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College Applications: What Looks Good?

Unfortunately there’s not a magic formula that works for every applicant trying to get into college. 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 amount of credits and type of classes in 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 demands of college. 

Related: High school and college GPA guide 

Test scores

For a while, taking the SAT or ACT was a standard part of the college admissions process. These days, 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. 

Deciding whether or not to take the ACT or SAT is something that you should talk about with a parent or guidance counselor. You may already have a pretty strong application without one of those test scores, but keep in mind that some scholarships may ask for it. Whatever you decide, your decision just needs to be right for you! 

Extracurricular activities

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!


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!

School clubs

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 quality over quantity.

Volunteer work and community service 

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. 

Volunteering/community service ideas:

  • Mentoring and tutoring younger students
  • Volunteering at local food pantries
  • Volunteering at animal shelters

See also: Top scholarships for community service


Part-time jobs and internships are 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!

Awards and honors

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. 

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 

Well-written essays

Having a stellar essay or personal statement can go a long way in adding depth to your application. This is one of your best opportunities to showcase your  personality and catch the attention of admissions officers. 

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

Compelling letters of recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors are a great addition to a college application! These letters are meant to provide a third-party perspective of who you are as a student and person. 

It’s best to ask for recommendations from teachers you’ve had recently, or teachers who know you best and can speak to your strengths. Below are some additional people that you could ask for recommendations from. 

  • Coaches
  • Supervisors or managers from  jobs/internships
  • Mentors, spiritual leaders, etc… 

Demonstrated interest

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! 

Final thoughts 

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. Good grades may be impressive, but they’ll mean a lot less if you have zero extracurricular activists or subpar essays.

You should strive to 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!

Frequently asked questions about what looks good on college applications

What are the best extracurriculars that look good on your college application?

The extracurriculars that you put on your application should reflect how you spent your time in high school and what you care about. So, the best extracurriculars are the ones that reflect something about who you are. They should show your dedication to things outside of the classroom.

How do I make my college application stand out?

The best way to standout as an applicant is to submit an application that includes all the required materials, reflects who you are and demonstrates your desire to attend that school. Submitting additional materials may seem like a good way to try and stand out, but keep in mind that college advisors have limited time to review each application. Stick to the space they give you and focus on making sure each section is completed to the best of your abilities! 

What do college admissions officers look for?

College admissions officers want to admit students who are enthusiastic about learning and becoming an engaged member of the community around them.This means that before you apply to a school, you should learn about them and ask yourself if you could see yourself attending that school. If you can’t picture yourself there, then chances are admissions officers will see that as well. College admissions officers want to admit students who want to be a part of their school!