What Does a Strong College Applicant Look Like?

Many of the most selective colleges in the United States reject far more students than they accept, so it's only natural to ask what qualities and credentials the admissions folks will be looking for. What makes one applicant stand out while another gets passed over? This series—"What Does a Strong College Applicant Look Like?"—addresses this question. 

There is no short answer. A strong college applicant can be outgoing or reserved.

Some successful applicants lead from the front, some from behind. Some show remarkable academic skills, while others have impressive talents outside of the classroom. A college might be impressed with one applicant's theatrical accomplishments, while another might have been too busy with a job to get involved in after-school extracurricular activities.

This is as it should be. Nearly all colleges believe that the best learning environment is one in which students have diverse talents and backgrounds. The admissions folks are not looking for a specific type of student, but a wide range of students who will contribute to the campus community in meaningful and different ways. When applying to college, you need to tell your story, not try to conform to some type of mold you think the college prefers.

That said, strong college applicants do need to prove that they are well-prepared for college and will enrich life on campus.

The categories explored here will help you think about the defining features of a successful college applicant.

The Defining Features of a Strong Applicant

At 99% of colleges, your schoolwork trumps every other piece of your college application. The first section, "A Solid Academic Record," looks at the elements that make up a good academic record.

If you've taken AP and Honors courses that have weighted grades, it's important to recognize that many colleges will recalculate those grades to create consistency across the applicant pool.

Whether a college is highly selective or not, the admissions folks are going to want to see that you've completed a sufficient college preparatory core curriculum. The second section on "Required Courses" looks at the types of math, science, and foreign language classes colleges like to see in an applicant's high school transcript. 

The best academic records reveal that applicants have taken the most challenging courses available at their schools. If you have a choice between an elective course and an Advanced Placement course, you'd be wise to take the AP course if you are applying to selective colleges. The admissions folks will also be impressed if you've completed an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. As you'll learn in the third section, successful completion of AP or IB courses is one of the best indicators of college preparedness.

Your high school curriculum and grades aren't the only academic measures used by colleges. The fourth section covers the role of "Test Scores" in the admissions process.

A good SAT score or good ACT score can strengthen an application significantly. That said, there are plenty of ways to compensate for low SAT scores, so less-than-ideal scores don't need to sabotage your college ambitions.

Academic preparation, of course, is not the only defining feature of a strong college applicant. Colleges want to admit students who lead rich lives outside of the classroom and who bring their interests, talents, and experiences to the campus community. In the fifth section, "Extracurricular Activities," you'll learn that the best extracurricular activities are those that reveal your depth of interest and leadership skills. Colleges recognize, however, that extensive extracurricular involvement isn't an option for all applicants, and that work experience can be equally valuable.

The best college applicants continue growing and learning in the summer, and the final section, "Summer Plans," looks at some of the best summer plans for high school students. The most important strategy here is to do something. Whether that be travel, a job, or a creative writing camp, you'll want to show the admissions folks that you use your summers productively.

A Final Word on Strong College Applicants

In an ideal world, an applicant shines in all areas: she earns a straight "A" average in an IB curriculum, gets near perfect ACT scores, plays lead trumpet in the All-State Band, and receives All-American recognition as a star soccer player. However, the great majority of applicants, even those applying to top schools, are mere mortals.

As you work to make yourself the strongest applicant possible, keep your priorities in order. Good grades in challenging courses come first. A weak academic record will almost certainly land your application in the rejection pile at highly selective colleges and universities. SAT and ACT scores matter at most colleges, so it's worth putting in some effort with a review book to prepare for exams. On the extracurricular front, what you do doesn't matter nearly as much as how you do it. Whether it be a job, club, or activity, put in your best effort and stick with it.

Most importantly, realize that there are many kinds of strong applicants. Try to resist comparing yourself to your classmates, and avoid the trap of trying to second guess what you think a college is looking for.

Put your heart and effort into being your best self, and you'll be positioning yourself well for the college admissions process.