What looks good on a college application? It’s the question nearly every high school student will ask at some point while applying to college. But is there a clear answer?
Fortunately, the answer is yes! Read on to learn what colleges look for in applicants, what looks really good on a college application, and what kinds of myths there are about good things to put on a college application.
What Are Colleges Looking for in Applicants?
Everyone applying to college has wondered, "What exactly are colleges looking for in applicants?" In other words, what looks good on a college application?
While all colleges are different, of course, with some valuing certain qualities or skills more or less than other schools, all colleges generally look for smart, studious, ambitious, and passionate students.
Therefore, your college application should emphasize your best, most impressive qualities. For example, if you play the violin and want to study music in college, you’ll want to touch on this interest you have in different areas of your application.
A good college application will also showcase your sincere interest in the school. You wouldn’t be applying to a college unless you had a reason to want to go there, right? Make sure to explain (especially if you need to write a "Why This College" essay) exactly how you became interested in the school and why you think it's a good fit for you and your goals.
You don’t need to be the next Marie Curie or Stephen Hawking (though it certainly doesn’t hurt if you are!), but you should be open to new opportunities and willing to challenge yourself.
Overall, the basic point of a college application is to make you stand out from other applicants in a positive, memorable, and unique way.
This fact is especially important in light of how many first-year applications colleges receive each year. According to the 2018 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the number of first-year applications received by US colleges increased by 4% from fall 2016 to fall 2017.
The report found that "the average number of applications for each admission office staff member (excluding administrative staff) for the Fall 2017 admission cycle was 791 for public institutions and 426 for privates."
These trends indicate that your application will definitely need to leave a lasting impression on the admissions committee if you hope to get into that school.
The degree by which you must stand out from other applicants will depend on how selective a particular school is. In general, the more selective a college is, the more impressive and unique your application will have to be.
Finally, what looks good on an application will vary depending on the college and what the college values. For instance, at colleges that don’t place a big emphasis on standardized tests, a high SAT score likely won’t be much of a factor in admissions.
This is just a general overview of what colleges look for in applicants. So what looks really good on a college application? Up next, we look at the specific qualities you should strive to include on your application so you can raise your chances of getting accepted.
What Looks Good on a College Application? 7 Key Elements
In addition to key personality traits, such as ambition, passion, genuine interest, and academic curiosity, what looks really good on a college application?
In general, a great application will have most or all of the following elements:
- A high GPA (relative to what admitted students have) and a rigorous curriculum
- Strong test scores (relative to what admitted students have)
- A specific, honest, and well-written personal statement
- A unique extracurricular interest or passion (a "spike," as we like to call it)
- Volunteering experience with measurable impact
- Compelling letters of recommendation written on your behalf
- Work experience, particularly jobs related to your academic or professional interests
It’s OK if you don’t have every single quality listed above, but if you do, your chances of getting accepted to the college of your dreams will go way up!
Now then, let’s take a look at each of these qualities in more detail.
#1: Excellent Grades in Challenging Courses
The first important part of the college application is the transcript, which consists of your GPA and the names and types of classes you’ve taken in high school.
Most people believe a high GPA (the definition of which can vary at different colleges) will make an application stronger. And this is true!
According to NACAC, 80.9% of colleges ranked grades in high school classes considerably important. In fact, this factor was ranked the most important of any in the report.
What’s truly important, though, isn’t that you simply have a high GPA overall but rather that you have a GPA that's higher than the average GPA of admitted students at the college you're applying to.
To find a college's average GPA, search "[School Name] PrepScholar admission requirements" on Google and then click our database link to that school. This page will show you what the school's average GPA is, in addition to other admission requirements.
For example, if you want to apply to Notre Dame, you would search for "Notre Dame PrepScholar admission requirements" and click the link to our Notre Dame admission reqs page, which looks like this:
As you can see, Notre Dame's average (weighted) GPA for admitted applicants is 4.04. As a result, if you're applying here, you’ll want to have a GPA of at least 4.04, preferably higher so you will be an above-average applicant.
It’s not just about getting a high GPA, though; you must also take a range of challenging courses throughout high school if you really wish to impress an admissions committee. This means you’ll want to take not just basic-level classes but also some AP, honors, and/or IB courses, particularly in subjects you are good at and might want to continue to study in college or major in.
The 2018 NACAC report found that a whopping 80.6% of colleges ranked an applicant’s rigor of curriculum moderately or considerably important.
Think about it: though a perfect 4.0 might look great at an initial glance, if you got this high GPA by only taking the easiest classes available and didn’t challenge yourself with higher-level coursework, your transcripts aren’t likely to impress college admissions officers that much.
Even if you started high school with lower grades, an upward grade trend is a great point to emphasize on your application. This suggests that you’re capable of bouncing back from any difficulties you might face and are willing to put in the work necessary for excelling in college.
#2: High Test Scores
Test scores, mainly SAT/ACT scores, are another key part of college applications (unless, of course, you’re applying to colleges that don’t require test scores).
On the NACAC report, 83.1% of colleges believe admission test scores are at least moderately important. This is why it’s vital that you try to get as high an SAT/ACT score as you can, ideally one in at least the 75th percentile for your colleges.
The 75th percentile means that 75% of admitted students at a particular school achieved this score or lower. Reaching (or surpassing) this threshold means that you’re scoring higher than most other admitted applicants are—and well above that college's average score.
To find the middle 50% (that is, the 25th and 75th percentile SAT/ACT scores) for a school, search on Google for "[School Name] PrepScholar admission requirements." Click the link to our page for the school to see its requirements, including its average SAT/ACT scores.
For example, say you’re planning to apply to NYU. Here's what the SAT scores section on NYU’s PrepScholar admission reqs page looks like:
Here, we can see the average SAT score for NYU is 1410—that’s pretty high, in the 95th percentile!
To really stand out as an applicant, though, you’ll want to aim for at least the 75th percentile. For NYU, that's 1500, which corresponds to the 99th percentile, or the top 1% of test takers.
To set a goal score, start by making a chart of all the schools you're applying to. You can make your own chart or download a blank template.
Below is a sample SAT goal score chart:
25th Percentile Score
75th Percentile Score
University of Wisconsin—Madison
Michigan State University
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Next, look up the 25th and 75th percentile SAT scores for each of the schools you’re applying to using our PrepScholar admission requirements pages. (Follow the steps above for NYU to learn how to do this.)
Once you've got these scores, write them in your chart as so:
25th Percentile Score
75th Percentile Score
Now, look at all the 75th percentile scores in your chart. The highest score will be your goal score, as this is the one most likely to get you into all the schools you’re applying to.
With our example chart, the highest score is 1480, or the 75th percentile score for the University of Illinois. By getting a 1480 or higher, you’ll be getting an impressive score not just for this school but also for Marquette, UW Madison, and MSU, thereby raising your chances of getting into all colleges you’re applying to.
#3: Sincere, Specific, and Well-Written Essays
The personal statement is an important part of your college application as it’s one of the only areas where you can really showcase your personality.
According to the 2018 NACAC survey, 53.6% of schools consider application essays moderately or considerably important. While some colleges don’t require essays, those that do usually place at least moderate importance on them.
So how can you ensure your essay will impress the admissions committee? Generally, colleges are looking for three main qualities in a personal essay:
- Honesty: What you write about should have actually happened to you and should be how you actually feel. Exaggerating details and outright lying are big no-noes here!
- Specificity: Using concrete details to effectively convey your thoughts, view, and experiences will make your essay a lot more memorable, personable, and—most importantly—unique.
- Eloquence: Don’t expect to get accepted anywhere if your essay is poorly written and full of grammar and spelling errors. A great personal statement has a sensible organization, tells a compelling story, and is completely free of technical errors.
Below are some steps you can take to guarantee that your essay will have all three qualities.
Step 1: Brainstorm Significant Moments From Your Life
What you write about for your college essay will vary depending on the prompt(s) you’re given from your school or the prompt you choose (for example, the Common App and Coalition App allow you to choose from among several prompts for your essay).
In general, you’ll want to pick a topic that meets the following criteria:
- It really happened and was significant to you: If you’re writing about a specific incident, it should be something that actually happened and that had a large impact on how you define yourself, your goals, and/or your interests.
- It’s specific and interesting: Don’t write about a broad, universal topic that can apply to tons of other applicants as well. Instead, focus on an event, issue, person, or struggle that’s unique to you and your life.
- It reveals something important about you: The essay is meant to highlight something you think the admissions committee should know about you, such as a personality trait you have, how you overcame some sort of challenge, or how you became interested in a field of study.
- It has a positive lean: While you don’t need to pick a topic that’s overly light or cheery, it should still have an ultimately positive lean that reveals something good about you rather than something bad, controversial, or immoral.
Step 2: Write Your Essay
The next step is to actually begin writing your essay. Don’t worry too much about grammar and flow at this point; just get down your ideas and start deciding which details and examples might work well in your essay.
As you write, remember to channel your inner voice. This essay should sound like the real you, not an imitation of what you think colleges want to hear. So if you’re the sarcastic type, you might want to include a joke or two, for instance. Don't forget that the essay is a way for the admissions committee to learn more about you, so don’t shy away from your true self!
On that same note, it’s OK to get creative here. The essay isn't an academic essay you’d write for English class—it's a story. Feel free to inject your writing with various literary techniques, such as a non-chronological organization, realistic dialogue, and memorable imagery.
Lastly, make sure you’re sufficiently answering the prompt and are abiding by all technical requirements (such as length). You can check a college's essay requirements by referring to its application requirements page or by reading the instructions on the Common App, Coalition App, or Universal College App websites (if submitting your application through one of these platforms).
An essay that's too long might get cut off when you submit it electronically, so be sure it adheres to all the requirements.
Step 3: Edit and Proofread Several Times
Once you have a rough draft of your college essay, it’s time to polish it up for submission.
The best way to edit is to put your essay away for a few days. This will give you some distance away from your writing, allowing you to look back at your essay later with a fresher perspective.
As you reread your essay, mark any areas in it that are unclear, awkward, or irrelevant to the main point you're trying to make with it. You should also correct any obvious typos or errors, such as mistakes in grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
Once you’ve done this process a few times, give your essay to someone to read. Ideally, this will be a person you trust, such as a parent, teacher, counselor, or tutor. Have the person you choose offer clear feedback on your essay and check that you've met all requirements. Edit your essay as needed in accordance with the comments you get.
After you’ve finished all of this, you should now have a perfect college essay to submit with your application!
#4: A Spike in Your Extracurriculars
Almost every college will want to know what kinds of extracurricular activities you do or have done in your spare time.
Indeed, 38.5% of colleges surveyed regard students' extracurricular activities moderately or considerably important. Ask yourself: what are your interests outside of school and how do you engage in them?
The trick here is to provide not a list of all the random activities you've done but rather a detailed overview of one to two of your most passionate interests and any big achievements you've made in them.
In other words, you need to figure out what your "spike" is, a concept which PrepScholar co-founder and Harvard alum Allen Cheng describes in his expert guide on how to get into the Ivy League.
To put it simply, a spike is deep accomplishment in and knowledge of a particular field.
As an example, say you plan to major in biology. You’ll stand out as an applicant if you have tons of biology- or science-related experiences under your belt. Maybe you’re part of your school’s biology club, or maybe you volunteered at a local research lab, which taught you the basics of handling lab equipment.
In addition to having a variety of experiences and sufficient background knowledge in the field, you want to highlight any relevant major accomplishments you have. For instance, maybe you won a science fair your sophomore year of high school; most recently, you submitted an award-winning invention idea to a national contest
As you can see, this concept of the spike is the opposite of being well rounded, which most students assume they need to be (read the next section to learn more about this myth).
If you’re not sure what your spike is just yet, take some time to try out new activities and explore any interests you have, both in and outside of school. Over time you should start to get a feel for what you're passionate about and what you can see yourself committing to in the future.
#5: Compelling Letters of Recommendation
Most colleges require at least one letter of recommendation from either your high school counselor or a high school teacher (or both).
The 2018 NACAC survey indicates that 53.5% of colleges consider teacher recommendations at least moderately important, while a higher 56.9% consider counselor recommendations the same. Therefore, we can say it’s pretty important to secure great recommendation letters for your application.
If you’re asking for a letter from a teacher, make sure to choose someone whose class you got a high grade in (ideally an A) and who is familiar with your abilities, ambitions, and interests. Typically, you'll need to submit at least one letter from a teacher who taught a core class (so math, English, science, or social studies/history).
It’s a good idea to also get a letter from a teacher who works in the field you plan to major in. So if you got an A in AP English and plan to major in English, asking that teacher for a recommendation letter would give a great boost to your application.
While you don’t have to be best buddies with the teacher you ask, they should definitely know you well, beyond the classroom, so they can effectively explain to admissions committees what makes you special, that is, what makes you worth admitting.
For example, if you did research with a particular teacher, are part of a club this teacher coaches or leads, or helped out this teacher with a project, this would be a good person to ask to write a letter for you.
Once you’ve secured a recommendation letter writer, be sure to provide them with any materials or information they might need to help them craft a compelling letter.
#6: Volunteering Experience With Measurable Impact
Colleges love it when an applicant has not simply volunteered but has also made a measurable impact with their volunteering efforts. What does this mean exactly? If you have volunteered somewhere or for an organization, your assistance should have resulted in a noticeable, positive change to the group, community, or area you were aiming to help.
For instance, say you volunteered at a local library. Maybe the library was struggling to get funds to continue operating, and you came up with the idea to hold a 24-hour reading marathon in order to raise money. The fundraiser ended up making more than $5,000, a figure that would be a concrete indicator of the positive impact your service had on the library. With your college application, then, you could specifically mention how your initiative allowed the library to remain open.
Note that you don’t need to have assumed a leadership role in order to have made a positive impact through your service. That said, college admissions committees are often very big fans of students who show evidence of their budding leadership skills.
#7: (Relevant) Work Experience
Although you’re certainly not required to work a part-time job in high school, having some work experience on your college applications, especially any jobs that are related to what you want to study or do professionally, will help you stand out in a positive way.
Even if your job isn't connected to a long-term academic or career goal you have, any (part-time) work experience you have will be great to put down on your application because it emphasizes your sense of responsibility, maturity, and willingness to work for your goals, key qualities that are usually considered important for success in college.
Also, if you have any room on the application to elaborate on your job, I suggest explaining why you initially took the job and what values or skills it's taught you, such as the importance of responsibility or how to work with certain equipment that you’ll likely use again in the future.
4 Myths About What Looks Good on a College Application
What looks really good on a college application? Many students think they know, but the truth is that there are a lot of myths out there about what you should include on your application.
Below, we introduce to you the top four myths about what looks good on college applications.
Myth 1: Being Well Rounded Is Critical for Success
One of the most pervasive myths out there about what looks good on a college application is the idea of being well rounded.
Many students assume they'll need to have tons of extracurricular activities on their applications; this, they believe, will emphasize their array of interests as well as their knowledge of a variety of fields. But all this really tells admissions committees is that you’re stretching yourself too thin and (most likely) lack focus on a specific endeavor in your life.
What colleges actually want to see is a spike, that is, a single passion. This allows colleges to get a clearer feel for who you are, what you’re interested in, and what your goals are. Having a spike lets you stand out in a truly meaningful way, whereas being well rounded will make you forgettable and seem too similar to other applicants.
Spikes are especially important at highly selective colleges and universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League-level schools. You can read more about how to develop a spike in our guide to getting into the Ivy League.
If you aim for well rounded, you'll start to look like everyone else.
Myth 2: Essays Aren’t That Important
After Time published a 2014 article on why college application essays don’t actually matter all that much, students began to fear that all their hard work on their statements wouldn’t mean much in the end, if at all.
But while some colleges don’t require personal essays, most colleges do require at least one or two essays—and will place a decent amount of emphasis on it, especially if it is being used as a deciding factor between two otherwise equally qualified applicants.
Even though you should approach the essay seriously, it’s still generally rare for an exceptionally well-written essay to make up for tons of low grades and poor test scores. On the flip side, if you have a great application but a badly written essay, that essay alone could get you rejected!
Therefore, make sure that you’re following all the steps listed above so you can craft the perfect statement for your application.
Myth 3: An A in an Easy Class Is Better Than a B in a Hard Class
Many students believe it’s better to stick to the classes you know you’ll get As in, but this piece of advice is misguided when it comes to college applications.
In general, colleges prefer students who challenge themselves by taking an array of difficult classes, such as AP and honors classes. And you don't have to get perfect grades in them. If you get a B in a tough AP class, for example, this will emphasize to the admissions committee that you are willing to take on new challenges and test your limits, traits that are necessary for succeeding in and after college.
On the other hand, getting As in all easy classes, though not totally unimpressive, is not nearly as interesting to colleges, as it suggests you’re unwilling to push yourself and further hone your higher-level critical thinking skills.
All of this being said, try to avoid getting very low grades in any classes you take (regular or honors/AP). C and D grades obviously won’t look great to an admissions committee, even if you got these grades while challenging yourself in AP classes.
If you can’t get at least a B or B+ in a difficult class, it’ll probably be better for you to drop it and switch to either the regular version of that class or an entirely different class altogether.
Myth 4: Only Perfect Applicants Get Admitted
Many students assume that if they have one little flaw in their application, such as a below-average test score or slightly low grade in a class, their chances of getting admitted to college will be slim to none.
This just isn’t true.
Yes, a very low test score or a very poor transcript may cause you to get rejected from a college, but many colleges use a holistic admission process, meaning they look at and consider each individual applicant as a whole. So even if your application has a not-so-stellar component on it, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a reject.
In fact, at particularly selective colleges, such as the Ivy League, you’ll often hear of cases in which ostensibly "perfect" applicants got rejected. This is most likely because they didn't have a spike in their applications (i.e., something that made them stand out).
Overall, just try your best to produce the best application you can, and then hope for a good result!
Takeaways: What Looks Good on a College Application
Applying to college is tough, and knowing what to put on your applications to make yourself stand out is even tougher. What looks really good on a college application?
Generally speaking, colleges want to see your passion, intellectual curiosity, willingness to challenge yourself, and academic accomplishments.
More specifically, though, colleges typically prefer applicants who have most or all of the following characteristics:
- Good grades and a challenging course load
- Strong test scores
- Honest, specific, and eloquent essays
- A spike in your extracurricular activities
- Compelling letters of recommendation
- Volunteer experience with clear impact on the groups or places you’ve helped
- Any relevant or impactful work experience
Finally, as you apply to college and try to think of good things to put on a college application, make sure you’re aware of the following truths about the application process:
- It’s better to have a spike than to be well rounded
- Essays are important!
- A B in a hard course is more impressive than an A in an easy course
- You can still get into your dream school even if your application isn’t perfect
A great college application will get you admitted. Use our college acceptance calculator to get an estimated percentage of your chance of getting into your dream school, based on your SAT or ACT score and GPA.
Need help figuring out which colleges to apply to? Our guide teaches you how to narrow down your college choices so that you're applying to the best schools for you.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.