10 Things Top Colleges Are Looking For

The Top Ten Strengths and Experiences Colleges look for in High School Students is a survey of independent college consultants that changes every time it’s compiled, an event that occurs every few years. The rigor of your high school curriculum (#1), your grades (#2), and your SAT and ACT test scores (#3) still top the list. But there are also some changes from prior years.

Guess what? The importance of the application essay has moved up in the list to #6! Part of the reason for this is that many colleges have begun to make the SAT and ACT optional with “test optional” policies. The admissions essay continues to be more important to private liberal arts colleges than it is at large state universities, so if you are targeting Ivy League and other top private schools, put some focused attention on the essay part of your application.

It’s hard to write a good essay without good material. Not surprisingly, half of the listed factors are all essay-related as well. “Passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership and initiative” (#4) gives you great essay material. “Special talents or experiences” (#7) is also fodder for an outstanding essay, as is “demonstrated leadership in activities” (#8).

It is crystal clear from this list that schools are not looking for well-rounded students – they are looking for leaders. It is much more important to get deeply involved in a few activities than to do a little of everything. And you’ll have a lot more to write about in your college application essay if you take on leadership positions that require you to manage people, organize big projects and events, and grow as a person.

Note that succeeding in these areas requires some planning ahead. If you are not a harp player already by the time you are entering your senior year of high school, it is unlikely that you will become one. If you haven’t been deeply involved in a student organization, it might be difficult to take on leadership suddenly. It’s more important than ever to find your passion early and follow it. That way you can naturally demonstrate “intellectual curiosity through reading, school, leisure pursuits, and more” (#9).

Take the factor “demonstrated enthusiasm to attend” (#10) under advisement as you write your college essay. You would do well to write something about why you want to attend a particular school, especially if it’s your first or second choice. Just make sure to send the correct essay to each school, mentioning the school you’re applying to and not another school! Mixing this one up is a great way to get yourself into the “no” pile (and it happens all the time).

Thankfully, you have a lot of guidance about how to get into the “yes” pile. Determine where you will most stand out as an interesting candidate with leadership abilities, and write a great essay about it.

You may have noticed that #5 has not yet been revealed: It is Letters of Recommendation “that give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and an interest in learning.” You simply can’t make this one up at the last minute. Be a serious, involved, committed and ethical student from the get-go and you will demonstrate characteristics to your teachers that they will be proud to share with an admissions committee.

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