A commonly asked question by students and parents alike is, “What are colleges looking for in an applicant?”  While most often there is no set formula or specific list that each college provides, there are common themes that are important to consider. Through the college application and supplemental materials, students are provided the opportunity to demonstrate their uniqueness, and to exhibit what they can contribute to that particular college campus.

Colleges will view a student’s transcript (semester grades for each year within high school) and a student’s standardized test scores (ACT and/or SAT). Students should be able to demonstrate academic success in challenging courses. Students should challenge themselves as much as they can without causing their overall GPA to suffer. College admissions staff will look at grade trends and academic consistency. They may look for evidence of improvement if a student has exhibited academic deficiency early on.

A college application may require the submission of one or multiple essays, or a personal statement. Essay questions and topics can vary from college to college, but overall college admissions representatives want a student to exhibit his/her personality within the essay. Thus, students should write about a topic that is meaningful to them. If students have faced obstacles within their high school career, the essay may be an appropriate time to address those obstacles and reflect on the steps taken to overcome them.

Colleges also request letters of recommendation. Typically, this will include two teacher letters of recommendation and a letter of recommendation from the College Counselor. Letters of recommendation offer perspective on what a student is like from an external point of view.  Recommendations can touch on academic strengths, leadership, involvement, and personal qualities. It is important that students develop relationships with high school faculty during their high school career to insure the faculty member has adequate opportunity to get to know the student and provide a comprehensive letter.

Finally, and what is increasingly noted, colleges are looking for perspective on a student’s character. College admissions staff gain this perspective by asking for a description of extracurricular involvement, summer jobs/activities, and volunteer work/community service.  Within these areas, colleges will look for leadership, a sense of social responsibility, commitment, and special talents/abilities. It is important for students to be able to articulate what they have learned from each experience and why they chose to be a part of that particular activity.

Most often, colleges are assuming a holistic approach to admissions. They are looking for a well-rounded student who exhibits both academic success and involvement in school and community.  Students should demonstrate genuineness and honesty on college applications. They should try their best to let their true selves show.