Skip to main content

What Colleges Look For in High School Students

Gifted Education and Support

View 2020 findings of what college admission experts determine that colleges want to see in their applicants.

Author: Sklarow, M.
Organization: Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA)
Year: 2020

For more than 20 years, the Independent Educational Consultants Association has surveyed its member college admission experts to determine what colleges want to see in their applicants, creating a ranking to assist students and their parents in understanding how college applicants are reviewed after submission. Of course, all colleges are different and IECA members can be particularly helpful in understanding those variances.

Among the key 2020 findings:

  • While grades are important (#2 in rankings), colleges want to see students challenging themselves, willing to risk perfect GPAs by taking courses that will demonstrate a willingness to take chances, including AP and IB coursework (#1).
  • Despite all the talk about “test optional,” scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT remain critical (#3)
  • Extra-curriculars rose to their highest level ever in the IECA rankings (#4), but colleges look for a long-term, passionate, authentic involvement in one or two activities whether in or out of school. No one is impressed by a long list of tangential clubs. In fact, jumping two spots (to #6) this year: demonstration of leadership within those chosen few activities.
  • Essays remain important and are even more important at smaller colleges. But students misunderstand their role. Yes, clear and cogent writing matters, but a great essay is one that tells a story, giving insight into a student’s unique personality. There’s a great saying—no one else should be able to write the essay you submit for admission.
  • Coming together are four items that speak to the question: what can YOU do for US? Colleges wonder how the student will contribute to campus life: through unique characteristics or demographics (#7), through special talents (#9), through interest in research (#10), and through demonstrations of a student’s character and values (#11).
  • How does a student demonstrate all those? Through the essay, the activities list, and through recommendations, which turned up as #8 on the 2020 rankings.
  • Finally, an area students often don’t understand is demonstration of interest and enthusiasm in attending (#12). Are you following the college on Facebook? Did you visit the campus? Seek an interview? Colleges don’t like to extend an offer of admission to a student who will go elsewhere, so when you decide on your first choice, let them know!

This ranked list is based on a 2020 nationwide survey of IECA member independent educational consultants.

Just as every college is different, so too are the criteria and priorities in each college’s admission process. In fact, one of the great advantages of working with an independent educational consultant is their personal knowledge of these differences, helping students to navigate the process. Click here to find an IECA member.

  1. A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include AP or IB classes.
  2. High grade point average in major subjects. However, slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all A’s in less challenging coursework.
  3. High scores on standardized tests (ACT, SAT). These should be consistent with high school performance.
  4. Passionate involvement in a few activities that are meaningful, inside or outside of school.
  5. A well-written essay that emphasizes insight into the student’s unique personality.
  6. Leadership inside or outside of school. Depth, rather than breadth, of leadership is valued.
  7. Demographic and personal characteristics that contribute to a diverse and interesting student body.
  8. Strong counselor/teacher recommendations that provide personalized references.
  9. Special talents that could contribute to campus life.
  10. Intellectual curiosity exhibited through reading, research, and extracurricular pursuits.
  11. Student’s character and values are seen as conducive to being a good community member.
  12. Demonstrated interest and enthusiasm in attending (through campus visits, etc.).

Permission Statement

Comments

Craig Roberson

It's important that students are well rounded, not just academic achievers.

Add a comment

Please note, the Davidson Institute is a non-profit serving families with highly gifted children. We will not post comments that are considered soliciting, mention illicit topics, or share highly personal information.

Related Articles

Gifted Education and Support

Navigating Homeschool with Your Gifted Child

Navigating Homeschooling with Your Gifted Child Many Young Scholars have been starting school over the last few weeks. Since the…

Gifted Education and Support

Tips for Organizing Your Homeschool Space

Tips for Organizing Your Homeschool Space If you’re working from home and/or homeschooling now, you’re probably realizing that some of…

Gifted Education and Support

A Short Guide for Building an Independent Study Course

A Short Guide for Building an Independent Study Course (with an example included!) One way to use the Long List…

Highlights from Expert Series

Tips for Students: Learning to Invent - How Math Invented a New Way to Control Pandemics

The following article shares highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their…