What do colleges look for in applicants? In general, colleges look for well-rounded students who have distinct passions and interests, commit to activities for long periods of time, and keep up with heavy course loads. Students typically aren’t accepted to college because of a single aspect of their applications (academic strength, writing strength, or extracurricular involvement). They are accepted because of who they are as a person. A competitive college applicant has multiple strengths and works hard to improve weaknesses. Take the following steps to ensure that you stand out on college applications.


Get to know your guidance counselor.

Your guidance counselor may be writing one of your college recommendations, so it’s important to foster a solid relationship with him or her. You can meet with your guidance counselor as early as your freshman year, just to show your face and begin discussing your future plans. The more often you visit throughout high school to talk about your goals and accomplishments, the easier it will be for your counselor to suggest specific colleges and advise you to take the right courses. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help finding colleges or programs or filling out your scholarship or college applications—that’s what they are there for!

Stay academically competitive.

  • Take at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course if they are offered at your high school. These college-level classes give admissions counselors a general idea of your preparation for the rigor of college life. Excelling in these challenging classes is a huge “wow” factor. Keeping consistent good grades in difficult classes is even more impressive. Your grades can show colleges not just how smart you are, but how hard you are willing to work.
  • Improve in a subject in which you previously struggled. You may be ashamed of that C- you earned in English as a freshman, but if you’re regularly earning B’s and A’s in English as an upperclassman, don’t be embarrassed! You’ve worked hard to improve, and colleges are always impressed by perseverance and hard work.
  • Maintain a high GPA or improve your GPA between freshman and senior years. Again, do not be ashamed of improvement. It shows maturity and evolution as a student.
  • Continue with subjects that are no longer required. Some high schools only require three years of math or science. Take that extra year to show colleges just how serious you are about the core subjects.

Take more than the state minimums for required high school courses.

Here are some recommendations for the classes you should take over the course of your high school education:

  • Four years of English.
  • Three or four years of history, social studies, and geography.
  • Three or four years of science. This can include earth science, biology, chemistry, physics, or a substitute of your choosing. Courses with labs, though not offered at every high school, are especially appealing to admissions committees.
  • Three or four years of math, depending on the college. Taking a combination of geometry, algebra I and II, trigonometry, and calculus will make you a competitive applicant. Statistics is offered at many high schools but can be seen as an easy, “fluffy” class. Sticking to more competitive and difficult math classes will help you stand out.
  • At least two years of the same foreign language, but some colleges may require more.
  • At least two years of art courses including, but not limited to, music, theater, dance, studio art, creative writing, choir, and photography.
  • Many colleges aren’t interested in your health and physical education requirements for high school, but to graduate, you may have to take a semester or a year of each. These classes are not considered challenging academic classes, so be sure to enroll in them when you are also taking a full academic course load.

Take standardized tests.

  • Typically, colleges look for test scores in a general range, which they make available on their websites. Do your scores on the SAT or ACT fall into that range? If your scores are higher, that’s great! If they’re a little low, consider retaking the test to improve your score. This isn’t to say that a student with scores below the listed ranges will be outright rejected by a particular college, but it does mean that the rest of their application needs to more than make up for their scores.
  • Don’t forget to submit your scores for SAT Subject Tests, AP Tests, or IB exams where required.

Ask for letters of recommendation.

A letter of recommendation from a teacher, boss, coach, counselor, or religious leader is a way for someone to vouch for you. Avoid letters written by family members (mom can’t help you out with this one), because they will not be taken seriously. Teachers and counselors can write about who you are both as a student and a person.

Submit stellar essays.

  • Read for fun. Being able to express yourself eloquently is a skill that can be learned in the classroom, but also simply by picking up a book and reading for a few minutes a day. Reading exposes you to new vocabulary and new ideas without involving much actual work. It will also make you a better conversationalist and give you something to talk about during your interview.
  • Write well. Simple grammatical mistakes and sloppy work send the wrong message. Take time to proofread anything that you will be submitting.
  • Develop an argument. Your college classes will consistently require essays that ask you to take a position and defend it. Your application essays prove that you can organize your thoughts on paper and provide evidence to support your claims.
  • Make an emotional appeal. Don’t write an essay about an experience that every high school student has. Write about something personal to you, something that makes you who you are, or something that helped you grow. Tell the college why it needs you.
    • It may help to maintain a running list of experiences that you’ve had throughout high school. Consider starting a journal your freshman year and write down any ideas you have as they come to you.

List any awards you have won.

It’s okay if you don’t have any, but if you do, share what you did to win the award or receive the honors. This can and should be included in your résumé if your activities outside of school led to you winning first place in an art competition or if your school dance team won the state championship while you were a member. It’s also important to share whether you were a finalist for something. This is still an honor.

Learn a language.

Commit to taking at least two years of the same foreign language during high school. Some colleges even require this (or more) for admittance; check your prospective institution’s website(s) for their admissions requirements. Travel abroad to practice speaking your second language, if you can. Many high schools offer weeklong trips to foreign countries to students who are enrolled in foreign language classes, or you could consider a spring break or summer trip to a locale that natively speaks the language you are learning. Consider looking into AFS-USA, which offers study abroad programs, volunteer opportunities, and exchange programs for students. CIEE offers both semester-long and summer-long study abroad trips for high school students (and provides some scholarships). While these programs can be expensive, the experience that you’ll gain by immersing yourself in another language will improve your speaking skills, introduce you to a new culture, and provide material for future personal essays.

While it’s not always possible to travel abroad as part of a school group or participate in an exchange with a foreign high school, you still have domestic options to enhance your language skills. Look for volunteer opportunities in your community that involve your language; maybe there’s an opportunity helping immigrants. Churches and nonprofit organizations are typically a good place to start looking. Talking to your current teacher could also result in opportunities that you may not be able to find on your own. If all else fails, you could join (or start) a language club to learn about both the language and culture in which you’re interested.

Pursue your interests outside of the classroom.

  • Join a club or team. There are any number of extracurricular activities that you could participate in: dance, music, sports, academic clubs, community service, and student government are just a few of your options. Make sure that your extracurricular activities reflect your passions and interests. If possible, work your way up to a leadership role or an elected position. Once you’ve chosen your extracurriculars, stay committed to them for more than a semester or year. Dedication is much more important than dabbling when it comes to college admissions.
  • Dedicate time to your art. If you want to attend an art college or conservatory, it is likely that you will have to submit a portfolio of work and/or audition to demonstrate your skill level. Many of these colleges are highly selective and expect applicants to have at least an intermediate mastery of their craft. Talk with your high school visual and performing arts teachers about classes or projects you can do after school that will help you strengthen your skills. They can also assist you in choosing portfolio and audition pieces that will showcase your versatility, personality, and artistic strengths. If you do not have a strong relationship with your school teachers, try to find a mentor elsewhere. A family friend, a teacher at a community arts center, or a professional audition coach for hire are all people who might be open to working with you.
  • Volunteer. Colleges also love to see that students are giving back to their communities. Consider joining Key Club, Beta Club, or National Honor Society. Participate in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts if you want to have your service planned out. If you prefer to be a lone wolf, find a way to give back for a few hours a week. You could donate your time to assist the elderly at a nursing home or care for children while their parents attend church services, for example. If you have a particular career path in mind, consider volunteering with an organization that does similar work. This will help demonstrate your interest in a field and will come in handy when applying for competitive, career-specific programs within a college or university.
  • Take a job. If you have time, working a part-time job during the school year shows that you have the ability to multitask and maintain your levels of commitment to all of your activities. If this isn’t a possibility, consider summer employment. You will get to save up money for school while taking on responsibility. It’s an added bonus if the job gives you insight into a specific career path and helps you demonstrate your commitment to the field. However, not all jobs need to result in a paycheck. You can gain valuable experience in your prospective field by completing an internship or apprenticeship instead.
  • Use your summers wisely. Summers are useful for much more than binging all of your favorite television shows. Work a summer job, volunteer, take a class, or study for the SAT. All of these will show colleges that you’re driven outside of school as well.
  • Think about the military life. If you plan on participating in an ROTC program in college, consider participating in a Junior ROTC program. Students who participate in JROTC programs are under no obligation to participate in an ROTC program or join the military following high school graduation. However, electing to participate in a JROTC program does show commitment and drive as the curriculum includes military topics, drill exercises, and mandatory extracurricular activities. Students who participate in Army JROTC typically have higher GPAs, better attendance, and a higher graduation rate, and they require less discipline than their non-JROTC counterparts. However, JROTC programs are not offered at every high school throughout the country; for more information about JROTC programs in your area, use the following links:

Showcase what makes you unique.

Colleges look to attract a diverse student body in terms of race, sex, nationality, native language, and socioeconomic status. There isn’t much you can do to change your personal traits, but it is important to realize that it is something colleges do consider. So, set yourself apart from the crowd. Is there something you participate in that is unique to you, or that many other students don’t participate in? Play up your strengths and your differences.

Prove your interest. 

  • Meet with an alum or an admissions counselor for an interview. It gives you a chance to sell yourself. It also lets the college put a face to a name and indicates that you are serious about applying. Some colleges request interviews as part of the admissions process, but you can also visit the college in person, meet with an admissions counselor, or meet with alumni, and most of these things will be noted in your admissions file. Show the school that you are more than a name in a stack of applications.
  • Meet all application deadlines. Students who submit punctual applications are assumed to be responsible and serious about attending a particular college. Use this timeline to keep track of everything you have to do.
    • Applications that are submitted after the deadline has passed are often not considered, and if they are, you’ve put yourself at the bottom of the list for financial aid consideration. If you have a legitimate reason for the delay, (“I forgot” is not a legitimate reason), contact the admissions office immediately and explain the situation. Submit your completed application as soon as possible and follow up with the admissions office to learn whether you’re in the running.
    • Missing a deadline isn’t the end of the world. Consider applying to community college for the first year (often these have rolling admissions) and then transferring to your dream school later on or taking a gap year and reapplying for college again in the fall.
  • Personalize each essay or statement of purpose. Your reasons for wanting to attend each college should be specific to that school. If you submit a “one size fits all” essay and only change the name of the college within the text, admissions officers are going to notice and they’re not going to be impressed. This means you may end up writing five or more different personal essays, so be sure you budget out your time during the application process.

Colleges look for applicants who are more than just students. Real people with interests, talents, hobbies, and goals stand out on college applications. Admissions counselors understand that you may have had an off semester that is reflected in your grades, and you will likely be given a chance to explain any extenuating circumstances in your college application. They are interested in seeing your growth over time, both academically and outside of school. If you have specific experiences that make you who you are, write about them in a personal statement or talk yourself up in an interview. Admissions counselors are much more interested in real people than in robots.

Page last updated: 05/2017