What Do Colleges Really Look For in an Applicant?

Every single year, the college admissions process becomes increasingly more daunting, with high school seniors around the country racking their brains trying to decipher what exactly it is they must do to make their applications stand out. On the latter, juniors and underclassmen too must become accustomed to the ever-changing aspects of what schools are looking for. While all is dependent on each subset of schools, study interest, and acceptance rates, there is good reason to believe the following things should lead students to making the right decisions while applying to schools throughout the next few cycles.

Easily the most obvious aspect of college admissions that seems to be losing credibility every year is standardized testing. What used to be integral to getting into any college with an even slightly low acceptance rate, is now fizzling out to not being used by even all eight ivies. Of course, a good SAT or ACT composite score can always only be of aid. In fact, a recent article published by Forbes states that while Yale does not require test scores, it is encouraged to send them in even if they are below the middle 50% range. Of course, if students choose not to take or submit a score, it won’t be of detriment to them. However, it does place more weight on transcripts, extracurriculars, recommendation letters, and of course, essays. It does beg the question about whether or not standardized tests will play a role in the admissions process in coming years. Ever since COVID-19 placed a pause on it during the beginning of the decade, schools have moved away from it and are continuing to extend their policies, some to Fall 2024 applicants. The CSU (California State University) Panel recommended eliminating the test from decision making on admission committees altogether, with the argument that many have been making for decades: every student is different, and test-taking abilities do not always measure up to actual college-readiness. There are plenty of students with stellar grades and community involvement that simply cannot break an 1100 on their SAT, no matter how it is superscored. Nevertheless, it is still probably substantial to at least try it out, as it makes good practice for future, higher education tests like the Bar Exam, LSATs, and MCATS. Time will only tell what role these tests may play down the road, if any at all. 

Perhaps one of the most heavily debated topics within the college admissions process is demonstrated interest. Is it really so important to be on a college’s radar? Well, yes and no. According to Prepory’s Latest College Admissions Trends for 2022, high school students’ interest in attending college has been on steady decline, with admissions dropping by 7%. As a result, schools are desperately trying to withstand the influx of pursuits in trades, community college, and general workforce jobs that do not require secondary degrees. To do so, acceptance rates, especially for historically selective schools, have dropped significantly. In effort to weasel out a substantial amount of students for enrollment, schools often turn to demonstrated interest to see who is truly willing to spend money on their education. As many seniors know, this usually entails engaging somewhat with admissions officers. While not everyone can be a legacy, if you are truly interested in a school, it seems to be of paramount importance to at the very least visit a school if you can. Since the pandemic, especially given the increasing test optional policies across even the most competitive schools, universities are definitely looking for more distinctive ways to pick students for their graduating classes. While not everyone can get a recommendation letter from a professor at whichever university they prefer, the best demonstrated interest one can show is simply visiting a school, and emailing admissions counselors with any questions you have.

Another seemingly impossible resume builder that high school students struggle with at every level is extracurricular activities. What should you join to really make you stand out? Is leadership in every activity necessary? Is it better to put your time towards a job outside of school, or build community service instead? Across the board, everyone tends to seek the same big name clubs and sports with motivations for leadership titles. The Honor Societies are especially popular, with the U.S National Honor Society boasting over one million members within their 962 chapters around the country. Of course, participating in big organizations is a fantastic way to make yourself stand out, but it’s certainly not the only way. Post University states on their website that the niche activities are the most significant to the application process, such as work experience, internships, and sports. There are obviously certain gaps to fill in this section, as every student has different experiences and perhaps cannot make the time to participate in school clubs and athletics as much as the next person. Luckily, this is known amongst universities, and family roles and commitments usually count as an activity themselves. The most important thing to do at the end of the day is find what you are truly interested in, and hone in on it. 

So, what’s the takeaway? The moral of the story, unfortunately, is the fact that the college trends change every year. Just as fashion and music, what’s popular now will likely not be so popular tomorrow. The single most dire factor, if any, for high school students is the same thing we’ve been taught since childhood. To be yourself, and do what you want to do so long as it fulfills your life. If it positively contributes to you as a student and person, the likelihood is that you can somehow weave that into your applications when the time comes. It might just not be in the way you expect! Many smaller accomplishments or moments of evolution make great supplemental or scholarship essays. Doing your best is truly all there is to do.

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