What Do Colleges Look for in First-Year Students?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

How does your background match up with what colleges look for in incoming learners? That's the question on many aspiring college students’ minds. This guide will walk you through some of the important factors and qualities many colleges seek.

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Are you thinking of applying to college? You’re not alone. In fact, the number of people applying to college is on the rise.

According to a report from Common App, the number of learners who submitted applications for US schools for the 2023 to 2024 school year was up 7 percent from the 2022 to 2023 school year [1]. Reasons for this increase range from more international students applying to many students applying to more colleges at once because of intentional outreach to minorities and first-generation students. No matter the reasons, with more people submitting applications, getting into college is more competitive than ever.

So, what do colleges look for in first-year students? That answer will vary from school to school, but this guide can help you understand the basic requirements and what you can do to make your application stand out.

What do colleges look for?

What colleges look for will vary from school to school. For example, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign reviews the strength of your academic record, opportunities provided by your high school, and your highest ACT or SAT score, among other items. The admissions process also considers why you chose that school, your story, achievements outside the classroom, background, and the college or program you're applying to [2]. Syracuse University states that it looks at how you prepare for college, your purpose, educational background, standardized test performances, character, talent, personality, and the opinions of others, like counselors and teachers [3].

Visit practically any school's website, and you'll know precisely what it wants. However, if you're still deciding on the school you wish to attend, focus on these general ideas during your high school career. They will help prepare you for the college application process and potentially make you a competitive candidate for your dream school.

1. Academic performance in high school

Your academic performance in high school plays a big role in how a college views you as a potential learner at their institution. While a school wants to see good grades and a high GPA, that's not the only aspect of your academic performance that it will consider.

Schools also look at the type of classes you took to see if you challenged yourself or just did the bare minimum required to graduate. Consider taking advanced placement (AP), honors, dual enrollment, and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes if they're available. Not only does doing so look good on your transcript, but these more challenging classes can also help prepare you to take college-level courses. Of course, only some high schools offer these types of classes, but many colleges consider the opportunities available to you as well.

2. Standardized test scores

Taking the SAT or ACT and scoring well can also help colleges decide whether to admit you into their schools. Schools typically look at your highest score from either test, so if you take it more than once and need to improve your scores, don't worry.

It's essential to note that many schools have become test-blind or test-optional over the last few years. That means they no longer look at standardized test scores or do not require them but will consider them. Although that may be a relief to some students, it's not the case for every school. MIT, the University of Georgia, the University of Florida, and West Point are all schools that still require test scores. So, if you have a specific college or university in mind, check their requirements before you opt out of the ACT or SAT.

3. Extracurricular activities

Getting into college isn't just about your grades and test scores. Schools want to know your personality, values, what you do in your spare time, and what sort of human skills you may have gained from participating in extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities are an excellent way to build those skills you can't learn in a classroom, like teamwork, communication, leadership, time management, and confidence. Sticking with them for long periods demonstrates your ability to handle commitment. Earning or taking a leadership position such as club president or team captain can look even more impressive on your application.

Your high school likely offers several activities, like clubs, sports, service organizations, music, and art programs. Start with the ones that interest you. Doing so may help ensure you stick with them, even when your schedule gets busy. Another way to narrow your choices is to pick activities related to your major or future career goals. If you want to be a doctor, signing up for a math or science club is a great idea and shows that you have a sense of purpose.

Special talents, awards, and hobbies  

Also, remember that you can add details outside of your high school's extracurricular activities. If you have studied ballet since you were seven years old, recently started taking piano lessons, play on a church or community softball team, or do anything similar outside of school, make sure you put it on your applications. Maybe you've won awards for your talents and hobbies. Perhaps you published a book. Maybe you spent a few weeks in France studying the French language.  Add your unique experiences to your applications if the information tells the school something positive about you.

4. Letters of recommendation

While colleges want to hear from you, they also want to hear from the people who know you. Some may have specific requests, such as an evaluation from a high school counselor or letters of recommendation from a teacher. Otherwise, seek letters of recommendation from people whom you consider mentors. These people could be teachers or coaches, religious leaders, or employers at your part-time job. Ensure the person knows you well enough to write a personalized letter that tells the school who you are.

5. Personal statements, questionnaires, and essays

Grades, test scores, and letters from others are all important, but a personal statement or essay is where you can bring it all together and let your character and personality shine. This is your opportunity to tell the school who you are in your own words and show off your writing skills while doing it.

Every institution has its own requirements for essays. You may receive a questionnaire or prompt for your writing. If your school doesn't provide guidance, use the space to tell a story about your life and your goals and aspirations. Tell the college why you want to attend school and how it all ties together. Maybe you overcame an obstacle. You may have a grandparent who inspired you to pursue your desired career. Dig deep, tell a story, and be authentic.

Use the space to add valuable insight rather than repeating what's in the rest of your application or reciting facts and figures about the school. Practice writing your essay several times until you get it just right, and make sure someone else reads and edits it before you submit it.

6. Interest and intent

Schools want to know why you chose to apply there, as well as why you might have selected a specific major or program. You can show interest and intent in your personal essay, as well as with your extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and academic courses. 

For example, perhaps you’re an aspiring journalist. In high school, you took as many challenging English and communications courses as possible, wrote for the school newspaper, and maintained your blog. You chose the school because of its top-notch journalism program or because one or some of your favorite journalists attended it. Essentially, you're telling a story of your interest and intent combined with all application aspects.

7. Volunteer work, work experience, and internships

Be sure to include any volunteer work on your college application, especially if it's something you've done for a long time. Details like these show admissions counselors that you have empathy and that your values align with the school's, and it is something they take into consideration. If you don't currently volunteer, you always have time to start.

Also include any work experience, even if it's just a part-time job at a fast food restaurant. It shows that you work hard and know how to multitask between your job, school commitments, and any extracurricular activities in which you take part. You can showcase this with a resume, in your essay, or by using letters of recommendation from your supervisors.

Include any internships you participated in as well. Like volunteer work and jobs, they typically provide you with ways to improve particular human skills. Interning for a company in the field that interests you can also show your interest in and commitment to that career.

Tips for preparing to apply for college:

Knowing what colleges are looking for is only part of the process of preparing for your postsecondary education. You'll also need to make sure you're prepared to submit the best possible application while working on creating the best version of yourself to present to the school of your choice. Follow these tips throughout your high school career to help ensure you're ready:

  • Take college prep courses. 

  • If you have a desired major, career, or field of study, make choices that reflect that.

  • Keep your GPA up.

  • Challenge yourself. 

  • Find ways to challenge yourself through advanced classes and extracurricular activities. 

  • Stay organized.

  • Find mentors. 

  • Build a relationship with your school counselor. 

  • Make sure you have a financial plan. 

  • Visit colleges in person to see what you like and don't like.

  • Keep going strong through your senior year.

When the time comes to send in your college applications, keep these tips in mind:

  • Apply early; avoid waiting until the last minute.

  • Read over your application many times to ensure it contains no errors.  

  • Include details that may set you apart from other applicants, like awards or part-time jobs.

  • Ensure your social media doesn't show you in a negative light.

  • Ask for help if necessary.

  • Use a unique essay or personal response for each application you submit.

Getting started with Coursera

You can also help prepare for college and the application process by taking college prep courses online. You'll find dozens of options on Coursera, each offered by some of the world’s prestigious institutions. For example, you might take Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects offered by Deep Teaching Solutions, IBM’s Developing Interpersonal Skills, and Attaining Higher Education by Columbia University, among others.

Article sources


Common App. "Deadline update: first-year application trends through February 1, https://www.commonapp.org/files/Common-App-Deadline-Updates-2024.02.14.pdf" Accessed March 18, 2024. 

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