What Types of Applicants Do Colleges Look For?


What Types of Applicants Do Colleges Look For?

Applying for college is overwhelming, and the added stress of making sure that your application stands out is exhausting. How exactly do you show a school that you deserve to be admitted? This post shares what many schools are looking for and will be followed by a post on Thursday describing some dos and don’ts for distinguishing your college application .

What do colleges really want?

When you apply to college, your academics matter. Your transcripts matter and (unless you’re applying to schools that are test score-optional) so do your standardized test scores. Colleges are educational facilities, so your grades and scores are some of the very first things to be looked at. Unfortunately for you, a lot of students have the grades. So how else can you make yourself stand out?  

A common misconception is that colleges are looking for students who excel in every area, that they want someone with strong academics, who is also a star athlete, talented in the arts, involved in their community, and so on. This couldn’t be farther from the truth (and in fact, only suggests that you have commitment issues). The reality is that admissions officers are looking for the few things that make you unique. Rather than searching for a well-rounded student, colleges want a well-rounded class. They want a diverse student population that, when joined together, will create a vibrant community.

Is there more that one type of applicant?

What sorts of things can make you stand out? Signet Education, a college preparation and consulting firm, found that their students often fell into one of five categories. While you likely won’t fit perfectly into any one of them, think of it as a starting point for the theme of your application. Once you know where you fit, you can brainstorm essay topics and find recommenders who can showcase your chosen talents. Are you more of a(n):

  • Academic?: This is what most people think colleges are looking for—and they are! If you have exceptional grades and high AP or IB scores, managed to earn valedictorian or salutatorian, took college-level classes in high school, and participated in (and won) an academic competition, you definitely qualify. Remember, though, academics aren’t everything. You need to display hobbies and interests outside of school too.
  • Artist?: Art comes in many forms: music, theatre, paint, sculpture, dance, photography, writing, etc. An artist is someone who has worked to develop their craft and can showcase it in a portfolio, either physically or digitally. You don’t have to be applying to an art school or conservatory to be an artist, just someone with a passion and talent for your field.
  • Leader?: If you have started your own club or been the president of a club, you obviously have leadership skills. But it doesn’t stop there. A true leader has worked hard at their role and made an impact at some level, whether at their school or in their community. Even if you’re not in charge of your group, you can still exhibit leadership qualities. Think: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, sports teams, or camp counseling.
  • Machine?: You might think of this as a person who never seems to stop working out at the gym, but a machine in this sense is describing someone with an outstanding work ethic and never-ending source of motivation. Whether you have personal projects you work on outside of school, hold down two jobs while taking classes, or continually participate in volunteer-related extracurricular activities, you are someone who never gives up or tires out.
  • Public servant?: If you devote your free time to helping others, whether you’re trying to help people with less than yourself or make the world a safer place to live, you’re the definition of a public servant. You may volunteer locally or work for a national nonprofit organization, but your impact is what matters.

What are common traits of college applicants?

Research also suggests that there are several common traits that colleges want in an applicant. Again, you should not try to be all of these, instead you should try to emphasize a few of them. Your strongest traits can be highlighted through your extracurricular activities and personal essay. Find ways to show that you are:

  • Adventurous
  • Ambitious
  • Authentic
  • Bold-spirited
  • Committed
  • Creative
  • Driven
  • Empathetic
  • Enterprising
  • Global
  • Influential
  • Innovative
  • Intuitive
  • Involved
  • Passionate
  • Resourceful
  • Socially responsible
  • Unselfish

While the traits listed above are common, your connection to them is anything but. College admission teams are looking for students who illustrate the general in a unique way.

What’s next?

Using the information from the above paragraphs, try to find your “niche,” or your role within the college to which you are applying. Are you a bold-spirited leader, an innovative artist, or an ambitious and driven machine? Once you have a general theme, use that to build an application around your individual strengths and showcase your uniqueness. The application itself can still be tough, so make sure to read part two of this blog on Thursday, which will provide some helpful dos and don’ts for applying to college.


About Shannon Whitney

Shannon loves traveling, watching Friends, and all things Florida Gators. While she grew up in Northern Virginia, she left the state to attend the University of Florida in 2001. After earning a master’s degree in education, she returned home and has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 11 years. Shannon recently decided it was time to put teaching on hold and venture down a new professional path. During her free time, Shannon is either traveling, cheering for Florida, binge-watching a Netflix series, or preparing to be an aunt!

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