What Colleges Want

It’s your student’s final years in high school, and the heat is on. They’re contemplating colleges, agonizing over essays, and stressing over the SAT. It seems that every student is scrambling to be accepted by the school of their dreams. This is the time when parents and guidance counselors hear the perennial refrain: “Do you think I will be accepted? What are those colleges looking for?”

Key to Success

Much like your son or daughter, the colleges desire to succeed. Colleges succeed when they recruit, admit, retain, and graduate students who are a good match for what they offer. Just as each student has unique qualities and characteristics, each college or university is special and different in some way. First and foremost, colleges are looking for students who will thrive in the particular environment. Similarly, your student should look for an institution where they truly fit academically, socially, athletically, artistically, or according to whatever dimension is most important. If your student is visiting or applying to their first-choice school, the admissions office at that particular school is probably interested in knowing this.

Because colleges are multidimensional, they tend to want students who are, too. If your student has specific talents or has had some unusual experiences, encourage them to make the admissions committee aware of them.

The Admissions Game

It is no secret and no surprise that most colleges and universities place a high emphasis on academic ability. They will weigh students’ performance in high school most heavily because this is (statistically) the strongest predictor of academic success in college. Admissions committees will look for class rank, the type (academic and college preparatory vs. vocational and activity oriented) and depth (honors, accelerated, advanced vs. remedial) of courses taken, and the overall pattern of grades.

A high school transcript tells a lot about a student, but a thoughtful letter of recommendation can help an admissions committee see a whole person. A number of colleges ask applicants for letters of recommendation to help them make decisions when many candidates have similar academic credentials.

Many admissions committees like to see evidence of a student’s writing ability, and they may require an essay. A thoughtful and well-prepared essay will also give the college an impression of the student as a unique individual. Be aware that colleges do look at the little (often overlooked) details, such as the neatness and accuracy of the essay or paper application, and a student’s ability to follow instructions.

The results of standardized college entrance examinations such as the SAT or ACT are often considered by college admissions officers, in conjunction with other credentials. Very selective colleges may also request that the student take Advanced Placement (AP) examinations, as well.

What do colleges really want? They want to make admissions decisions that result in a win-win situation. They want to select the students who have the best chance of succeeding so that both they and their students thrive.


This article was written by Mary Jo Phillips

Mary Jo Phillips is a financial aid advisor and former admissions counselor at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.


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  2. Jadeja Reed

    I want to know what colleges are looking for in high school students. like what is the highest grade point averages you need to have in order to apply to a real college.

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