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What Looks Good on College Applications?

two students play chess in school

If you are applying to college, you probably wonder what admission teams look for on a college application. How can you stand out from other applicants and grab the attention of the admissions officer? What makes an application end up in the pile of applicants that are offered admission?

In this article, we discuss what stands out on an application and helps you get the admission offer of your dreams. 

What do admissions officers look for on college applications?

Since the admissions officer will be reading your application and making the final admission decision, it is good to know what they focus on when reading applications.

The Princeton Review’s College Administrator Summer 2023 Survey—the education services company’s 4th such annual survey—asked administrators their views. According to the survey, their responses give a clear picture of what they consider when evaluating applications:

  • The majority of colleges will be test optional for 2024.
    Asked about their admission test policies for 2024, 84% said they will be test-optional (did not require but considered SAT,® ACT® or IB scores); 3% said they will require scores; 10% said they will be test-blind/test-free, and 3% said they are undecided.
  • College-level coursework (AP, IB, and dual enrollment) on applicant transcripts has gained importance in admission decisions.
    When asked to rate the relative importance of AP, IB, and dual enrollment coursework on applicant transcripts, 61% of respondents deemed such coursework important or very important in admission decisions. 
  • The majority of colleges do not give preference to legacy applicants.
    When asked about their institution’s policies concerning legacy applicants, 84% of respondents said their schools do not (and will not) give preference to legacy applicants; 13% said they do and will continue this practice; 3% said they are eliminating legacy preferences.

According to Robert Barkley, director of undergraduate admissions at Clemson University, “The most important part of a student’s application file is the high school record/transcript. The preparation there begins at the beginning of the high school career.”

What activities look good on a college application?

Participating on any sports team in college is an added plus to your college application. It communicates teamwork and commitment. However, if you aren’t involved in sports during high school, don’t despair. Many activities don’t involve sports and can look good on your college application.

Academic teams and clubs

Colleges do look at competitiveness and the drive to excel as a positive, and you can get that outside of the football field or basketball court. For instance, you can look at joining a chess club, whether it’s at school or in other settings. There may also be teams such as debate and mathletes teams where you can put your smarts to the test against others outside of a strictly academic setting. 

The student newspaper or yearbook

Another often overlooked extracurricular within the school is that of the newspaper or yearbook. You can learn communication and business skills that help you stand out on your application.

Political activism

You can get involved with school elections, local electoral politics, or political thought and support groups in your area. During local and national elections, political parties are always looking for volunteers to help with canvassing for votes. You might also consider running for a student office and serving on committees.

JROTC programs

Students who participate in these military-focused programs exhibit qualities that colleges value: teamwork, leadership, discipline, and the desire to achieve. My son participated in the JROTC program all four years of high school, and it made a positive, lasting impression on his application. 

There are plenty of extracurricular activities to potentially get involved with. Find something that interests you and stay committed to it during high school.

What jobs look good on a college application?

Of course, colleges also reward those who are participating in activities that are going to help them further their employability and skills in the world beyond education. The discipline and diligence that it takes to hold a job during high school look good on an application, especially if it’s in an area that you are interested in pursuing in college.

But if you want to separate yourself from the pack of wannabe college students, you might want to show your vision for the future. Lots of kids work through high school and have jobs on their resumes. What most of them don’t have, however, is a successful entrepreneurial endeavor and legit business experience under their belts. Instead of just working at a job, consider starting your own business. In today’s online world, it can be easier than you think.

Platforms like Etsy are filled with entrepreneurs selling everything from digital files to handmade jewelry. Entrepreneurship is quite impressive on a college application.

Is volunteering an important aspect of the college application?

You can create a lasting impression with a college if you exhibit consistency and commitment to an area that interests you. Colleges look at volunteer activities and use them to get a better picture of how you spend your time outside of school. Listing 20 different activities is a red flag to admissions officers—they view it as “padding the resume.” Instead, focus on the activities that coincide with your interests and passions and exhibit consistency throughout high school.

Pay attention to quality, not quantity. Find one thing you are passionate about and focus on that one activity. College admissions officers look for commitment and consistency in volunteer activities. It won’t impress them if you spend 4 hours a year volunteering for a food drive. Organizing and coordinating a food drive each year in high school would be a much wiser alternative. Start early and stay focused throughout high school.

What activities will help you stand out on the college application?

A non-teenager activity can look great on your college application. What exactly is a non-teenager activity? It’s something a teenager does that a teenager doesn’t normally do. It’s not volunteering or doing community service or a simple hobby. It’s an “outside the box” activity that shows the admissions committee you are different from other classmates. If your GPA isn’t stellar, this is one of the best ways to stand out.

And remember, it’s not something you pick up as a senior. This is a committed activity you have been involved in throughout high school. A few examples might be:

  • Starting and running any small business (lawn care, dog sitting, computer assistance, etc.)

  • Making videos (YouTube, wedding, graduation, etc.)

  • Inventing something

  • Writing and publishing (blog, news article, self-published book)

  • Starting a podcast

  • Starting and organizing a charity

How can demonstrating interest impact the application?

For colleges, it’s difficult to know which applicants are truly interested in attending. Due to the ease of the Common Application, students can apply to multiple colleges at once. Students often believe that applying to more colleges will increase their chances of getting accepted. When a college receives your application, admission officers look for ways to determine whether you will accept their offer of admission.

Since all colleges have quotas to fill and determine their admission offers based on percentages of acceptance, showing interest in a school lets them know you will likely accept their offer. Students who visit a college before they apply are up to 40 percent more likely to be admitted than students who do not visit or show demonstrated interest. As they see it, why offer admission to someone who isn’t interested when there is someone likely to accept?

What looks good on a college application?

The application allows students to stand out from other applicants by communicating who they are and giving admissions officers a glimpse into their unique qualities. You can do this by focusing on all the components of the application: your grades and courses you took, the essay, recommendations, extracurricular activities, demonstrating interest, and your overall high school resume. A good application is the total of all of these and ideally gives the admissions officer an idea of why you would be a good fit for their campus community.

Prepared with the application? Now learn your chances of admission

So, you know what admission officers are looking for. We now recommend using a tool like our college acceptance calculator to see your real chances of getting accepted. It will better help you understand how competitive you'll be at each school you apply to. Just click the button below to get started. It's always free and easy to use. 

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