What Looks Good on College Applications?
College is foremost an academic pursuit—so it makes sense that academics figure importantly in admissions decisions. Here are the two ways that your academic performance gets communicated on your application:
Grade Point Average (GPA)
The most important step you can take to make yourself a competitive candidate is, of course, to work hard in school. Your GPA is the single most influential factor that any college will consider. It reflects your performance as a student over almost four years of your life and offers insight into what sort of college student you will be.
If possible, enroll in honors classes during your freshman and sophomore years, and then AP classes during your junior and senior years. These will help boost your weighted GPA (an A in an AP course is typically worth 5.0 points instead of the 4.0 points awarded to an A in a regular course). More importantly, challenging classes demonstrate to admissions committees that you have the interest and the ability to take on higher-level work. This aspect of your transcript is often referred to as academic rigor, something many students don’t realize is important in college admissions. Try to take AP classes in the subjects that you would like to study in college. For example, if you want to be pre-med, aim to take AP Biology and Chemistry. Here’s a resource for mapping out your AP strategy.
For schools that consider standardized test scores, those typically rank second in importance. (However, even test-optional schools often use standardized test scores to make determinations about merit-based financial aid—your scores matter!)
Whether or not it’s mandatory, your SAT or ACT score can do a lot to set you apart. To see the range of typical scores at the schools you’re considering, check out their school profiles. Then, find out where you stand by taking a practice SAT or practice ACT. To hone your test-taking skills, put together a test-prep plan. Having a high score will help you gain admission to your top-choice colleges—and even earn scholarships to help you pay for school.
You may also need to take one or more SAT Subject Tests. Check out the admissions requirements for the schools you’re considering. Even if schools don’t require SAT Subject Tests, taking subject-specific tests can be a savvy admissions move on your part. Solid scores not only demonstrate mastery of the material, but can also get you placed in higher-level college classes and even earn you college credit!
Colleges want to win over students who work hard in school—but they also want to see that you’ve got a well-rounded life outside of your academic pursuits. While you don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) go out and join every single club your school offers, you should participate in a few well-chosen extracurricular activities.
Plan to join two or three high school clubs, ideally ascending to a leadership position in at least one of them over the course of your high school career. Colleges like to see breadth, but not at the expense of depth. Make sure that you find a way to get deeply involved in at least one activity besides school. Use your club involvement as a way to show admissions committees who you are. Are you a champion debater? A mathlete? A musician? Let your extracurricular pursuits showcase the abilities you’ve cultivated that aren’t evident from your grades and scores.
Another option is joining a sports team. Colleges know that sports often entail a major time commitment, so don’t feel that you have to join several clubs and play sports, as well—strike the balance that feels right to you. If you’re able to assume a leadership position on one or more sports teams, all the better—particularly if you aim to play college sports.
Volunteering is a good way to demonstrate that you are interested in giving back. You should try to volunteer for at least 20–30 hours every school year. Many high schools offer community service options. (If yours doesn’t, consider starting your own service club!) You can also check out nonprofits such as local food pantries or animal shelters as well as larger organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
Many high school students rely on paid work to offset their expenses. If you have a job that prevents you from participating in as many clubs or sports as some of your classmates, take heart—colleges also like to see a strong work ethic, and they will take into account the fact that your part-time job required an investment of time.
If possible, it’s always a great move to take a part-time job or internship in an area in which you’re interested in gaining skills. Try asking your college counselors and family friends if they know of any openings for high school students. Whether or not you’re able to land a job in a field you plan to pursue as a career (and don’t worry if you don’t have an intended career yet either!), you can always ask to shadow someone whose work interests you.
What Kinds of Extracurricular Activities Should You Take?
- Academic Activities: Examples include quiz bowl, debate, model United Nations, pre-college programs, study abroad programs, and mock trial. These activities demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning beyond the classroom and an interest in furthering your education. Colleges love to see academic activities on applications.
- Community Activities: These activities include service or volunteering with local organizations. Possible groups include Habitat for Humanity, Room in the Inn, food banks, and family shelters. Colleges value these activities because they show you care about other people and will likely contribute to the campus community.
- Personality Activities: Personality activities emphasize to colleges who you are beyond your grades, test scores, and application. They make you a unique person who jumps off the page. Examples include sports and scouting.
The following seven activities are among your best options for impressing colleges. Keep in mind that there are plenty of activities beyond this list, including travel. Be intentional and strategic about the types of activities you include on your application. You don’t need to list everything, but you do need to highlight your best activities.
1. Leadership Work and Positions
Colleges seek out applicants with leadership experience. Leadership can demonstrate a commitment to your interests and passions and the ability to make a difference in the campus community once you arrive. Examples of leadership include Eagle Scout, Gold Award, editor of the school newspaper, sports team captain, and student council positions.
2. Part-Time Jobs
Colleges love to see part-time jobs on applications. Work experience can spotlight your work ethic and experience in a professional environment. It also may demonstrate an ability to support yourself and earn your own money, even if you live with your parents.
3. Sports and Athletic Participation
Admissions departments like to see participation in sports from prospective students. Playing team sports can show a willingness to collaborate with others and work toward a collective goal beyond individual glory. Playing a school or club sport can demonstrate drive, commitment, and time-management skills.
4. Academic Clubs and Teams
Activities like debate, chess club, model United Nations, and mock trial can demonstrate your interest in learning and knowledge beyond just coursework. Admissions departments may see your commitment and drive, since you’re choosing to complete additional academic work beyond the requirements of your high school diploma.
5. Artistic and Creative Pursuits
Artistic and creative pursuits like painting, drawing, sculpting, graphic design, fashion design, theater, music, and dance can emphasize your ability to think and create in visionary ways. As a result, colleges love seeing these activities on prospective students’ applications.
Acting in plays, playing in bands, and participating on dance teams requires collaboration, coordination, and a commitment to a larger goal — all qualities that may help convince admissions departments you’ll make a great addition to their communities.
6. Volunteering and Community Service
Volunteer experiences and community service demonstrate that you care about the world around you. Building homes with Habitat for Humanity, serving meals at Room in the Inn, or sorting cans at your local food bank can all help stress your commitment to service, in addition to making your community a better place.
Volunteer work and community service can indicate to colleges what they may be getting in return for accepting you, emphasizing how you may contribute to the campus community beyond just attending class.
If you’re applying to a specific program or school within a college, relevant internships can be a powerful addition to your application. These experiences indicate your interest and experience in a particular field and can provide a helpful perspective for you to bring to relevant coursework.