It goes without saying that the college admissions process is pretty cut-throat. In 2012, the University of California-Los Angeles received 72,697 applications from prospective freshman enrollees. And they’re not alone—nine other U.S. universities also received more than 45,000 first-year applications. In short, college admissions competition is fierce.
So since most students know that good grades and scores on the ACT or SAT are the first steps to securing a coveted spot at the university of their choice, we decided to put together a list of things that college admissions officers want to see from applications, beyond the numbers.
1. Challenging classes
Yes, grades are important. But in the process of trying to secure a high GPA, students who enroll in only easy courses are actually doing themselves a disservice. Admissions reps want to see that students are actually challenging themselves by taking rigorous courses, says Tim Keefauver, VP of Enrollment Management at Monmouth College.
While admissions committees want to see that students are taking on challenging course loads, they aren’t naïve enough to think that everyone will get straight-As. The true marker of success, then, is improvement, says Alexandra Mayzler, founder of the Thinking Caps Group and author of ACT Demystified. “College admissions officers want to know that students will blossom once they arrive on campus,” she says. “A student who has shown growth through high school and has a trajectory to continue this growth is a good candidate.”
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3. Strong essay
“There’s a reason there are so many essays in the college application process,” says Lauren Herskovic, COO of Admissionado, a premier admissions consulting firm, “and that is because the essays are the chance for the admissions committee to see who the applicant is beyond grades and test scores.” Herskovic advises students to avoid writing what they think admissions reps want to hear and instead opt for a genuine approach—as in, don’t write that you want to end world hunger if you’re not really passionate about that issue.
4. Passionate recommendations
Most students are a bit biased when it comes to reviewing their qualifications, and they are going to go the extra mile in presenting themselves in the best light possible. That’s why admissions reps look to letters of recommendation (LORs) for a more objective perspective. “They know no applicant will ask someone for a recommendation if they think that person won’t speak highly of them, so many LORs look the same,” says Herskovic. “It’s the ones that are passionate, then, that stand out. So it’s important for applicants to seek out recommenders who truly know them and believe in them—people who can get very specific as to why that applicant deserves that spot, why they are exceptional, etc.”
5. An extra letter of recommendation
When it comes to allowing others to speak positively on your behalf, you can’t have too much of a good thing, says Brian Stewart, president of BWS Education Consulting. “Sure, there are three mandatory recommendations in almost every case, but is there anything that says you can’t have someone else who knows and respects you write a letter that they directly send to the admissions office?” says Stewart. “By having them send the letter directly, you will avoid looking desperate. But don’t go too crazy with this—keep it to one or two extra letters or it will begin to look like an orchestrated effort. What do you have to lose?”
6. Leadership qualities
We’ve heard for some time that college admissions committees look for well-rounded students who engaged in a variety of activities while in high school. And while that’s true, they’re actually more interested in students who took on a leadership position within a few select organizations. “If you are a member of 7 different groups, the odds are that you are spread thin and may not have had major impact on any one group,” says Sean Moore, founder of SMART College Funding. “Being involved at a higher level not only shows leadership, but it can also give insight into the student’s personality and values.”
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7. Apply early
Junior and senior year of high school can be tough, with standardized testing, visiting colleges and actually making sure you graduate. But when it comes time to fill out college applications, Moore advises students to apply early. He also suggests visiting the university’s website to join their email list and sign up to receive additional information. Why? It shows there’s a committed interest in the school and that applying wasn’t just a last-ditch, throwaway effort.
As a piggy-back on being proactive and getting in the application early, showing a clear passion for a school within the actual application will definitely go a long way in impressing admissions reps. “Students truly need to convey their enthusiasm for a particular school and their fit, as it relates to what classes, programs, clubs and organizations they will be part of on campus,” explains Deena Maerowitz, an independent college admissions consultant. “Colleges want to know what’s in it for them when they admit a student. How will that student engage and benefit the larger community while growing into the person they want to become?”
9. Unique niche
While researching the different clubs and organizations they plan to participate in, students should also pay careful attention to any gaps that they can uniquely fill on campus, says Stewart. “Colleges want well-rounded classes, not necessarily well-rounded students,” he adds. “Match your talents and interests to niches that certain colleges will have difficulty filling. Consider sports, activities and potential majors.”
10. Ethnic diversity
The topic of race-based (or race-influenced) admissions has been a heated one lately, but until the matter has been completely resolved, showcasing your ethnic diversity is still one of the best ways to move the top of an application stack. “Many students have mixed-race heritages, and if you are from a traditionally under-represented ethnic group—Native American, African American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander—be sure you make this clear on your application,” says Stewart. “Based on my research, it seems that if you are at least one-quarter of a particular ethnicity (i.e., one grandparent of that ethnicity), few would question that you could identify with it. You can check off multiple ethnicities if needed.”
Participation in unique extracurricular activities or showcasing special talents are also good ways for applicants to stand out in a crowd. Unfortunately, though, those things are often hard to communicate via the standard college application. “If you are a talented artist, musician or writer, a line on an application cannot convey the extent of your abilities; a recording, a link to your blog or an artistic portfolio will,” Stewart explains. “Colleges will often have faculty members evaluate the materials so that the admissions staff can determine just how significant a contribution you can make to the culture of the college.”
12. Positive social media profiles
Since it seems as though most teens’ preferred method of communication is online, it should come as no surprise that college admission reps are checking out candidates’ social media profiles. “Yes, admissions officers do check Facebook, so be mindful of how you present yourself online,” says Russell Schaffer, Senior Communications Manager for Kaplan Test Prep. “Our annual survey of college admissions officers finds that this is a tool that admissions officers are increasingly using to learn more about applicants.”
13. Jobs and internships
School activities are great, as is a strong GPA and high test scores, but admissions committees also want to know that students have a life outside of academics. Volunteer work shows a commitment to the community at large, which admissions reps certainly appreciate. But there’s a lot to be said for students who have held down real jobs. Adds Schaffer, “Jobs and internships show your desire to learn and grow beyond school, and they demonstrate your financial responsibility and time-management skills.”