks.  In the wake of the recent tragic school shootings, admissions offices want to find out if applicants have been subjected to disciplinary action, convicted of a state or federal law violation, or are currently on probation or suspension.


Lastly, college admission counselors want to know what others think of you and whether their opinion matches the picture you paint of yourself. Anecdotal letters of recommendations from teachers, counselors, employers or community members that present evidence of your intellectual curiosity, special skills, and positive personal traits can really help to emphasize and/or shed new light on your talents. Whoever writes a letter of recommendation for you should really know you well.

However, the recommendation should primarily address your academic abilities, so you need to include at least one by a teacher. Other people can write about additional aspects like civic engagement, organizational talent, popularity among peers, etc. You should not ask family members to write letters of recommendation for you. And avoid asking someone “important” unless they know you well.

Most colleges expect between one and three letters of recommendation, so don’t submit more unless specifically advocated.

Considering these four elements will help you craft a well-rounded and impressive college application. Remember that deadlines are approaching soon, so, you better start your college application yesterday. The more time you spend on it, the better it usually turns out. Good luck!

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Image: Jeremy Wilburn