10 Skills to Highlight on Your College Applications
- What Are Colleges Looking For, and Why?
- Key Skills to Emphasize on Your College Apps
- How to Highlight Your Strengths In Your College Application
- How to Show Your Skills In Your College Essays
As part of their holistic review of your application, colleges want to consider your personality and character alongside your grades and extracurriculars. Skills like these can’t always be quantified in the same way as your grades can; nevertheless, they can help determine whether you’ll be able to flourish in a college environment. While top colleges certainly do want students who have a track record of academic success, they’re also interested in bringing in students who have qualities that will allow them to use their academic skills to do great things on campus and throughout their lives.
Highlighting these so-called ‘intangibles’ may seem less important than a stellar academic record and impressive list of extracurriculars, but they can be a powerful way to make your application stand out from the crowd, and present you as a strong and self-aware candidate. In this post, we’ll go over ten skills that deserve starring roles in your college applications, and why demonstrating these skills helps to show that you’re a qualified applicant for your colleges of choice.
What Are Colleges Looking For, and Why?
Colleges want to know who you are beyond your grades and your activities. A college isn’t just a place where you go to school — it’s also where you work, socialize, build communities, and live your life for four years. Similarly, you don’t attend college alone, so how you interact with the people around you is important, whether they’re peers, instructors, or others. Each college has a different culture and different priorities, so looking around on your school’s website and examining what their particular values might be can help you personalize your application for that institution.
You’ll also need to demonstrate that you have the potential to grow by making full use of the college’s resources. Obviously, colleges aren’t looking for students whose hard work and high performance are limited to their high school years. They’re interested not only in your past, but in your future, and whether you’re likely to become a student whose presence will enrich the campus environment.
10 Key Skills to Emphasize on Your College Apps
It’s clear that colleges are looking for more than high scores and lists of awards when they evaluate applicants, but you may be wondering what particular qualities will impress admissions committees. Here are ten specific skills that can help you to stand out as a strong candidate when it comes time for you to apply to colleges.
Commitment is important to colleges because it’s a key ingredient to success both in and outside the classroom. Showing commitment means following through on obligations, maintaining focus and effort, and engaging with academics and activities in deep and lasting ways. These are all attractive attributes that will help colleges see you as a person who can add to a college environment throughout the four years that you’re on campus. One of the best ways to show commitment in an application is through an activity or subject that you’ve put significant time and effort into. Demonstrating your involvement with the drama club all four years of high school or your personal decision to take four years of language classes when your school only requires two proves to admissions officers you stick with things and follow through.
If you don’t have an activity or academic effort that you’ve put significant time and effort into, that doesn’t mean that you can’t show commitment in your application. Consider mentioning in your essay a time that it took particular effort, will, or sacrifice to participate in or remain involved with an extracurricular or academic activity. This can be another way of showing commitment without the months or years of participation. So, commitment can look like playing on the Frisbee team for two years, but it could also be a story about a time you gave up going on a weekend trip so that you could focus on finishing a presentation.
At its heart, demonstrating your creativity means showing that you’re able to think outside the box (to use a particularly uncreative metaphor) and come up with new concepts, approaches, and interpretations. Creativity can be expressed in your involvement with the arts, of course, but it’s also a quality that can show up in many different situations, from technical innovation to problem solving, in any field.
When colleges consider your application, your creativity is a quality that can really set you apart as an individual—and suggest your great potential to have an impact on the world. Whether you’re making a breakthrough argument in an academic paper, resolving an issue for an extracurricular group, or dreaming of your future startup, this skill will definitely come in handy as you plot your future.
What does creativity look like on a college application? As we mentioned above, the good news is that you don’t need to be an artist to show it. Talking about a creative hobby, like writing, painting, or singing is one clear way of showing creativity, but creative problem-solving or a unique approach to accomplishing tasks can make your point just as clearly. Maybe you didn’t participate in the school play, but you sold bouquets outside of it to raise money for your sports team. This would certainly stand out to admissions officers as an expression of your innovative thinking. Creativity could also look like combining lines of code to try out a new feature on the app you built.
3. Critical Thinking
For most students, the college academic experience will be much different from that of high school. One of the biggest differences is that in college, you’ll be expected to not only absorb and integrate factual information, but also to think more critically about sources, perspectives, contexts, and intellectual frameworks you encounter—including the assumptions you hold yourself.
When colleges evaluate applicants, they’re considering in part whether those applicants will be able to handle the demands of college coursework. Demonstrating that you’re able to investigate and interrogate academic material in a sophisticated way will speak highly of your academic skill, maturity, and potential. This can look like self-reflection or thoughtfulness about any number of topics. The important thing is that you show that you’re able to consider information and evaluate it without automatically accepting it.
When it comes to highlighting critical thinking in your application, our recommendation would be to focus on your essays. Essays that demonstrate critical thinking tend to be focused on times when your mind, or someone else’s mind, was changed, or you learned something new that altered your view of a situation. One example that we’ve seen that was particularly effective was a student who wrote about what happened when she and her best friend had radically different opinions on gun control. Her essay evaluated how they each arrived at their position, and how two people with similar values could believe such different things about this critical issue.
Coming up with brilliant, creative ideas is a great thing, but it’s only half the battle. In order to have an impact, no matter what scale you’re acting upon, you also need to be able to turn those ideas into realities. Your skill in getting projects that matter to you off the ground will reflect well on you when it’s time to apply to colleges.
Colleges always like to see applicants who have not only taken advantage of available opportunities, but also put extra effort into creating viable opportunities where none seemed to exist. Your proven initiative can show that you not only have great ideas, but also the practical skills to back them up. Maybe you started a fundraiser at your school for a new community center, or improved your Chinese grade by asking your teacher for extra material to study on the weekends. Prove initiative on your college applications by talking about projects that you’ve begun and led, the drive that led you to go beyond what was asked of you, or original ideas that sparked something bigger than yourself.
It’s a good idea to highlight your initiative in the descriptions of your extracurriculars (for example, to describe your position as president of the Model UN team say “organized and hosted a one-day conference for local Model UN teams in the county”). For activities where you showed really large initiative, consider writing about that in a personal statement or supplemental essay.
5. Intellectual Curiosity
When it comes to academic performance, colleges aren’t just interested in your grades and test scores. They also want to know that you’re genuinely invested in your intellectual development and that you actively enjoy the experience of investigating the world around you. Many colleges use the phrase “a love of learning” to express the quality that they’re looking for in applicants.
Demonstrating this love of learning communicates to colleges that whatever you choose to study, you can be counted upon to continue seeking knowledge and understanding in your academic work. After all, the main purpose of going to college is to get an education, and by showing your intellectual curiosity, you’re telling colleges that you’ll take that educational opportunity seriously.
In the past, applicants have talked about reaching out to authors they love just to see if they’ll respond, writing articles that were published in local newspapers, conducting independent research on a topic they are infatuated by, or volunteering with museums to learn more about a subject or topic they loved. Do any of these stories sound like you? How has intellectual curiosity shown up in your life?
6. Good Judgment
Showing good judgment means demonstrating to colleges that you’re able to plan ahead, understand and accept consequences, and make choices that support your goals. It also means showing that you’re responsible and respectful in the way you handle the college application process.
It’s important to minimize talking about bad judgment in your application. What may be a funny story to share with friends may not paint you in the best light to an admissions committee. This doesn’t mean that an instance of bad judgment is a death sentence, though. If you have a disciplinary record, or something negative on your application, it’s best to be straightforward and honest. Our post about explaining exceptional personal circumstances can help you write about incidents of poor judgment in a way that is truthful and clear, but also focuses on the ways that you have learned and grown from this moment.
How can you show good judgment? This one is more commonly assumed when there is no evidence to contradict it, but you can still emphasize it in your application by talking about times that you made the right choice when easier options were available. This can be a tough line to walk, as talking about the temptation to cheat, lie, or otherwise exercise bad judgment is not a good idea, even if you made the right choice in the end. Instead, we recommend focusing on stories of times that you went the extra mile to demonstrate strength of character, when the easier option might’ve been to let someone else deal with the situation. Maybe you tutored a peer or a younger sibling that was struggling. Maybe you chose editing that English paper instead of accepting a last minute concert invite. The best part of demonstrating good judgment is that usually, other qualities shine alongside it, like in these two examples, where generosity of spirit and commitment to academics are folded in with good judgment.
Leadership skills can encompass your ability to plan and oversee projects, your capability to provide substantive praise and criticism, and your power to inspire others and help them achieve their goals. Being a good leader doesn’t mean taking on all the work yourself; effectively delegating tasks and recognizing others’ useful talents are key skills as well.
Of course, one way to demonstrate your leadership ability is to have taken on leadership roles in your extracurricular activities. If you’re the captain of a team or leader of a club, this is absolutely worth emphasizing. However, how well you do as a leader matters just as much as whether you can get elected or selected for one of these positions. If you can demonstrate that you were a truly effective leader, that may really help you to stand out among the applicant pool. Something as seemingly small as taking the leading role in a group project can demonstrate leadership skill, as long as you write effectively about the ways in which you were able to guide your team to success.
One of the best aspects of attending college is that it introduces you to new things. Between the individuals you interact with and the contents of your courses, you’ll encounter an incredible and diverse range of people, ideas, and perspectives on campus, and many of these will likely be unfamiliar to you.
Being open-minded doesn’t mean that you have to agree with every new idea you encounter. What it does mean is that you’re willing and able to respectfully consider and interact with the full range of perspectives that you’ll be exposed to in college, and to appreciate the richness of that experience.
You can talk about open-mindedness directly, by exploring times that you encountered ideas, beliefs, or experiences that were different from your own, or you can talk about it more broadly, by focusing on a particularly diverse environment you found yourself in and how that place positively affected you. The key to highlighting your open-mindedness is to write an essay appreciating the importance of diversity.
9. Social Consciousness
Being socially conscious means you’re aware of issues and concerns that stretch beyond your immediate surroundings and into the lives of others, both on a global level and within the communities of which you’re a part. This knowledge will inform both the way you understand your academic work and the way you live. Competitive colleges will want to see that you’ve spent time thinking about issues like these.
In addition to mere awareness, colleges want to know that you’re working on having an effect on the world beyond yourself. There are many ways to do this; you don’t need to win a Nobel Prize or be elected president to be doing important work. What’s most important is that your goals involve some kind of larger impact. Consider writing about what causes inspire you, and why. Maybe your passion is biodiversity, and you want to talk about the impact that rare moth extinction will have on the environment. This may sound small, or overly specific, but that doesn’t matter. The key is to show that you are knowledgeable about and passionate about things outside of yourself.
Another way to highlight social consciousness could be through your extracurriculars or awards and recognitions. If you’ve gotten involved in an extracurricular activity because it addresses a global issue you care about, make sure to highlight that activity and the actions you’ve taken on your application. Some students might have even earned awards for their dedication to humanitarian work which is another great thing to highlight.
While your individual accomplishments and qualities are of the highest importance when applying to colleges, your ability to work with others shouldn’t be glossed over. In the classroom and outside of it, you’ll never be truly alone in college, so it’s important that you know how to interact and collaborate with your peers effectively.
Group projects still exist in college, and most extracurricular activities are community-based. Internships, working in a scientific lab, and many other activities will likely involve working with others on a task that’s not your own — that’s often how people gain the skills and experience to later become innovators and leaders. Sometimes, this requires putting the needs of the group or a decision you may not agree with over your individual needs and ideas.
No matter what field you eventually enter, collaboration is everywhere, and great things come from embracing it. Colleges need to be sure that your individual skills are paired with the ability to work well with others and, when necessary, prioritize the team’s success over your own. One example that stands out from past essays is a student who played for the opposing team in a rec league kickball game. The other team was down a player, and was going to have to forfeit, meaning no one got to play. This student joining the other team gave everyone a chance to play and enjoy the game, even though it wouldn’t officially count. The student was able to showcase his ability to meld seamlessly onto a new team, learning new skills and strategies along the way.
How to Highlight Your Strengths In Your College Application
The best place to highlight your more subjective traits and abilities are your essays, and along with assessing your writing abilities, this is what they’re designed for. Make sure that in choosing anecdotes and topics for your essays, you’re selecting stories that showcase the best of your qualities. This can be a powerful way of showing without explicitly telling admissions teams about these traits.
Along with your essays, an interview can be a great place to demonstrate these qualities. Not every school offers an interview, but if they do, and you are able to participate, this is another opportunity where your intangible traits can shine. As you prepare for your interview, along with going over common questions and answers, consider what impression you want your interviewer to have of you. What aspects of your personality do you want to shine in this interview, and how can you make sure they do?
Finally, your recommendations are another place where colleges can learn about your personal qualities. If you have a quality that you want to make sure colleges hear about, consider talking to your recommenders about what you hope they’ll highlight in their letters. Remember to choose qualities that that recommender has seen you demonstrate and can talk about specifically.
How to Show Your Skills In Your College Essays
Your essays are a great place to showcase your intangible skills and abilities. You can share these skills through the stories you tell.
After rereading your essays countless times, however, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. You can even request that your reviewer focus on helping you highlight a particular trait or two. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!