What Do College Admissions Look For?
College applications involve more than essays, even though essays earn the most attention — and angst — from teens! But what are college admissions teams looking for in a strong application?
Here are the “Top 5” most important factors that go into applications based on my client experience and conversations with other college advisors. This may vary by college, and certainly, a student’s unique situation will be considered. For example, a student who excels on a National level won’t have a variety of extracurricular activities to list. But overall, these five factors are what I discuss with high school students and parents about what makes a strong college application.
College admissions teams consider these factors to determine if an applicant will be successful on campus, both academically and socially. As I evaluate a student’s academic profile, I also look for the student’s story. Who are they? What makes them unique, and what will they bring to the school and their peers? In addition, do they have the motivation and initiative to benefit from the many offerings on a college campus? Do they have the resilience to travel out of state if that’s a goal?
Considering these “Top 5” factors during high school and while preparing applications will help a student stay on track for college success. Keep in mind that there are thousands of colleges and universities in the United State (plus foreign options), so there is no reason to worry about not getting accepted into a college or university that is a great overall fit, even if it’s not a “Dream” school. Part of the college application process is researching schools and opening up to options not previously considered. Assuming consideration went into developing a “good fit” list of colleges, what matters in the application?
1. Colleges Consider GPA First and Foremost
College admissions counselors are looking to understand what kind of student you are and whether you’ve been consistent with your grades all the way through or started slow and worked to improve. If you started with high grades and dipped one semester, they will expect a reasonable explanation in the text of the application. Did you pull yourself up after that tough semester? How? Everything about your grades tells a story, not just about your academic level but also about your persistence and resilience.
Admissions officers – also called representatives – are assigned geographic regions so they know your school and the rigor of the courses you chose to take. If there’s an AP class notorious for being easy at your school, they know that, too! In calculating GPAs, every plus or minus matters. If you’re at a B+, do everything possible to get that A-.
Which GPA is Considered?
My daughter’s transcript shows six versions of her grades: 9-12 Total GPA (unweighted and weighted), academic GPA (unweighted and weighted), and 10-12 academic GPA (both options). I know…it’s confusing! For most private and non-California public schools, focus on the 9-12 unweighted academic GPA. A common example of this GPA might be a 3.5 on a 4.0 scale. Academic GPAs exclude sports and any other courses not considered academic for graduation or by colleges. California students determine academic classes based on an A-G system where “A” is history, “G” is college preparatory electives, etc. If a class doesn’t fall into one of the A-G categories, it is not academic.
The UC and Cal State University systems exclude 9th grade and consider a weighted (and capped) 10-12 academic GPA (for example, a 4.3 out of a 4.0 scale). A common weighted GPA uses a point rating of 5 for an “A” grade in AP, IB, and some Honors-level courses. For students who take more than four courses (8 semesters) of weighted classes, the grades for courses beyond eight semesters receive the regular 4-point weight. This adjustment to the weighted GPA is “capped.” For example, a student with a weighted GPA of 4.6 may be capped at 4.4. It’s not a significant difference for students with extremely high GPAs, but it makes a difference for a student with a 4.1 weighted GPA with a capped adjustment to 3.9.
Students have asked if it’s worth taking more weighted (and harder) classes if they won’t get the GPA boost at the California public schools. Yes! Rigor is still important, as is course progression. Take the next most challenging course offered. In addition, private liberal arts colleges and competitive out-of-state (OOS) public schools will also consider the weighted GPA.
Why does GPA matter so much?
Even when test scores were a more integral part of the college application — my older children submitted AP exam scores, ACT and/or SAT results, plus the now-discontinued SAT subject test scores – college admissions counselors knew this truth: high school GPA is the strongest predictor of college success. The chart below is from a research study posted on www.act.org showing average (cumulative) high school GPA (unweighted, on a 4.0 scale) correlated to first-year college GPA. The higher the high school GPA, the higher the first-year college GPA. Not surprisingly, a lower high school GPA predicts even more difficulty with college-level academics. This particular graph also shows how GPA corresponds to ACT score achievement. (I use this graph along with an ACT/SAT “correspondence table” to discuss a student’s GPA in relation to their potential or actual ACT or SAT score. It’s also a useful analysis to help a student decide whether or not to take a standardized test which I recommend if they can reasonably beat the predicted score.)
How do you know if you’re in the GPA range for a college?
Two questions admissions teams ask about a student are: By admitting this student are we setting them up for success? And, will this student thrive or struggle given the rigor of our academic program? Colleges know their target audience and not all colleges are looking for 4.0 students! In fact, the majority are not. I subscribe to a database to run reports on schools across dozens of factors, including GPA, but if you’re wondering whether a college is a good fit, simply Google the name of the college and “unweighted GPA” to see if your GPA is in the ballpark. This tip generally works even though colleges are not 100% consistent in reporting their average GPA. For example, some moderately selective schools report their weighted GPA, perhaps to look more selective. You may Google unweighted and get a 4.1 result, which is clearly weighted.
It’s important to make sure that the majority of schools you apply to are within a point or two of the average GPA, both above and below. My students apply to 12-15 schools that we assign to categories of: Safer, Fit, and Reach. Depending on the student, we’ll add Fit Safer, Fit Reach, or an Elite category. A school with a higher GPA than a student and a higher-than-expected acceptance rate (AR%) may also be a fit. (Many factors influence acceptance rates, including how hard it is to travel to the campus! If you’re willing to venture to a smaller town, you may get into a more selective school.)
Does a Weighted GPA Matter?
Yes. Definitely. College admissions teams consider applicants “wholistically”, especially at liberal arts colleges and universities. A 4.0 unweighted GPA without honors or AP courses will be considered differently than a 3.7 unweighted/4.2 weighted GPA where the student took several challenging AP courses. There’s no set rule of how colleges view GPAs – each college has its own system for evaluating applicants. For example, California Polytechnic University in San Louis Obispo does not have an Activities List (like the UC campuses), but it uses a point system to boost students who take more courses than the minimum required in each A-G group. Challenge yourself and strive for good grades and seek help if you’re struggling so you don’t get behind.
What if Grades Were Impacted by Covid?
Students graduating between 2020-2024 may have grades impacted by Covid-19, online learning, or disruptions in learning. Colleges are aware of this and any impact on grades can be addressed in the written portion of the application. Go easy on the sob story, though. Every student could tell one. State the facts that impacted your grade(s) and what you did to improve the situation.
2. Colleges Look at the Rigor of Your Classes
As noted above, admissions officers want to see how you challenged yourself academically given the coursework offered at your school. The college admissions representative for your region knows your school profile as well as other schools in your area. They know what’s offered, and they can tell by the classes you took whether you challenged yourself or not.
If the average 4-year college-bound student at your school takes six AP courses, your rigor will also be judged by whether you took only four or ten AP courses. If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, you won’t be penalized compared to students from other districts or states who take them. Occasionally I talk to parents worried that their student is at a competitive high school where every student maximizes the AP offerings. So how can their teen stand out? I recommend they just do their own best work. Apply to a few Reach schools and make sure there are ample other options on the college list. Spending time developing their activities and writing strong essays will definitely help. So much of the college application process is about managing expectations, usually of parents more than students!
You can boost your rigor by taking additional summer courses, courses through a community college dual enrollment program, or an AP course offered online and approved by your school. The UC Scout On Demand program offers AP courses for students where AP isn’t offered or for whom a high school schedule does not work for the AP course they want to take. Students will need approval from their high school and might have “independent study” on the report card until the end of a semester, after which the UC Scout grade is pulled onto the official transcript and included in the GPA calculation. Other online AP high school programs are less expensive (under $100) than UC Scout (approximately $400/semester), but you pay for quality. In choosing one, make sure it is UC approved for A-G accreditation and NCAA-approved if your student hopes to compete in college.
The bottom line on rigor is that college admissions representatives want to see that you challenged yourself and took the steps in high school to prepare for the academic rigor of college-level courses!
3. Colleges Look at Extracurricular Activities – Everything You’ve Done Outside Of Class During High School
Both the Common Application for private and out-of-state (for California students) public schools and the UC Application (for all students) include an “Activities List” section. These sections are similar but different in the number of extracurricular activities you can list, how to categorize your items, and the character count allowed for descriptions. These lists are where students describe how they spent time in high school outside of academics.
Extracurricular activities give the admissions team a sense of who you are, what you care about, and what activities you’re most likely to get involved with on campus. If you didn’t do anything in high school but go to school and play video games, then what does that say about how you’ll spend your time in college? If I work with a student who spends most of their free time gaming, I encourage them to take a summer course in video game design, enter a competition, or live-stream playing to build an audience. If there’s a passion for gaming, could game design be a future major, and could the student use that time invested as a strength on the application? If there’s no motivation to do the extra work and gaming is just a hobby, I encourage the student to build their resume in other interesting ways!
Since activities demonstrate passion, engagement, and hopefully leadership, in my opinion, they form the foundation of the application. I insist that my students complete their Activities Lists before we brainstorm essay prompts. Sometimes I read an Activities List draft and immediately see that the items are consistent with each other and with the major the student thinks they want to pursue. In other words, it’s a cohesive picture. But sometimes, the story isn’t clear and the student needs to address more about who they are through the essays. If the first four items of a 10-item Activity List are about baseball, I still don’t know much about the student except what I infer about student-athletes. I want to see other items on the list that differentiate the student from other baseball players and that tell me more about what the student values (hint: how we spend our time and our money is indicative of our values).
Although I don’t have a graph, I’m certain that college admissions officers understand how high school involvement predicts engagement on their own campuses. Don’t worry if you didn’t have time for sports, high school clubs, or ASB. Maybe you held a part-time job or helped take care of a family member. Those are productive and impactful activities with equal consideration as extracurriculars.
Community Service and Volunteering
The one activity teens find hard to fit into a busy high school schedule is volunteering. Unless a student’s schedule is unusually packed with other commitments, I encourage prioritizing it. Admissions officers appreciate community service as part of your Activities List; it shows that you took time to step out of your own world to positively impact others. Volunteering also promotes empathy and insight. Some colleges have service-hour graduation requirements, so they specifically look for that habit to be well established in their high school admits.
Colleges generally don’t publish how many community service hours they expect, but students applying to elite schools should expect to compete with students that have logged several hundred hours by the start of senior year. In my own practice, I have seen several students with close to 400 hours, although the average is much lower. My recommendation for all students is to shoot for over 100 hours of community service completed during high school. To get that done, start early and spread it out (1-2 hours a week consistently), or look for ways to chunk those hours by volunteering for a week or two in the summer. Community service opportunities rarely fall into one’s lap and typically require that students take initiative to make it happen. This is one reason that volunteering looks impressive, especially if the student started a club or showed leadership in coordinating with their peers to volunteer.
What are ways to get community service?
- Volunteer at camps for younger children in the summer. Consider sports, coding, arts/crafts, or anything else that interests you.
- Volunteer at local libraries, museums, pet shelters, and food banks.
- Run a donation drive for clothing, canned food, or baby items at your high school or through your church.
- Look for online tutoring programs (commit to doing it each week).
- Join a youth philanthropic organization or club in your area, such as National Charity League, Lion’s Heart, or a Rotary-sponsored Interact club.
- If you’re a Scout, continue in high school and strive to complete the Eagle or Gold awards.
- If you need online volunteering or hours on your own schedule, consider something like the National Archive’s Citizen Archivist program. There is a short training, and then you get to work helping tag items for the digital archive.
- Look around your community and see what could be improved. Start a high school club to address the issue (it’s more fun to volunteer with friends) or send an email asking how you could volunteer on your own given your schedule.
Whatever you put into community service and volunteering, keep track of your time, the date, and what you did. If your school or volunteer organization supports a program such as the Congressional Award, that’s a great way to track hours and receive an award to report on your application. Volunteer hours are self-reported on the Activities Lists. It’s essentially an honor system. However, you can gain a verification of high-numbering hours through one of several official ways of tracking them, such as the Congressional Award Program mentioned above or the Presidents’ Volunteer Service Award. Sometimes church youth groups or leadership development programs, such as HOBY California, offer tools to help students track their volunteer hours.
Wait…Are There Actually Two Activities Lists?
Yes. When students apply to the University of California campuses through the UC App and through the Common Application to other private and non-California public universities, they need to complete both variations of the Activities List.
I like students to decide by the spring of Junior year if they are applying to any UC campuses because I recommend completing their UC activities first. The UC App Activities List allows for longer descriptions (350 characters versus the 150 characters allowed on the Common Application). It’s easier for students to write the UC App activities first and then strategically edit the items down to the shorter 150-character count for the Common Application. See my blog post about Activities Lists!
4. Colleges Prefer Applicants With Leadership Experience
Why do college admissions counselors look for leadership in their applicants? They know that thriving on campus requires taking initiative. Showing leadership in high school is one sign you’ll be proactive while on campus and more likely to be a responsible member of the community. In addition, student leaders are motivated and more likely to make a positive impact on campus and in the world as an alumnus.
Students learn from early leadership experiences about how to work hard, stay open to other people’s ideas, cooperate on a team, negotiate compromises, communicate with all types of people, and get the job done. These are all great skills you’ll need to navigate the college environment. Can you take initiative? Will you follow through on your own? Will you help your dormmates navigate conflicts in a positive manner? Showing leadership on your application – through activities and in your essays – is a boost. How can you get more leadership experience on your application? Step out of your comfort zone, put your hand up, and volunteer.
You can join clubs at your school or in your community and then volunteer for leadership opportunities. You can start a club based on your passions and get friends to join. You can combine leadership with community service by coordinating a food or clothing drive. You can campaign to be elected to your school’s student council.
Leadership involves making an effort, planning ahead, scheduling with parents or your school’s administrators, organizing peers, and staying until the job is done even when everyone else leaves early. Basically, it’s the practice of adulting. Early in high school, some students feel insecure or embarrassed about speaking up or taking charge. If that’s you, get involved early in high school, watch, learn, help out, and prepare yourself to take on leadership during your junior or senior year.
5. College Essays Make the Application
Essays are the means through which an admissions counselor gains a sense of your character, your personality, and who you’ll be not just as a first-year student but as you grow and engage on campus. If Activities Lists are the foundation of the application, then essays are the structure built on top. It’s a physical representation of you, your thoughts, your growth, a meaningful experience, a passion you hold, an intellectual topic that completely engages you, and/or a dream you hope to achieve.
If the building structure looks interesting overall it earns a few moments of attention, but if there’s a strange addition built on the side that doesn’t fit, an observer feels confused and questions why. In an essay, that strange addition represents the thread of a story that’s been started but not fully developed. Stick to the primary story you intend to tell and edit (cut!) what doesn’t fit. Don’t give the reader any reason to feel puzzled or annoyed about the essay because it’s not cohesive. Expect to write extra, and explore threads, but then cut about 50% of what you’ve written. It requires making decisions about the story you want to tell! If my students explore one or two side threads away from the main storyline, those threads must tuck neatly and meaningfully back into the essay (within the 650-word count). A well-written essay is a well-edited essay and I help students learn to edit their own writing along the way.
What are the primary essays in college applications?
- The Common Application (https://www.commonapp.org/)
The Common Application requires a personal statement of 650 words as part of the main application sent to each college or university selected. Then, each school will have one – or several – supplemental essays or short responses to complete that specific application. Stanford University has eight supplemental prompts and the shortest ones require as much consideration and editing as the longer responses!
Before writing the Common Application personal statement, students select one of seven prompts. I help students brainstorm each prompt and discuss the options. If two prompts stand out, it may be possible to work the content ideas for one prompt into the essay the student wants to write for another prompt. An excellent clinic I attended (The WOW Writing Workshop) asks students to answer two simple questions: What happened or what did I do (that addresses the prompt)? And, why does it matter? In addressing these questions, students clearly define the story they want to tell about themselves. I will often ask students a variation: Why is this (sentence, word, mini-thread) important to you? Here are the Common Application essay prompts: https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts
- The University of California Application (https://apply.universityofcalifornia.edu)
The UC App requires four 350-word personal interest questions (PIQs). Similar to how I like students to complete the UC Activities List first, I also prefer they write the UC PIQs before tackling the Common App personal statement. By selecting and writing on four essay topics (chosen from eight prompts), students build a story collection about who they are. For example, they may respond to the four prompts using examples from their sports successes, a unique family experience, a class that challenged them, and their leadership as a volunteer. So much wonderful content! I ask students to “mine” their PIQ essays while brainstorming the Common App personal statement prompt options. Here are the UC Application PIQ prompts:
- The California State Application (https://www.calstate.edu/apply) does not have an essay and does not have a full Activities List. It is a course- and grades-based application that is relatively simple to complete. However, it does ask a general question about extracurricular activity participation and then it asks whether you held any LEADERSHIP positions in those groups. (See #4: Colleges Prefer Applicants With Leadership Experience!)
What matters in an essay?
Students ask if certain prompts carry more weight. No. Answer the prompts that speak to you. Consider your Activities List and whether an essay will compliment your items – adding more depth – or explore an entirely new perspective. You may have AP physics on the transcript, but nothing about it in your extracurricular activities. How would I know how much you love physics? I suggest writing an essay about how you found one lesson so engaging that you (what?) read an additional book, emailed the author about his research, and decided physics would be your perfect college major. Or, write about how you grew from a summer job coaching children and how that experience ties into what you’re learning in your senior year psychology class. The options are endless.
I attended an information session at Yale several years ago and one of the admissions directors said the best personal statement he’d read that year was a student writing about making pancakes with her dad. But was it really about pancakes? No. Making pancakes was the vehicle to explore her relationship with her father, the respect she held for him, and the importance of family traditions, however seemingly insignificant. Parents sometimes worry that the vehicle their teens select for carrying the essay isn’t impressive enough, but that’s when I pull out the pancake story. You can write about picking up shells on the beach or painting a fence. What matters isn’t the vehicle but the depth of insight, the connections made between disparate events, the revealed character and values, the level of intellectual curiosity of the student, and the ability to articulate struggles and personal growth.
Essays aren’t only about what’s said; they are about what’s implied and what can be inferred. The reader hears your voice and joins you for a moment as you share your world. Do you come off as someone who will fit in on campus as kind, considerate, intellectual, and curious? Or, does your voice sound haughty or entitled? I’m quite honest with a student about how their voice is sounding to me and we discuss whether that’s the impression of themselves they intended to project.
What about the supplemental essays?
Supplemental essays are a component of the Common Application where each college or university may require students to respond to essays/responses that will only be sent to that specific school. The most common supplemental essay is called a “Why this school?” essay. I coach students to review notes on why they put the college on their application list, what they thought while visiting, and to talk to current students. For these essays, I also insist students spend time on the website soaking in the values and language of the culture, like references to traditions, mascots, local eateries, etc. Include information about the department or major you’re interested in (what specifically caught your eye) and some aspect of the social life. These are typically short essays (200-300 words) so they must be specific to the school and not read as a generic response to any college.
The most common supplemental essay prompts will ask you to write about the following:
- Why this school?
- Why this major?
- Your community (one that is meaningful to you and why).
- An academic interest that thoroughly engages you.
- An activity or interest to which you’ve devoted considerable time.
- A personal challenge you’ve overcome.
- An experience that grew your awareness of social justice, diversity, and inclusion.
- Why you will be a good roommate.
- How you’d respond to an unusual scenario
What I call the Unusual Scenario prompt may be an essay or short answer that is unique to a specific school. For example, Chapman University has a series of short responses including a question about what meal you would make for the admissions team if they visited your home. Some colleges ask for “Move-In Day” playlist suggestions and that you write a letter to your future roommate. You may even be asked to go back in time and describe your favorite moment in history.
Supplemental essays require the same attention given to primary essays. College admissions officers note how obvious it is when a personal statement is polished but the supplemental essays look thrown together. It’s disappointing for the admissions team and could make the difference between an acceptance or denial.
Conclusion: Consider the Overall Cohesiveness
Each component of the college application needs to work together in order to create a comprehensive and cohesive picture of the student that college admissions counselors will quickly understand. They don’t spend much more than a few minutes with each application on the first read, so there is absolutely no room for anything in the application that feels confusing or incongruent (sloppy supplemental essays are a good example).
This blog post already covers a lot, but I’ll offer one more example to finish up. It’s perfectly fine if a student is “undecided” about their major, but if they select a major that doesn’t fit with anything else in the application then that might cause the reader to pause and think, “Hmm, how strange. Why?” A cohesive application leaves the reader with a strong sense of the student. The admissions team may decide the student isn’t a good fit for their incoming class, but at least that decision is made based on a considered and well-written application!
Lisa Harrison, M.A., Founder, Empower College Consulting
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