What are college admissions teams and recruiters really looking for when a student submits their application?
You’ve probably heard a lot of different advice from a lot of different people:
- “It’s all about your grades.”
- “It’s all about your extracurricular activities.”
- “It’s all about your essay.”
- “It’s all about who you know.”
You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out the right formula of test scores, outside interests, grade point average and alumni connections to get you that acceptance letter.
To save you the headache, we sat down with a team of college recruiters and asked them to spell it out for us: what really makes an applicant stand out?
Here’s what they had to say.
Q. What, in general, makes an applicant catch your attention?A. Having a strong academic record of success in high school is key —but that doesn’t mean you need to be overly involved, or be on the honor roll each and every semester.
It’s important to test your academic limits and take courses that are preparing you for higher education or a technical field that you wish to pursue. We look at your diploma, class rank, cumulative GPA, and standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) to determine if you’re a good fit.
Also, we examine the big picture when it comes to your academic success—not just your senior year. It’s important to enter high school understanding that your choices to do well and challenge yourself will impact your opportunities when applying for college.
Q. How can I improve my chances at being accepted to the university I want?A. Every day, get up and go to school as an engaged learner. Ask questions. Challenge yourself—and your teachers—to learn more.
Being an active learner in the classroom will lead to an improvement in your grades. This leads to a domino effect, which will improve your class rank and overall GPA.
You can also take advantage of opportunities like honors courses, advanced placement classes, college level examination programs, and college dual-credit classes.
Q. Which matters more: grades or test scores?
A. If I had to pick, I would say grades. They reflect the overall success you had as a high school student. Test scores only represent an experience that took place for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. It outlines potential but your grades demonstrate your ability to put that potential into action.
Sometimes, a strong student may not test well for a variety of reasons: illness, anxiety, their primary language barrier, or inadequate education to prepare them for standardized testing. And sometimes, a poor student may test extremely well—suggesting that they didn’t take their schooling seriously, but they possess the knowledge to succeed. It is important to prepare as best as possible for testing as there are tons of free testing preparation materials and sites available to students online and at your school.
Q. What are some less obvious qualities your team looks for in stand-out applicants?
A. At our university, the most important factors we weigh in our decision include your academic record, including diploma type, class rank, GPA, and test scores. But it’s still to your benefit to pursue extracurricular activities like clubs, sports, leadership opportunities, and employment. These strengthen your knowledge base and professionalism, and suggest to us that you have experience in teamwork, time management, public speaking, dealing with conflict, and networking. Students who are persistent may repeat a standardized test to increase their score or challenge themselves for an AP course—we look at all of those things.
If a student takes advantage of teaching or career classes, it can also deepen that student’s choice for moving forward with a particular field of study. It can enlighten him or her, regarding whether or not a career on that path is what they expected.
Q. For selective or competitive programs (like nursing or engineering), what can I do to make myself stand out?
A. We encourage students to take advantage of career service opportunities through their guidance offices, such as career testing, job shadowing, and reading career resource guides. Students interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEMs) majors should do well in those kinds of courses and should challenge themselves to learn more through engineering camps, Lego competitions, health career days, and other opportunities.
In competitive majors, it is important not only to have the academic knowledge but also the “soft skills:” being able to interview well and present yourself in a polished, professional manner will be to your advantage. Typically, you may be admitted to the university as a pre-major, and then have to prove you can be successful in that competitive program during your first semester or year.
Your university may offer support services that can help you, including tutoring, supplemental instruction, writing counselors, or a Career Services office that can help you with mock interviews, résumé writing, and career guidance. These services will set you apart from other candidates during the interview and application process.
Looking for more help with the college application process?
Whether you're a freshman or a senior in high school, there are important steps you should be taking to prepare to apply to college. Take a look at our College Application Checklist to make sure you're on track.