Different colleges look for different qualities in potential students. But there are some characteristics that are appealing no matter where you apply, from Duke to Duquesne, Harvard to Haverford, Princeton to Purdue, Stanford to Samford, Vassar to…OK, you get the idea.
1. Students who raise their hands in class.
We really can’t emphasize enough how much of an advantage you will have if you just participate in class (at least, we can’t emphasize it enough without using all capital letters and bolder print). The teacher will appreciate that you are engaged. Your grade will likely be higher in the class. And you’ll be much more likely to get a positive letter of recommendation from that teacher when you apply to college. Colleges are looking for students who’ve shown they are ready and willing to take responsibility for their education. Those are the students who will make the most of their time once they get to college.
2. Students who really love what they do outside of class.
Kids who have passion love what they do; they aren’t just going through the motions to please colleges. You can hear it in the poet’s voice when she talks about how writing makes her feel, and from the future scientist who took college classes over the summer because he had to know more about physics. You can sense it from the student who volunteers at the vet because she loves animals, from the artist who loves to paint on the weekends, and from the water polo player who rides the bench but still loves being on the team. These passionate students are the ones who are most likely to make an impact on their campuses in college.
3. Students who work regular part-time jobs.
There’s just something likeable about a kid who flips burgers, or washes cars, or finds outfits for screaming children at Baby Gap. These—not a fancy sounding job at your dad's law firm—are regular jobs. And kids who have them are always appealing to colleges. We’re not suggesting that you should drop your current activities and run out to get a job if you don’t currently have one. We’re mentioning it because too many students think you need to spend summers shearing sheep in Tibet or attending a pricey summer program to impress colleges. You don’t. Colleges would be just as impressed (maybe even a little more impressed) if you waited tables or stocked inventory at a clothing store down the street.
4. Students who do thoughtful college searches.
Colleges want to admit students who have really thought about what they want their college experience to be like. That’s why the most successful college applicants do a lot of college soul searching about what they hope and expect their college experiences will be like. So start asking yourself what part of college academics you are most excited about. In what kind of college environment do you think you would flourish socially and academically? What are you hoping to gain from your college experience (in addition to a degree)? You don't need answers to all of these questions right away. But thinking about them will show the colleges that you are a mature college seeker.
5. Students who are comfortable just being themselves.
Individuality is something every college wants to see from an applicant. They want students with different strengths, interests, beliefs, and backgrounds. So don’t try to be something you’re not just to impress colleges. If you’re terrible at sports but love math, don’t be ashamed of it—embrace it. Take additional math classes outside of school. Join the math club and become its fearless leader. Openly admit that you have a relationship with math that borders on romantic. Colleges know that if they put these different, interesting, motivated students together, they’re going to learn from each other.