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Articles / Applying to College / What Are Colleges REALLY Looking For?

What Are Colleges REALLY Looking For?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Jan. 10, 2020
What Are Colleges REALLY Looking For?


I'm a mom with some general questions about college applications. I have a son who's a senior and a daughter who's a junior and I'm really lost in this process. My question is, what are colleges REALLY looking for? Do they want high stats or "student of the year" type people who have lots of extracurriculars and leadership?

Do they want students who they KNOW will attend? I know the answer is probably "they want all of these" but what are the priorities? My kids are not "top 20" type of students but they have good grades and SATs, and it seems like colleges are cagey about saying specifically what they're looking for.

You're on the right track. Admission officials are always looking for:

  • High stats
  • Leadership
  • Interests outside of the classroom
  • A commitment to enroll is helpful, too.

Also on that Hit List:

  • Evidence of good character and concern for others
  • Skills that might benefit the alma mater in the near future (e.g., fast swimmers, high jumpers, reliable shooters from the three-point line) or down the road (gifted writers, star sopranos, promising politicians)
  • And if the family can pay full freight, that's usually a tick in the plus column, too.

Conversely, colleges also like:

  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or who are the first in their families to go to college
  • Having an underrepresented minority background commonly provides a big boost...
  • ...As does a legacy connection (though the clout of these ties is slowly diminishing), or any major VIP link.

But admission folks really don't expect to see ALL of that on any single application. They're looking to build a strong, diverse class, which means that they're seeking candidates who tick many of the aforementioned boxes but not necessarily every one.

You asked about "priorities." Easy peasy! Admission officials almost always look first and foremost at their applicants' transcripts ... the students' grades in the context of the rigor of the classes. "The Dean" is often asked, "What's better ... a B in an AP class or an A in the regular one?" And, to that, I respond with a resounding but unsatisfying, "It depends." At the hyper-selective places ... the ones with single-digit acceptance rates that turn away far more qualified candidates than they accept ... the answer is, "Most of the successful candidates will get an A in the AP class." But for the vast majority of students (and, from what you've said, it sounds like your own kids fit here), admission committees are seeking students who challenge themselves even if it means sacrificing a tip-top grade.

For colleges that require test scores, these will be important, too — in fact, possibly more important than admission officials want you to believe. So when a student is considering a particular college, I always suggest examining that school's GPA and SAT/ACT medians. Any time a candidate's "numbers" fall below those middle ranges, you have to ask yourself "What's in the student's profile that will mitigate these subpar numbers?" And if the answer is, "Not much," then this college is probably a "Reach" ... or even an "Out of Reach."

At the uber-selective schools that I mentioned a minute ago, grades and test scores that are well within the median range (or above) will be an imperative for most candidates but won't get them beyond the vaunted Ivy gates. Next, admission officials will ask, "What's special?" And at that level, achievements that make parents puff up with pride (e.g., class officer, student body president, Eagle Scout, yearbook editor, first-chair violin ... ) are viewed as laudable endeavors but otherwise ho-hum.

But at most other colleges, applicants with grades and test scores that won't pull down the medians, and with other worthwhile achievements on their resumes, are likely to get good news. Of course, the more of the "Hit List" that an applicant can ... well ... hit, the better the acceptance odds.

You noted in your question that colleges can be "cagey" when it comes to saying specifically what they're looking for. And The Dean agrees. Colleges may have "institutional priorities" (such as more German majors or males from the Southeast) that they don't disclose. They can also be misleading about a student's chances of admission in order to bolster application numbers. ("Don't worry about all those D's in English. We can't predict your outcome until you actually apply.") If I ruled the world, colleges would be far more transparent. Websites might proclaim, "Welcome future physicists!" or "You took ceramics instead of calculus? Look elsewhere!"

Yet, when colleges claim to practice "holistic admissions" (and most these days do), it's really true. A student with terrible math grades might compose music that moves hard-hearted admission veterans; a brilliant essay could eclipse a sophomore year of only C's.

Thus "The Dean" is wary of telling you what colleges want. Instead, I'd rather encourage teenagers to pursue their personal interests, to try to challenge themselves academically but not to the point that they're fraught with stress, and to realize that —whatever their preferences and their academic profile — there will be colleges out there that want them.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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