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Published: Dec 04, 2015 3 min read
Many colleges look for applicants with a passion for a particular activity, like these high school musicians.
Spencer Grant—Getty Images

Most college-bound students and their parents must wonder sooner or later: What exactly are college admissions officers looking for as they plow through those mounds of applications from eager hopefuls?

The list below attempts to answer that question. It was created by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), based on a nationwide survey of its members.

(Many IECA members participate in the premium version of the Money College Planner website. As one of the benefits, subscribers receive a free 30-minute counseling session with an IECA member. For more information on that feature, see our Talk to an Adviser page. )

  1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include AP or IB classes.
  1. Grades that represent a strong effort and an upward trend. However, slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all A’s in less challenging coursework.
  1. Solid scores on standardized tests (ACT, SAT). These should be consistent with high school performance.
  1. A well-written essay that provides insight into the student’s unique personality, values, and goals. The application essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should demonstrate careful and well-constructed writing.
  1. Passionate involvement in a few in- or out-of-school activities. Commitment and depth are valued over minimal involvement in a large number of activities.
  1. Demonstrated leadership and initiative in extracurricular activities. Students who arrive on campus prepared to lead clubs and activities are highly desirable.

Best college education image

  1. Personal characteristics that will contribute to a diverse and interesting student body. Many colleges seek to develop a freshman class that is diverse: geographically, culturally, ethnically, economically, and politically.
  1. Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school, leisure pursuits, and more.
  1. Demonstrated enthusiasm to attend the college, often exhibited by campus visits and an interview, if offered admission.
  1. Letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors that give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and an interest in learning.

View Sample

  1. Special talents that will contribute to the college’s student life program. Colleges like to know what you intend to bring to campus, as well as what you’ll take from your college experience.
  1. Out-of-school experiences including work, community service, youth organizations, religious groups, etc. Again, passionate involvement is meaningful to the admissions office; casual memberships are not.

List © Independent Educational Consultants Association

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