Top 10 Factors Universities Look for in Applicants

application essay college admissions common application May 01, 2019

Students can feel overwhelmed by all of the tasks they have to complete when applying for college. That’s why it’s important to start preparing early! One of the best things high school students can do is understand what factors universities and colleges actually care about in an application, so they can get themselves on the right path sooner rather than later. What’s also nice is that these factors apply to most schools and most students – from Ivy League schools to state schools, for international students and in-state students. Let’s check them out.

10. Demonstrated Enthusiasm

This is one of the smallest factors in a college application, but it does matter. Common ways to demonstrate enthusiasm for a particular school are campus visits or interviews. If a student is unable to travel to the school, there are often meetups with admission representatives in major cities across the world. Students should schedule a meeting or a visit their junior or senior year of college if they can.

9. Demonstrated Intellectual Curiosity

Universities want academically curious people – that’s a pretty straightforward fact. A university is an academic institution. Intellectual curiosity should be demonstrated in academic records, the application essay, the resume, and other items in your admissions application. Students can talk about books they have read, activities they have pursued in school, and even activities that they do for fun, if they are applicable. We will get into this topic a little more in-depth later on, but students should take some time to think about what academic pursuits they engage in to grow as a person.

8. Demonstrated Leadership

Are you the founder of a club? Were you elected vice president of the student body by your peers? Schools love students who will arrive on campus and contribute to the community in a meaningful way.  If students are not already in some sort of leadership position, they should look at their communities and determine how they can practice taking charge of a project or organization that they are involved with and care about. If they are only a freshman or sophomore in high school, they should think about what they can do right now to set themselves on a path for leadership roles in the next year or two.

7. Special Talents or Experiences

This factor can vary for some people. If a student is a top student athlete and are applying for sports scholarships, this should be ranked higher. In general, universities want a diverse, well-rounded student body. What gives a student a unique perspective? Universities want students with different voices that will contribute to the school community. This factor is commonly expressed in application essays, since life experiences can be difficult to include on a resume.

6. Well-Written Essay

The essay is one of the most difficult parts of the college application process for most students. However, it is not the most important factor for schools, which hopefully brings some relief! The essay should provide insight into a student’s personality, passions, values, and goals. In addition, students can address any inconsistencies on their applications. Furthermore, it showcases a student’s writing abilities. That is a lot of work for 500 words, but it can be done!

5. Letters of Recommendation

Students should have excellent letters of recommendation from people who know them well. Teachers are a common source of at least one recommendation letter. Students should choose a teacher whose class they did well in and the topic of which aligns with their future goals. Therefore, if a student is applying to a school to study computer programming, it might be best to ask their computer science teacher for a letter of recommendation rather than their history teacher. Student should not be the applicant with 17 letters of recommendation, from people such as their elementary school soccer coach! Quality is better than quantity.

4. Passionate Involvement

Universities look for students who demonstrate passionate involvement in a few activities, where they demonstrate leadership and initiative. Depth, rather than breadth, of experience is generally more important to schools. Harvard lists a series of questions they ask when looking at a college applicant that reflect this point:

“Do you care deeply about anything – intellectual? Extracurricular? Personal?”

“In terms of extracurricular, athletic, community, or family commitments, have you taken full advantage of opportunities?”

“What is the quality of your activities? Do you appear to have a genuine commitment or leadership role?”

3. Standardized Test Scores

Students need to have solid scores on standardized tests, mostly commonly the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL. This gives universities and colleges a uniform method for comparing students who come from different backgrounds. It is easy to compare grades and courses between two students from the same high school, but an English class in Los Angeles, CA may be very different from an English class in Atlanta, GA. This is why schools have to use standardized tests in conjecture with grades to evaluate students’ academic potential. If your student is struggling with this key component, contact Transcend Academy for personalized and proven test prep coaching!

2. Grade Point Average (GPA)

Grades should reflect a strong, consistent effort. However, if a student is a late bloomer, there is no reason to panic. An upward trend in grades is considered by admissions officers, and generally favored over a situation where a student’s freshman and sophomore year grades are strong, but their junior and senior year grades are weak. This leads into the final, most important factor…

1. Rigorous Coursework

Schools want to know if students can handle a university course, which is why they look at the difficulty level of classes a student takes. Students are better off taking AP and IB courses if their schools offer those options. A hard-earned B in an AP class looks better to college admissions officers than an easy A. However, students should not take all AP and IB classes just to look good either, at the expense of their GPA and mental health. Appropriately challenging rigor is the key. Finally, senior year coursework matters - if a student can’t handle upper level high school classes, how will they do in an introductory college course? Universities really care about student retention rates and graduation rates, so if they think a student will drop out after freshman year or take longer than six years to graduate, they are less likely to accept them.


Ideally, future college applicants will learn these top 10 factors for college admissions early on in high school. If students are applying for colleges in the next few months, however, they too can benefit from the top 10 factors as they prepare their application package. Please share this with students who are applying for college soon or in the future to help them organize their college application timeline. As always, reach out to the Transcend Academy team for any questions on how to set yourself up for success in college admissions.

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