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Here at CollegeVine, we pride ourselves on guiding students to make informed and empowered decisions about their educational futures. Sometimes, this guidance is through a formal mentor program. Other times it’s through a one-time, free consultation, and still more times it’s through thoughtful search queries here on our blog.

 

One of the questions that we hear time and time again is “What do colleges really want in a student?” Do they want to see good grades? Do they want strong test scores and impressive extracurriculars? How about teacher recommendations? Let’s be honest; it’s very rare that a student has perfect grades, perfect test scores, flawless extracurriculars, and superb teacher recommendations. In fact, it’s a fact of life that no one’s perfect.

 

So, if you’re applying to colleges, you might wonder where to focus your energy. What few, key traits are colleges really looking for, and where do they look to find evidence of them? How much do test scores or grades actually matter?

 

In this post we outline how to frame your thinking around what colleges want. There’s no easy answer, but with our insight, based on the experiences of thousands of students, you’ll learn what colleges look for as they evaluate candidates. Here are a few questions to get you started.

 

Do colleges want specialized applicants or well-rounded ones?

Students often wonder if they should specialize in a particular subject area or extracurricular activity. They may question if having a single, well-defined area of focus will make them a more attractive college applicant. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, you can get a better idea of what the colleges you’re applying to look for by asking yourself if the college itself, or the particular program you’re applying to, is specialized.

 

If you’re applying to a specialized college or program, there is a high degree of likelihood that they are looking for candidates who have expressed some interest and aptitude in this field in the past. For example, if you want to study engineering at MIT, it would be smart to take some high-level STEM courses during high school and to reinforce this interest with some relevant extracurricular activities. Similarly, if you want to study business at UPenn, you should have classes and activities that are reflective of this goal.

 

That being said, there are very few colleges that will overlook a student’s failures in one area in favor of their specialized pursuits of another. For example, if you perform poorly in English class or drop out of all your activities after junior year in order to focus on your STEM curriculum, you will not come off as a student capable of succeeding in multiple fields and might even look like someone who does not follow through on commitments. As you can see, the line between specialized and well-rounded is a tough one to walk.

 

To learn more about what colleges want from specialized or well-rounded candidates, check out these posts:

 

 

Which is better: high test scores or high grades?

Sometimes students wonder if they should focus more on test prep or more on getting their grades up. They want to know which data point is viewed as more reflective of their academic aptitude or given more weight in the college application process. Unfortunately, again, there is no simple answer.

 

In fact, most selective colleges think of both of these metrics as reflections of your abilities, and a big discrepancy between them can sometimes be cause for concern. For example, if you perform poorly on your standardized tests but do well in classes, colleges might wonder if your academic performance in school is only due to particular resources or support that you have access to, and they may wonder how capable you actually are on your own. If the reverse is true, they might think that you simply don’t try very hard during school despite having a lot of potential as evidenced by your test scores.

 

Ultimately, competitive colleges want to see both high grades and strong test scores, but don’t worry if they aren’t perfect. Excelling in other areas, like extracurriculars, is also important.

 

To learn more about how colleges view grades and test scores, check out these posts:

 

 

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What personal qualities do colleges look for?

Personal qualities and who you are as a person is an increasingly important metric in college applications. Although it might be more difficult to show on a piece of paper, being kind, caring, generous, and committed are all important factors in your college admissions.

 

This increasing importance is due in large part to Harvard’s recent Making Caring Common campaign, which strives to encourage selective college admissions to place more emphasis on personal qualities and less on academic performance. In short, many colleges are increasingly looking for students who strive to make the community around them a better place.

 

You can demonstrate your personal qualities through extracurricular involvement, personal essays, and recommendations. This is an area that you really can’t fudge; it has to be authentic for it to really shine through. Get involved in several causes or activities during your freshman year, then pursue those that really resonate with you on the personal level so that your experiences are relevant to who you are and speak to an honest and authentic commitment.  

 

To learn more about Making Caring Common, see these posts:

 

 

How likely are you to actually attend?

Admissions committees also sometimes consider how likely you are to attend the school should you be accepted. This means that expressing interest in a college you really want to attend is a good idea. Visit the college. Meet with faculty or coaches in your areas of interest. Seek out admissions representatives at college fairs.

 

Anytime you meet with an individual, whether it’s on campus or at a college fair, be sure to get their contact information and follow up with a quick email to thank them for their time. This will not only show that you’re thoughtful and appreciative, but also serve to reinforce your interest and hopefully make you a more memorable candidate.

 

Another way to express interest is to apply Early Decision. Many colleges now accept a significant portion of their incoming freshman class through early decision because it essentially guarantees that they will be accepting students who are excited to attend.

 

To learn more about Early Decision or expressing interest in a college, see these posts:

 

 

Ultimately, there is no magic formula to determine who will get accepted to a specific college. Some colleges have different priorities for accepting students and others are looking to fill a particular niche in their student body that varies from year to year, making predictions even harder. Sometimes, you just never know how you will stack up to the rest of the applicant pool. What you can control, though, is how dedicated you are during your high school years. By performing to the top of your abilities and pursuing extracurriculars that you truly care about, your values and personality will shine through on your application.

 

To learn more about applying to colleges and how to present your best self on your college applications, consider enlisting the help of CollegeVine’s Applications Guidance service. Here, students are paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire college application process, including how and when to create the perfect college list.

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist

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