10 Most Important Factors in College Admissions

By: Barbara Leventhal | Last Updated: February 11, 2014

Much of the stress surrounding college admissions occurs because students and parents possess little first-hand knowledge of what colleges actually seek in students. With that knowledge, you can increase your potential for acceptance to your top-choice colleges by focusing on those strengths which are priorities for the college. I regularly participate in the creation of a national report, Top Ten Things Colleges Look For in a High School Student, from which the following list was prepared.


  1. A challenging high school curriculum.
    Academically successful students should take at least five core courses every semester. Include AP, IB, and Honors if you can get good grades in them. Most colleges recalculate GPA based only on core subjects (English, math, science, social science, foreign language, programming).

  2. Grades that represent strong effort and an upward trend.
    Slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all A’s in less challenging courses.

  3. Solid scores on the SAT or ACT — consistent with high school performance.
    High scores do not compensate for low grades.

  4. Passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership, initiative, creativity — and an angle.
    Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important. Colleges seek “angled” students with a passion, not “well-rounded” students. Substantive commitment to a few activities is preferable to participation in several mini activities — and more rewarding! To complement your applications, create a detailed resume to showcase your activities.

  5. Out-of-school experiences, including summer activities, work, and hobbies that reflect responsibility, dedication, and areas of interest.
    Meaningful use of your free time is essential! Include these commitments on your resume.

  6. Special talents or experiences that will contribute to an interesting, well-rounded student body.
    A student who goes the extra mile to develop a special talent in sports, research, writing, the arts, or anything else will gain an edge. Consider sending a college evidence of anything that makes you stand out (e.g., portfolio of your creative writing, research abstract, CD or DVD of your talent).

  7. A well-written essay that provides insight into your personality, values, and goals.
    Your application essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should demonstrate careful and well-constructed writing. This is your chance to tell your story!

  8. Anecdotal letters of recommendation from teachers and your counselor that give evidence of your intellectual curiosity, special skills, and positive character traits.
    An extra recommendation from a coach, supervisor, or someone who knows you well can help only if it sheds new light on your talents. However, letters from family friends, even if they are well known, are rarely given much weight.

  9. Demonstrated enthusiasm for attending a university, as evidenced by a campus visit, interview, and ongoing contact with the admissions office.
    Early in your college-planning process, schedule a campus visit, including an information session, tour, and interview if available. Stay in touch with an admissions representative. Attend local presentations.

  10. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school and leisure pursuits, and more.

Topics: College Admission College Application College Planning


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