What Do Elite Colleges Look for in Applicants?

After the research, the visits, and the info sessions, students and parents always arrive at the same question –– “What Do Colleges Want?” The truth is, it’s a tough question to answer.


1. Academic Achievement

College is about learning, and in the process of applying, this can be easy to forget. However, your first priority should always be to showcase your academic potential and achievements in the best light. 

Schools want to know that you’ll not only “make it” through their programs, but that you’ll thrive and excel. They want to make a scholar of you! Therefore, application components like GPA, test scores, and transcripts will give schools a clear indication of your academic potential.

However, it might be the case that your academic abilities are not accurately represented by your grades. Perhaps you dealt with a severe personal issue that caused your grades to slip. Many colleges recognize this possibility and will offer the option to provide a supplementary essay that explains this discrepancy.

2. Added Value

College is a collaborative and exciting period in the life of a young person, and admissions councils seek to create vibrant communities. They want students to learn from each other as much as they will learn from their teachers.

Beyond academics, your next priority is to emphasize the value that you will bring to an institution. I once heard an alum describe it as, “Schools don’t want students who will only bring their luggage to campus.” Remember this! You’re going to learn, you’re going to grow, but most exciting of all, you’re going to participate! Tell your dream school how you plan to do it.

3. Diversity

Too many students and families get caught up on the idea of diversity from a strictly racial or economic perspective. However, diverse simply means “different.” Colleges determine their own definitions of diversity and what a diverse campus will look like, but race and economic status are not the only factors.

The university is a world of ideas, growth, and discovery, both internally and externally for all who inhabit it. What unique perspective do you bring? How do you see the world in a way that no one else does? How is your story different from everyone else’s? This is the key factor for making your application (and your personality) stand out. 

This can be a tough question to answer, and is often the hardest part of getting started. Stay tuned for tips on how to discover your own unique perspective, and feel free to get in touch for a consultation.

4. Return on Investment

Every student is an investment, and every acceptance has an opportunity cost. While it isn’t always pleasant to think of college with this sort of dry, rigid business language, it can be helpful when planning how you’ll present your case for admission. Colleges don’t simply think of students in the context of the years that they will spend on campus, but rather, in the larger picture of an individual’s lifetime.

Universities (and elite institutions in particular) think in terms of centuries. They are proud of their illustrious heritages, and they are proud of the contributions that their students make to academia and to the world. At the tender age of 17, it is up to you to find a way to present the potential that you have to be someone who will have a positive impact on the world. This is a daunting task and a tall order, but you can do it. If you have the ambition to apply to elite schools in the first place, then there must be some sort of spark that compels you forward. Connect with that spark and find a way to share it.

5. Passion!

Similar to the previous point, colleges want students who are eager, excited, ambitious, and full of energy. Passion tends to be the nexus of these things. What are your passions? How have you made the most of your resources in order to further those interests? And most importantly, why is your dream school the logical next step in the course of your career?

Much of this will come across when you have the chance to address your school directly in the much-loved, much-dreaded “Why X School?” essay (stay tuned for an article on how to tackle that artful foe).  However, start thinking now as you firm up your application list and start focusing on supplements.

Hopefully, your passion will become the compass that guides much of your life, and your ability to articulate it now and to demonstrate how it has already guided you will go a long way towards presenting a strong argument for admission.

Still have questions? Let me know!

Admissions Mentoring provides personalized one-on-one application mentoring services for students applying to colleges and other elite institutions. I work with students and families around the world to craft competitive applications. Click here to schedule a consultation.