What Are Colleges Looking for in Their Applicants, Really?

A group of students wondering "how do colleges judge applicants?" as they work on their applications together.

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On average, universities accept two-thirds of their applicants. Higher-ranking institutions, the Ivies included, accept as few as 6%. To get into your college of choice, you must stand out from the sea of applicants. So, what is it that those 6%—or even that average 66%—have?

It would be much easier if there were one academic achievement or personal characteristic that automatically moved your application into the "yes" pile at every college. There’s not, but there are some factors that might send it straight into the stack of nos right off the bat: missed application deadlines, consistently failing grades, poor standardized test scores. Do what you can to avoid a bad first impression.

So, if colleges looking at your application decide it looks good at first glance, how do you tip the scales in your favor when admissions officers take a closer look? Colleges are searching for incoming freshmen that will shape the new graduating class of their university. The best applicants know that each program is different, but most of them want to see four of the same things.

You have an understanding of the college.

Narrowing down your few favorite schools from the close to 3,000 four-year universities in the United States requires research and a deep understanding of what you’re looking for.

As you sift through your options, take note of each school and its values, which affect how it looks at applications. At public schools, your status as an in-state or out-of-state student can make a difference in admission. Large universities with thousands of applicants likely take an automated or formulaic approach to admissions, weighing some parts of your application more heavily than others. Grades in college-level courses are generally the most important factor, followed by standardized test scores and overall GPA. Small liberal arts colleges are more likely to judge all components of the application equally.

Applying for specialized programs further changes how you should approach the application process. Not only must you be a good fit for the school, but you must also show potential in your intended course of study. You may have to submit a creative portfolio or audition in person. If you are interested in attending Juilliard, for example, your application is just as relevant as your audition. The more competitive and skill-specific an institution, the more you need to research the extra components of the application.

And don’t you forget to tailor your college admissions essay to each particular school. Don’t you dare tell the University of Michigan why you can’t wait to attend Penn State.

You would be a good academic fit for the school.

Colleges look to accept students who can keep up with the academic rigor of their institution. The strongest indicators of future academic performance are your grades in AP or IB courses, which are the most challenging classes offered to high school students. Admissions officers predict your performance in college will be similar to your performance in these upper-level courses.

If you are applying to school with a specific area of study in mind, strive for high scores in the college-level courses that relate to your intended major. If you’re continuously receiving A’s in English, request to be moved into your high school’s AP English class, for example. On the other hand, don’t take AP or IB courses in subjects that are overly challenging for you. If your grades fluctuate, it’s best to keep working toward A’s in the class in which you’re currently enrolled.

Your standardized test scores also help colleges determine your academic preparation. While they are impressed with fantastic scores, admissions officers really want to make sure that your scores fall within or above a certain range. On its website, almost every school provides a range that corresponds to the test scores of last year’s admitted students. Usually, your scores will need to meet requirements before admissions officers consider other parts of your application, such as your essay or work experience. If you are worried about your scores, consider colleges with test-optional policies.

You are passionate and focused.

Universities want to admit incoming freshmen who are motivated to grow to their fullest potential, so admissions officers sift through hundreds of essays, résumés, and notes from college interviewers, hoping to find passion that jumps off the page. Students who seem inspired to be successful on campus and in the future often receive admissions offers. Later on, when those students graduate, college presidents can speak at meetings and say, “These are our alumni, and this is what they are doing. Isn’t that amazing?”

You must reveal your passion on your college admissions essay in very few words, usually no more than 650. While your most important task is to answer the prompt, your answer itself tells readers what they really want to know. What is the driving force behind your success? Do you have the grit to push past challenges? What do you value? Show admissions officers your best self.

Activities outside of school (volunteer work, a part-time job, and extracurricular teams and clubs) demonstrate your noteworthy interests. Admissions officers use this information to determine how you make the most of your educational opportunities outside of the classroom. Many colleges like to see that you have a few focused interests rather than a dozen résumé fillers. Before you write your essay, identify your steady mission, which can help focus your response; it should link many of the ways in which you spend your spare time. Playing on a sports team while also volunteering at a soup kitchen to feed the less fortunate, for example, shows that you care about health and wellness. Taking a school-sponsored trip and serving on the leadership board of the French National Honor Society can show your passion for language and culture. Working at the movie theater and acting in a school play can indicate an interest in drama.

You have a strong moral character.

Once an admissions committee decides that you are a good academic fit for the school, it wants to know more about you as a person. Are you hardworking and respectful to others? Have you overcome adversity? Would you represent the university well? Would you make the best of the experience? Colleges want to admit students who deserve the opportunity.

Admissions officers look at your application to get an idea of who you are as a student and as a person. Some components of your application are especially important. Letters of recommendation from employers, educators, and counselors illustrate your relationships with others. Your résumé indicates how long you have devoted yourself to certain activities. To dig deeper into your personality, talent, maturity level, and sense of responsibility, some universities require you to interview, audition, or send in a portfolio.

After your initial acceptance, universities look at your final transcripts or an additional high school report to verify that you have continued to work hard and that you have not been suspended or been in trouble with the law. If your character is compromised by actions you’ve taken post-acceptance, then that acceptance might be revoked.


There are colleges looking for you, but it’s your job to let them know that they need you. Your test scores and grades speak for themselves, so focus the rest of your application on the intersection where your passions, talents, and work experiences come together. Don’t be shy! Your application, however stressful, is really your chance to make a case for yourself to admissions officers. Present a convincing case, and you just might find that your favorite college is excited to send you an admissions offer.

About Katelyn Brush

Katelyn likes learning, good health, traveling, and pizza on Fridays. Her mixed education, composed of SUNY the College at Brockport, a semester at a community college, and one abroad at the University of Oxford, helped her earn a bachelor’s degree in English. College also gave her a few lessons in Taekwondo and sleeping in a hostel dorm with total strangers. She’s a yoga teacher, author and illustrator of the children’s book, “Signing Together: A Guide to American Sign Language for Everyone.” As a Student Caffé writer, she hopes to help you through the highs and lows of college with a laugh ... or 20.

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