What are Colleges Looking for

By: Caroline Koppelman

Dear Aspiring College Applicant,

I know you’re telling yourself you’re not going to get into college. Everyone around you is so much more qualified than you are. You could have higher grades, better test scores, more impressive extracurriculars. If you had just put one more hour into studying, you would have gotten an A instead of an A- in that class. That class is the reason why you’re not going to get into Brown. You’ve convinced yourself you’re going to get rejected from literally everywhere you apply, leading to shame, embarrassment, and regret.

How do we avoid getting here? You’re freaking out because you think you are not the type of applicant colleges want. So, what are colleges looking for?

Colleges are looking for a lot. They want to see you to have the best grades in the best classes. Grades can only measure so much, but the initiative to take a challenging course load speaks volumes about your character. However, just being the valedictorian of your high school will not get you into college. Your grades tell the admissions committee how much time you are willing to put into studying, how much you are willing to challenge yourself, and how disciplined you are. They are very important, but they are not everything. There are around 37,000 high schools in the United States, which means there are around 37,000 valedictorians. Harvard’s average freshmen class is around 2,000 people. Take home point: amazing grades will not ensure a spot at your top choice school.

Colleges also want to see the strongest possible standardized testing scores. While they know that these scores cannot measure your character, self-worth, or raw potential, they do serve as an equalizer. After all, students from all corners of the globe are applying to the same school and colleges need a way to measure them objectively against one another. While some schools are becoming test optional, taking some of the emphasis off of the SATs and ACTs, these tests are still extremely important and necessitate the same hard work and dedication you put towards your grades.

They’re also looking for an indication of what we call “direction.” This means how you spend your free time is very important. They do not simply want grades and scores to add to their spreadsheet, they want a real person. Your extracurriculars matter, but joining five different clubs will not check this box. Your hobbies and activities should be genuine and somewhat focused. Don’t be afraid to explore your passions no matter how diverse, but make sure that come application time you are able to provide colleges with a narrative about why you want to attend and what passions you would like to pursue. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, choose your activities wisely and purposefully. College admissions officers love to see practical experience. You should explore all of your interests and be able to speak to why you did a certain activity when you did it. In other words, don’t waste your time.

Beyond your grades and test scores, colleges are looking for a certain type of person. Colleges want leaders, innovators, creators, and contributors. If you are interested in something as abstract as entrepreneurship, you need to demonstrate it in some way. You cannot simply state an interest without having a tangible experience to back it up. Colleges view this as a little more than a flight of fancy.

Recommendation letters and essays can often be an overlooked, but they are an important part of the application process. When a teacher can speak deeply about your character, personality, growth, and habits, it makes your application come alive.

Your essay is crucial because it is the only time you get the chance to speak directly to the college and explain to them why you think you deserve to be there. Numbers and activities can tell them only so much. Your essay is your opportunity to advocate on your behalf and prove your qualifications. Make sure your topic is original, personal, and demonstrates something about you not evident from the rest of your application.  

If you’re thinking, “I can’t possibly do it all,” think again. You can. You’ve undoubtedly heard that colleges are looking for well-rounded students. This is something of a misnomer. Colleges are actually looking for a well-rounded class, which is comprised of thousands of students. To get into a top school you must check certain boxes but colleges are looking for specialists. When they put all these specialists together, it averages out into a well-rounded class. The one thing these specialists have in common is that they are hyper-focused self-starters. They want the student who has contacted science professors at the nearest college to do research because she thinks she might be interested in science. It is not enough to casually sing, they want a singer who is the member of three choirs and volunteers his time to sing at a retirement home. These students are empowered risk takers and who are above all passionate and aggressively pursuing their passions.

So if you’re nervous that’s okay. Applying to college is a daunting task and will require colossal amounts of your time, effort, and focus. But now that you know what colleges are looking for you can begin to take an honest self-inventory. You must ask yourself:

  • What do my grades and test scores look like?
  • Do my extracurriculars tell a story?
  • Do I have teachers who I can count on to support me?
  • What am I passionate about?

Once you have answered these questions you can begin looking honestly at schools and start thinking about the place you would like to spend four years. Because as daunting as the process is, there is no greater payoff than working hard to end up at a great school where you can thrive.