What Colleges Look For In Students & 8 Tips To Stand Out

Student with a coffee writing down key points for their college application
April 26, 2024
8 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Now that you've chosen your target schools, it’s time to start the application process. What looks good on college applications? Keep reading to find out!

The college application process can be daunting, but it's important to remember that you have the power to make yourself a standout candidate.

While most schools have a unique set of requirements, there are a few key factors that can help guarantee your success in every application. In this article, we’ll detail what looks good on college applications, so you can craft a winning profile that’ll give you the best chance of being accepted!

What Do Colleges Look For in Students? 

When applying to colleges, it's important to understand what qualities, experiences, and traits colleges value in their ideal candidates. As a high school student, you can start to develop characteristics admissions committees are looking for before applying. Below, we'll explore what top colleges across the country consider when evaluating candidates.

1. Academic Excellence

Satisfaction marker on chalk board

It's no surprise that colleges prioritize academic performance when reviewing applications. Strong GPAs and high test scores, especially in core subjects like math, science, and English are crucial. But that's not all admissions committees consider. They also take into account the rigor of a student's coursework, including the number of honors or AP classes taken.

For example, Harvard looks for students who have taken the most demanding courses available in their high schools and done well in them. 

Yale, a top college in the United States, places great emphasis on academic achievement, noting that according to their evaluation process, “the single most important factor is your academic ability.”

2. Extracurriculars and Volunteer Experiences

Volunteering before college

When reviewing applicants, colleges take a holistic approach, looking at a variety of factors beyond just grades and test scores. They are interested in students who are well-rounded, with a range of experiences and achievements that demonstrate their potential to succeed in college and beyond.

Admissions committees are interested in students who have taken on leadership roles within their extracurricular activities or have shown a dedication to serving their community through volunteer work. These experiences demonstrate a range of valuable qualities and skills that go beyond academic achievement. 

It demonstrates a student’s initiative, a student's initiative, motivation, and ability to manage their time effectively. For instance, MIT and Brown University both value students who have demonstrated excellence both inside and outside the classroom, with a range of experiences and achievements.

MIT is interested in students who show initiative and a commitment to making a positive impact, both in their communities and at MIT. Brown University, on the other hand, values students who have taken on leadership roles and displayed dedication to service through their volunteer work, with a potential to contribute to the Brown community and society as a whole.

3. Personal Character

Students laughing together

Admissions committees want to admit students who not only possess the academic qualifications to succeed in college, but who also demonstrate personal character traits like integrity and resilience. These qualities are crucial because they show that a student has the potential to become a responsible and engaged member of their communities.

Colleges also look for students who have demonstrated a willingness to take on challenges and overcome obstacles. This may include students who have faced adversity, or who have taken on challenging academic or extracurricular pursuits. Admissions committees value those who are not afraid to push themselves and are willing to take risks in pursuit of their goals.

Colleges also value candidates who are passionate about learning and demonstrate a genuine interest in exploring new ideas and perspectives. Students who have a strong work ethic, are willing to ask questions, and actively seek out new learning opportunities are particularly attractive to colleges and universities.

Duke University, for example, seeks students who are intellectually curious, ambitious, and passionate about learning. They value candidates who exhibit exceptional character and integrity in their daily lives. The admissions committee looks for students who possess a sense of humanity and are committed to making a positive impact on the world around them.

By understanding what colleges are looking for and highlighting these qualities and experiences in your application, you can increase your chances of standing out and demonstrating what looks good on college applications.

8 Things That Look Good on College Applications: Key Factors

When it comes to putting together a winning college application, there are certain factors that can greatly improve your chances of standing out.  

1. Competitive Standardized Test Scores

Standardized tests, such as the SAT or ACT, provide admissions committees with a systematic way to measure your academic capabilities and potential to succeed at the college-level. 

It’s important to note that while some colleges are test-optional, putting in the extra effort to take and achieving a strong score can be the difference between being accepted or not; sending in your scores can only help your chances of being accepted.

Before you take your exam, look at the admissions stats of your target colleges to get a better idea of what scores you should aim for. To effectively prepare, build a comprehensive study plan, take practice tests and even work with a tutor who can help you reach your goal. 

2. Maintaining a High GPA

Colleges will closely review your transcripts and midyear reports to get a sense of your academic performance. Consistently maintaining a high GPA can also increase your eligibility for academic scholarships. 

That said, even Ivy League schools aren’t only looking for straight A's—it's about putting in the effort and utilizing the resources available to you to achieve the best grades you can.

3. Challenging Yourself Academically

Taking advanced classes in high school, like those that are a part of the AP or IB programs, can demonstrate your willingness to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive for academic excellence.

Choosing advanced classes also provides you with opportunities to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, both of which are important traits to have for college and beyond. By taking on rigorous coursework, you are preparing yourself for college and proving that you are ready for the next level of higher education.

Highlighting your academic achievements in advanced classes can set you apart from other applicants and show that you have what it takes to succeed in a demanding college environment.

4. Glowing Letters of Recommendation

Securing strong letters of recommendation is another factor that looks really good on college applications. These letters provide colleges with valuable insight into your character, work ethic, and achievements. 

When it comes to asking for letters of recommendation, it’s best to ask someone like a teacher, mentor, or employer who has a good understanding of your strengths, passions, and potential for success. It's essential to choose your recommenders wisely and give them plenty of time to craft a thoughtful and compelling letter on your behalf.

5. A Unique, Well-Written Personal Statement

A personal statement is a unique opportunity for you to showcase your personality, values, and goals. A well-written personal statement gives you the ability to tell your story in your own voice, which can also help you stand out from the crowd. 

Admissions committees are looking for applicants who are not only academically capable but also passionate and driven, and a personal statement is the perfect platform to showcase these qualities. 

Before you start writing your essay, take some time to reflect. Ask yourself: what is it that each school does well? How can I prove that I will be a good fit? You have to prove that you align with each school's objectives and that you will be an asset to the school. 

By crafting a personal statement that is both interesting and compelling, you can show the admissions committee that you are the type of student who will contribute to the college community and make the most of the opportunities offered. 

6. Participating in Extracurriculars and Volunteer Opportunities

Taking part in extracurricular activities and giving back to your community can play a significant role in making your college application stand out. 

While academic excellence is highly regarded by admissions committees, it’s also important to prove that you are passionate, well-rounded, and committed to making a positive impact on your community. It will also showcase that you’ve begun developing skills that are valued by colleges, like teamwork, leadership and time management. 

When it comes to volunteering and joining extracurriculars, it’s important to participate in activities you are actually passionate about, rather than just those that you believe will seem impressive on paper. 

Dedicating yourself to your hobbies and talents can also give you a sense of fulfillment and pride in your accomplishments, which can also be a great talking point in your personal statement. 

7. Demonstrating Leadership, Passion, and Drive

The admissions committees are looking for students who exhibit drive, initiative, and a strong sense of purpose. Taking on a leadership position in a school club, starting a passion project, or even participating in research opportunities can demonstrate your commitment to your interests and the commitment you take to pursue them. 

This level of involvement also shows that you have the ability to make a difference, which is a quality that is highly valued in college students. Highlighting your passion and ability to lead illustrates your potential as a proactive and motivated individual, which can greatly improve your chances of being admitted into your dream school.

8. Course-Related Work Experience

Having work experience that is related to your major demonstrates your dedication to your chosen field and eagerness to learn. It also shows admissions committees that you have a good idea of what you’re about to study, and aren’t likely to give it up.

Your college resume should detail your previous work experience including internships and volunteer experience. Under each, include points on what you learned from each position. Be prepared to speak about these experiences in your interview!

FAQs: What Looks Good on College Applications

Still not sure what looks good on college applications? Take a look at these frequently asked questions for more clarifications.

1. How Do I Make My College Application Stand out?

Focus on your academic performance and strive to achieve the best grades possible. Colleges also look for well-rounded students who demonstrate passion in all areas of their lives. Be sure to take the time to write a thoughtful and well-crafted personal essay that highlights your unique qualities, experiences, and goals. 

2. What Do Colleges Look at the Most?

When reviewing applications, colleges look at several factors, but academic performance is often the most important. 

Other important factors include class rank, standardized test scores, the rigor of the courses taken, extracurriculars, recommendations, and essays. Colleges want students who have demonstrated a strong academic foundation and are passionate enough to succeed in a rigorous academic environment.

3. How Can I Look More Attractive to Colleges?

Every college looks for students with good grades and high test scores. Beyond academics, you can stand out by demonstrating your passion for your chosen major through your extracurriculars, volunteerism, work experience, and your essay. 

4. What Do Colleges Look for in Essays?

Colleges want to read essays that demonstrate passion, honesty and most importantly - personal growth. Your essays should revolve around your ability to self reflect and learn from your experiences.

Final Thoughts

There are several things that look good on college applications, including academic performance, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, leadership experience, and personal character. These factors are all important indicators of a student's potential for success in college and beyond.

While it can be challenging to stand out in a competitive applicant pool, by focusing on these key areas, students can increase their chances of being noticed by admissions officers and accepted into their dream schools. 

By demonstrating a strong academic foundation, a commitment to personal growth and community involvement, and a well-rounded character, students can create standout college applications that showcase their unique qualities, experiences, and potential. 

With hard work, dedication, and a clear focus on what matters most, students can achieve their academic and personal goals and open the doors to a bright and successful future.

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