The Top 13 Things College Admissions Officers Want to See

By Mandee Heller Adler

Public high school students can get into the college of their dreams. All it takes is gumption, advanced planning, and guidance. Students frequently want to know what colleges are looking for. The reality is there is no one perfect combination. Colleges want a range of students to create a diverse campus community, so students need to present themselves as a whole, showing off their own unique mix of qualities in the best way possible. As there isn’t one perfect combination, but rather may different ones, students should focus on the following:

1. Choose the right high school classes

Take classes that are a challenge, including AP and IB, when possible. If a student takes classes that are all easy, this will not be very impressive. Students need to challenge themselves but not to the extent they are hurting themselves grade-wise. Students must also meet all high school course requirements for their chosen college and to meet statewide graduation requirements in order to earn a diploma.

2. Get to know the college counselor

High school counselors can help students with their big picture planning for the future, including academic advising, college planning and personal counseling. College counselors are also needed for the all-important college application letters of recommendation. Make an appointment to see a school counselor at least once each year, including freshman year. The goal is to try to build a relationship with the high school counselor during the four years of high school. During the meeting talk about interests and goals. The more the school counselor knows about a student, the more he or she can help. Many public school students do not know their advisor, being proactive will make a student stand out.

3. Keep your grades up

Make a commitment to work hard for the good grades. Students who find themselves falling behind should get help — before they fall too far behind. Grades count and schools look for students who have challenged themselves and expressed a passion for learning. There is a classic question, is it better to get an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class? The real answer is it is best to get an A in an AP class.

For the majority of students, good grades are entirely necessary to get into a good school. Schools are looking for a positive pattern. In the best-case scenario, a student maintains good grades throughout his or her high school career. Though, if the grades started off badly and then improved, colleges give points for this. If grades are too low or show a steady decline, then a student is in real trouble. Spending a night studying while friends go out may not be exciting, but the path to college needs to be looked at with a long-term perspective.

4. Take standardized tests early

At most highly selective colleges, SAT or ACT tests are very important. The schools are looking to see if test score are consistent with – or exceed – a student’s high school performance. No student knows how high his or her score can go until the test results come in. But, if a student waits too long and does not get a desired score, there won’t be enough time to retake it. Many unexpected circumstances can affect test scores on any given day, including the state of a student’s health. (It’s impossible to plan not to get food poisoning.)

Taking the test early will also allow time to take a test prep course if necessary. Most students take the SAT and/or ACT at least twice and improve their score the second time they take it. Students must also make sure to schedule test days for the SAT Subject Tests. Most students take Subject Tests toward the end of junior year or at the beginning of senior year. The best time to take the tests is as soon as possible after completing the course in the subject.

5. Do your homework and try hard

No matter what the class, even one with a loathsome teacher and boring subject matter, students need to do their homework, try hard, and behave. Keep the eyes on the prize: college. Plus, teachers are where college recommendation letters come from so you want to impress them.

6. Engage in the right mix of extracurricular activities

Admissions officers are looking for commitment and impact in a student’s activities. It is better to be highly involved in one to three activities and/or sports over a number of years, than less involved in many activities. Anyone can join 10 clubs and be marginally involved in them all. Schools are looking for a student to demonstrate the willingness to stick with something and make the most of it. Schools are not so interested in hearing about passions; they want to see them proven! Once a student finds the activities he or she wants to focus on, the next step is to work on becoming a leader or to demonstrate initiative.

7. Take the college application process seriously

Students need to make sure they put time and effort into every part of the college application, from the essay to the resume. The college essay gives admissions officers the opportunity to know who a student is and how that student might contribute to the college campus. It also gives the admissions team a chance to learn something about a student that they won’t find elsewhere in the application. Admissions teams tend to prefer thoughtful, authentic essays that show real interests and passions combined with complicated thinking and good writing. Extracurricular activities should be carefully written so a student can best highlight all of his or her accomplishments and experience. The best recommendations come from individuals who really know the student. They should offer detailed information and-or personal stories about the applicant that back up the information on the application.

8. Do the research

Know what the choices are when it comes to colleges. This way any “coulda, shoulda, woulda” regrets can be avoided later in life. Research could be as simple as visiting a school’s website. Students should also try to attend college fairs, meet with admissions experts when they visit, and go on college visits.

9. Maximize summer opportunities

High school students who want to stand out on their college applications should consider the summer an ideal time to add some resume gold. Good choices include attending a summer enrichment program, taking a summer job or internship, participating in volunteer work, taking virtual classes, attending a dual enrollment program, or taking classes at a local college.

10. Develop any special talents or abilities

Students who do something extraordinarily well do gain an edge in the college admissions process. A special talent or ability can be anything including performing or visual arts, athletics, science, math, speech and debate, or writing. Colleges will look for evidence of a student’s accomplishments through recognition from others (i.e. awards, scholarships). They may also look for significant contributions that show the student’s depth of commitment and follow-through (e.g. newspaper articles).

11. Get help as needed

Students who are having trouble with academics or other issues or need college guidance should seek help. It is not hard to ask, though some students do find it difficult. Adults who are in a position to help may not know if a student is struggling, if no help is requested. Parents, teachers, expert independent college advisors can all help the process.

12. Make smart decisions

Say no to alcohol, drugs and embarrassing usage of social media. Don’t text and drive or drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. One dumb mistake can ruin a student’s life.

13. Banish the self-doubt

Fear of failure and doubting personal abilities only hold students back from achieving what they want to achieve. Just say no to these thoughts and others like them.

Different admissions directors seek different things. Some colleges look for students who are well-rounded, with a wide assortment of extracurricular activities; others give preference to those who have displayed a sustained passion for something. Be the best you can be.

Mandee Heller Adler is the Founder and Principal of International College Counselors, one of the world’s largest and most successful college and graduate school admissions counseling businesses. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with Honors and two degrees before receiving an MBA from Harvard Business School, all after attending a Florida-based public high school. Adler has personally helped hundreds of students across the world find, apply to, and gain acceptance into college. A member of NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and a professional member of the IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, she shares her insights and expertise in From Public School to the Ivy League: How to Get into a Top School Without Top Dollar Resources. For more information, visit www.internationalcollegecounselors.com.

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