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College Applications: What Looks Good?
When it comes to getting into college, unfortunately there’s not a magic formula that works for every single applicant. However, there are some pretty standard criteria that colleges use to evaluate applicants. And based on these criteria, it’s possible to get a sense for what looks good on college applications. In this guide, we’ll go over the most important factors colleges consider when reviewing applications.
Academics are the most important component of your college applications. Colleges want to recruit students who demonstrate the potential to take on the rigor of university coursework. As such, it goes without saying that you should do your best to earn solid grades during your high school years.
Grade Point Average (GPA)
One of the first things admissions officers will notice about your application is your GPA. While your GPA doesn’t define you as a student, it’s a critical part of your application that should be taken seriously. To make yourself a competitive candidate, strive to earn high grades in challenging courses. Keep in mind that the strength of your course schedule is considered when calculating your weighted GPA. As such, consider taking IB, AP, or Honors courses to boost your weighted GPA. Doing well in these types of classes demonstrates that you’re prepared for the academic rigor of college.
Related: High school and college GPA guide
For a while, taking the SAT or ACT was a standard part of the college admissions process. These days, however, many colleges and universities have gone test-optional. This gives students the freedom to decide whether or not they’d like to submit their test scores as part of their application. But regardless of whether or not you’re required to do so, you should still consider taking the SAT or ACT. Earning a high score on either of these tests can help you stand out during the admissions process. Not to mention, even test-optional schools sometimes use test scores to make determinations about awarding merit scholarships.
Related: ACT vs SAT: How to decide which test to take
Your grades and test scores demonstrate your abilities as a student, but your extracurricular activities show who you are as a person. Colleges want to know about your interests outside the classroom, and your extracurricular involvement is a great way to demonstrate that. Let’s talk about a few types of extracurricular activities that are sure to impress colleges.
Related: What are extracurricular activities and why do they matter?
School sports are one of the most popular types of extracurricular activities in high school. They require a lot of time and dedication and demonstrate that you’re capable of handling a serious commitment outside the classroom. If you’re able to secure a leadership position on your team, even better.
Colleges love to see candidates who are actively involved in school clubs. Rather than spreading yourself thin across a variety of clubs, pick one or two that you’re genuinely passionate about. Devote quality time to these clubs and try to work your way up to a leadership position. Admissions officers are seeking candidates who have made a noticeable impact within their student organizations. Remember that the key here is depth instead of breadth.
Volunteer work shows that you’re interested in giving back to your community, which is an important quality when it comes to applying for college. Admissions committees seek students who have the potential to make a positive impact on campus culture, and candidates committed to volunteering certainly fit this bill. From mentoring and tutoring to serving at local food pantries or animal shelters, there’s a number of ways to get involved in volunteer work.
Clubs, sports, and community service aren’t the only ways to show potential outside the classroom. Part-time jobs and internships are also an excellent way to demonstrate work ethic and time management skills. If possible, try to land a part-time job or internship in a field you’re looking to pursue as a career. Even part-time or seasonal jobs in retail or food service can be great application boosters.
Related: Top 15 internships for high school students
Awards and honors
Being well-accomplished in a particular field is an excellent way to boost your application. As we’ve discussed, it’s much better to commit quality time to a handful of activities rather than spreading yourself too thin. When you focus on the things you truly care about, you’re more likely to thrive and accomplish great things. For instance, maybe you won your school’s robotics competition, earned MVP on your sports team, or joined your school’s National Honor Society. These are all excellent examples of achievements that should be included in your application.
Related: How to complete the Common App honors section
Having a stellar essay or personal statement can go a long way in adding personal depth to your application. This is one of your best opportunities to showcase your personality and catch the attention of admissions officers. As you’re brainstorming ideas for your essay, think about the experiences that have molded you into the person you are today. What are the stories that help define you? Whatever you end up writing about, it should be meaningful enough that it sheds some light on who you are as a person.
Related: College essay primer: show, don’t tell
Letters of recommendation
Another way to get an edge in the application process is to have compelling recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors. These letters are meant to provide a third-party perspective of who you are as a student and person. When asking for recommendations, try to obtain two from teachers in different subject areas along with one from your guidance counselor. It’s best to ask for recommendations from teachers you’ve had recently, such as during your junior or senior year. And of course, reach out to the teachers who know you best and can speak to your strengths. Another option is to seek recommendations from coaches, work supervisors, mentors, or spiritual leaders.
Related: How to ask for letters of recommendation
Demonstrated interest is one way that colleges assess just how interested students are in attending their school. Sometimes, demonstrated interest impacts whether or not students are admitted to a particular college. All other things equal, demonstrated interest can be a “make or break” factor in admissions decisions, so do your research!
Related: Demonstrated Interest in College Admissions (With List of Colleges That Count It)
Composing a college application is a bit like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. A strong application relies on various elements working together in conjunction. For instance, a high GPA alone isn’t necessarily the golden ticket to acceptance. Good grades may be impressive, but they’ll mean a lot less if you have zero extracurricular activists or subpar essays.
In the end, your application shouldn’t rely on the strength of one single element. You should put together a well-rounded application that successfully blends academics, extracurriculars, essays, and other components. If you do that, you’ll be well on your way to receiving some acceptance letters in the mail!