The competition for coveted spots at top U.S. colleges and universities is fierce, and students must start earlier than ever before to build their application profiles and hone their skills and passions. However, as the admissions process becomes increasingly complex, many students and families struggle to know where to begin—what are top colleges looking for in applicants? What core traits are too irresistible to pass up? And how can students demonstrate these qualities through their application materials?
Building an applicant profile proactively and strategically will help students set a strong foundation early in their high school careers and increase their odds of admission to their dream school. Here are eight core traits that top colleges are looking for in students—and how students can start cultivating them:
1. Unique Passion
Admissions committees are drawn to students who exhibit a genuine and distinct passion. Increasingly, Ivy League and other top schools want to admit students who are specialists in their field of interest, rather than generalists who have sampled a bit of everything. These schools seek to build a diverse and well-rounded student body, composed of students who each have their own distinct passion. Therefore, students should think critically throughout their freshman and sophomore years of high school about how they can pursue depth rather than breadth in their extracurricular activities, and ultimately exhibit their guiding interest to colleges. By junior year, students should be at work executing a passion project; an individual initiative that uses their skills and passions for the good of their community and deepens their engagement with their field of interest. Doing so will not only illustrate a student’s hands-on engagement with their passion, but their motivation, leadership skills, and interest in serving their local community.
2. Commitment to Community
Being actively engaged in community service or volunteer work demonstrates a commitment to giving back and making a difference, and shows colleges what kind of community member a student will be on their future campus. Students who show they are compassionate, empathetic, and dedicated to improving their community are highly sought after. To become such an applicant, students should explore volunteer opportunities in their community during their freshman year, seeking to get involved with an organization or initiative that aligns with their core passion. If a student is unable to find something that appeals to their interests, they should take the initiative to create their own! Finally, students should do their best to maintain a sustained involvement in the particular organization or volunteer opportunity over the course of their high school career. Long-term commitment will show a student’s dedication and could result in a more personal, insightful letter of recommendation from a supervisor or mentor.
3. Resilience and Teachability
The ability to overcome challenges and adapt to new situations is highly regarded by top schools. Admissions committees appreciate students who exhibit resilience, as it demonstrates a readiness to face the rigors of college life and embrace personal growth. Students can cultivate this quality through practice and reflection. Mistakes and failures are a natural part of high school and of life more broadly, so students should strive to try new things, and be open to the lessons that failure can bring.
A key component of overcoming and learning from failure is reflection. Unless students take the time to consider where they went wrong, seek guidance on how they might approach a similar situation differently in the future, and actively strive to implement the lessons they learned, the experienced failure will not be a beneficial learning opportunity. Students should consider keeping a diary throughout their high school career to reflect on these critical moments of growth—this written record will not only help them see their progress, but can be a helpful source of material for college essays when the time comes!
4. Strong Communication Skills
The personal essay is quickly becoming one of the most important components of a successful application, and developing the skills for effective and compelling writing is a years-long process. Not only do colleges value students’ essays as a means of better understanding their identities and personalities outside of the quantitative aspects of their applications, but the capacity to articulate ideas and engage in thoughtful discussions is essential in a college experience, and students exhibit their preparedness for this aspect of college life through their written materials. First and foremost, becoming a strong writer (and an engaging communicator more generally) requires reading a diverse range of materials. Students should start early in cultivating their reading skills, engaging with readings on current events through reputable news platforms like The New York Times or The Atlantic, classic literature, and current popular reading that appeals to them. In addition, the more they practice their writing skills, the better writers they will become. Whether journaling, writing short stories, penning songs, or even writing letters to a pen pal from summer camp, taking the time to work out their writing muscles will allow students to hone their unique voice and become more comfortable with the writing process.
5. Organization and Command of their Responsibilities
Colleges highly value students who have exceptional organizational skills and the ability to manage their time responsibly. These students demonstrate an ability to conduct their responsibilities effectively, balance academic and extracurricular commitments, and meet deadlines consistently. Their ability to stay on top of coursework, plan ahead, and lead in group projects reflects their capacity to excel in a demanding college environment in the future. Organizational skills not only ensure academic success, but also contribute to a smoother and more productive campus life, making these students irresistible candidates. For this reason, students should determine what organizational methods and tools work best for them and implement those tools into their everyday lives. Whether using an online platform such as Google Calendar or a hand-written planner, students should find an effective way to plan their time and keep track of their responsibilities before their workload and extracurricular activities ramp up during junior year. This will be particularly important during the college application process, as students will be responsible for juggling a number of high-stakes dates and deadlines.
In the increasingly competitive world of college admissions, showcasing these traits can set students apart from the crowd. It is crucial to demonstrate these qualities not only in application materials, but also through students’ involvement in extracurricular activities, community service, and interactions with teachers and peers throughout the entirety of their high school careers. By embodying these core traits, students can make themselves irresistible candidates to top colleges eager to welcome applicants with singular passions and the potential for personal and academic growth.