College Application Overview

Learn What Schools Look For in a College Applicant

University Application Form
University Application Form. teekid / E+ / Getty Images

College applications vary from one college to the next, and every college and university has slightly different criteria for determining which students to admit. Still, the list below should give you a good sense of the factors considered by most schools. The bulleted and bolded items below are from the "common data set" -- admissions information that a majority of schools compile.

Academic Information

  • Rigor of secondary school record: Did you take challenging and accelerated classes, or did you pad your schedule with gym and easy As?
  • Class rank: How do you compare to your classmates?
  • Academic GPA: Are your grades high enough to indicate that you will be successful in college?
  • Standardized test scores: How did you perform on the SAT or ACT? Do your general or subject tests reveal particular strengths or weaknesses?
  • Application essay: Is your essay well-written? Does it present you as a person who will make a good campus citizen?
  • Recommendation: What do your teachers, coaches, and other mentors say about you?


  • Interview: If you met with a college representative, how personable and articulate were you? Does your character show promise?
  • Extracurricular activities: Are you involved with non-academic clubs and organizations? Do you have a variety of interests that suggest you have a well-rounded personality?
  • Talent/ability: Is there an area where you truly excel, such as music or athletics?
  • Character/personal qualities: Do the pieces of your application paint a picture of someone who is mature, interesting, and bighearted?
  • First generation: Did your parents attend college? This factor isn’t usually weighted heavily, but some schools do try to target first-generation college students.
  • Alumni/ae relation: Are you a legacy applicant? Having a family member who attended the same school can help a little, for it’s in the college’s interest to build a family’s loyalty.
  • Geographical residence: Where are you from? Most schools want geographic diversity within their student body.
  • State residency: This is usually a factor only for state universities. Sometimes in-state applicants will receive preference.
  • Religious affiliation/commitment: Your faith is a factor only for some colleges that have a religious affiliation.
  • Racial/ethnic status: Most colleges believe that a diverse student body leads to a better educational experience for all students.
  • Volunteer work: Have you given generously of your time? Volunteer work speaks to the question of “character” above.
  • Work experience: Even if your work was at a fast-food joint, it can show that you have a strong work ethic and good time management skills.
  • Level of applicant’s interest: Most schools indicate that they don’t try to measure interest. Nevertheless, a good application always reveals strong interest.

To see how different types of schools rank these categories, check out a few sample common data sets. Once you open the pdf files, scroll down to section C7: