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Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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Ten Skills to Highlight on Your College Applications

A person sitting cross legged, pointing to the text, with an abstract monitor behind them  

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

In some ways, applying to college can seem like a numbers game. Numerical measures of success, such as your GPA, class rank, and standardized test scores, play an important role in building your applicant profile and determining which colleges are good matches for you.


However, competitive colleges aren’t just interested in these numbers. They also base their decisions upon the less tangible, more personal skills that are revealed in the other parts of your college application, including your essay(s), extracurricular activities, and recommendations.


Skills like these can’t always be quantified in the same way as your grades can; nevertheless, they 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 the qualities that will allow them to use their academic skills to do great things on campus and throughout their lives.


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?

As you know, every college is slightly different in terms of what it looks for in applicants, and finding a good fit between a particular applicant and a particular college is very important. However, it’s possible to make some broad statements about the kinds of qualities and skills that competitive colleges are seeking.


To get admitted to a top college, you need to stand out. As we’ve discussed in our blog post Why Are Acceptance Rates So Low?, competitive colleges attract a far larger number of qualified applicants than they could possibly admit, so simply having high grades and test scores isn’t enough to obtain any guarantees of admission.


When you’re facing this kind of competition, you’ll need to take special care to ensure that your application will pique admissions committees’ interest. Emphasizing particular skills and qualities that colleges appreciate, such as those we list below, will help to round out your applicant profile and give colleges a sense of who you really are.


Competitive colleges need to know that you’ll be a positive addition to the campus. 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.


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.


Ten Key Skills to Emphasize on Your Applications

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.


1. Commitment


Group of People Studying Around Table


Building a competitive applicant profile isn’t just about participating in many different activities; it’s also about showing that you’ve committed to long-term projects of interest to you, as we’ve discussed in our post Well-Rounded or Specialized? Colleges are looking for applicants who stick to their goals, follow through on intentions, and keep promises they’ve made to others.


Competitive colleges appreciate students who have demonstrated commitment in their academic, extracurricular, and personal pursuits. It would be quite difficult for an applicant to gain the necessary credentials for admission to a top school without showing commitment, but it’s useful to have other representations of that ability visible on your application.


2. Creativity


Man Writing on Whiteboard


At 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 an applicant with 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.


3. Critical Thinking


Man Looking Up at a Wall Covered in Charts and other Papers


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 yourself hold dear.


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.


4. Initiative


Group of People at Table Working on Plan


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.


5. Intellectual Curiosity


Person Holding Up Magnifying Glass to Building


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 “love of learning” to express the approach 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.

A person sitting cross legged, pointing to the text, with an abstract monitor behind them  

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

6. Good Judgement


Young Person with Backpack Looking at Book


College applicants generally hover in the gray area between childhood and adulthood, as we’ve explored in our post Do Colleges Consider Me a Child or an Adult When I Apply? The colleges to which you apply certainly won’t expect you to be a full-fledged adult right that minute, but they will expect you to demonstrate the maturity and good judgement necessary for you to handle the freedoms and responsibilities of college life.


Showing good judgement 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 especially important that you not show evidence of poor judgement on your college applications. As we’ve discussed before in the post Getting Back On Track After A Disciplinary Setback, having an incident of particularly poor judgement on your record can give colleges pause. However, showing that you’ve learned and grown as a result of that experience can mitigate its effect somewhat.


7. Leadership


Two Women Seated Opposite Another Woman Who is Facing Forward


In the college admissions world, the word “leadership” is thrown around a great deal — we’ve certainly addressed it before on the CollegeVine blog, in posts like Your Resume, Revamped: Securing Leadership Positions and Perfecting your Extracurricular Profile. You might be tempted to dismiss it as a cliché, but leadership really is an important skill to show off on your applications.


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. 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.


8. Open-Mindedness


Man Kneeling on ledge Overlooking Horizon


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.


9. Social Consciousness


Person Holding a Tiny Globe in Hand


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.


10. Teamwork



While your individual accomplishments and qualities are of the highest importance when applying to colleges, your skill at working with others can’t be neglected. In the classroom and outside of it, you’ll never be truly alone, and it’s important that you know how to manage interactions and collaborate 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.


Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list of what competitive colleges are looking for in their applicants, and many other features can also help you to position yourself as a strong candidate. However, each of these qualities is quite important, and it’s wise for you to consider whether your applicant profile gives you opportunities to clearly demonstrate how you’ve mastered them. 


As we’ve said, every college is different. Each school has particular qualities, skills, and abilities that it’s looking for in applicants, and it’s important that you put in effort to understand whether a particular school’s priorities are a good match for your own. Finding a college that’s a great fit for you personally will give you the best opportunity to thrive.


If you’d like to learn more about what top colleges are looking for in their applicants, check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog, as well as our Ultimate Guides to particular colleges and their application requirement:



At CollegeVine, we’re passionate about making college guidance accessible to all. That’s why we took the guidance that’s helped 100,000 students and made it free. On our college applications platform, you can use our chancing engine, build a best-fit school list, and learn how to improve your profile—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.