How to Get Into College - What Do Colleges Look For?

May 2, 2024
4 min read

Imagine opening your college acceptance letter; let's explore how to turn that dream into a reality, regardless of your GPA!

As high school students navigate the path toward their future careers, the prospect of college stands as a pivotal milestone. This transition often mixes excitement with anxiety, particularly when students begin to compile their application materials and pinpoint their dream institutions. 

Achieving college admission involves more than high grades; it requires showcasing diverse strengths such as leadership and community involvement. This guide offers strategies on how to get into college, emphasizing how to distinguish yourself in a competitive applicant pool. 

It also provides insights on how to get into college with a low GPA, highlighting the importance of a well-rounded application that leverages personal essays and extracurricular achievements.

What Are the Most Important Factors in College Admissions?

Key college admission factors typically include academic performance, standardized test scores, personal essays, recommendations, and extracurricular involvement. Understanding each school's specific priorities can also provide essential guidance for applicants.

1. Academic Performance (GPA and Course Rigor)

A stellar academic record, highlighted by a high GPA and the rigor of courses taken, stands as the most crucial component of a college application. Colleges scrutinize transcripts to assess whether students have pushed their limits by enrolling in honors or advanced placement courses. 

This not only shows academic dedication but also prepares students for the demanding nature of college-level studies. Achieving high grades in these challenging courses can significantly boost an applicant's profile, signaling their ability to thrive in competitive academic environments.

2. Standardized Test Scores (SAT or ACT)

Despite a growing number of institutions adopting test-optional policies, high scores on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT continue to play a pivotal role, especially at more selective colleges. 

These scores provide a uniform metric that admissions committees use to gauge academic abilities across a diverse applicant pool. Excelling in these tests can help compensate for any minor shortcomings in other areas of the application, particularly where high academic standards are paramount.

3. Essays

Personal statements and supplemental essays are vital elements of the college application process, offering students a platform to express their individuality. These essays allow applicants to share their unique stories, challenges overcome, personal insights, and aspirations that grades and test scores cannot capture. 

A well-crafted essay can breathe life into the application, making the student stand out by showcasing creativity, critical thinking, and a deep personal reflection that connects with admissions officers on an emotional level.

4. Letters of Recommendation

Insightful recommendations from teachers and counselors are invaluable for college applications. They provide a third-party evaluation of a student's character, academic integrity, and potential for future success. 

These letters often highlight personal anecdotes of the student's engagement and impact within the classroom. They also give the admissions committee unique insight into the student's intellectual curiosity and positive contributions to the school community. 

Strong letters of recommendation can corroborate students’ narratives in their application, adding credibility and a more nuanced perspective to their academic and personal achievements.

5. Extracurricular Activities

Engagement in extracurricular activities illustrates a student's ability to balance academic responsibilities with other interests, which is a key trait colleges seek in prospective students. 

Participation in sports, arts, volunteer work, or leadership roles not only reflects a well-rounded personality but also shows initiative, commitment, and the ability to work collaboratively with others. 

This involvement can be particularly telling if the student has achieved significant milestones or taken on leadership roles, suggesting they are capable of contributing positively to the college's community and beyond.

6. Course Selection

The array of courses a student selects during their high school years plays a pivotal role in college admissions. 

Choosing progressively more challenging classes, such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or dual-enrollment courses, not only prepares students for the academic demands of college but also signals a strong commitment to academic excellence. 

Colleges review transcripts to assess how students have taken advantage of the academic opportunities available to them, and a rigorous course load can set applicants apart in a competitive applicant pool.

7. Class Rank

Achieving a high class rank within a competitive high school environment underscores a student's academic strength relative to their peers. Many colleges value class rank as it provides a clear, comparative measure of a student's performance and consistency in academic achievements across their high school career. 

Being in the top percentile of a graduating class can be a compelling indicator of a student's ability to thrive in challenging academic settings.

8. Interviews

When colleges offer interviews, either on campus or virtually, they provide a critical opportunity for students to personally connect with the admissions committee. This interaction allows students to articulate their goals, discuss significant experiences, and convey their enthusiasm for the institution. 

Effective interviews can complement the written components of an application by adding a personal dimension to the applicant's profile, making them more memorable to the admissions officers.

9. Diversity and Background

Colleges strive to cultivate a diverse student body, valuing a wide range of cultural backgrounds, unique life experiences, and varied personal perspectives. This diversity enriches the educational experience for all students by fostering a broader understanding of the world and encouraging a dynamic exchange of ideas on campus. 

Applicants who can offer distinct viewpoints and experiences often appeal to admissions committees, which are looking to build a vibrant, inclusive community.

10. Demonstrated Interest

Demonstrating interest in a college through various actions, such as visiting the campus, engaging with admissions representatives, attending college fairs, or participating in virtual tours, can significantly sway admissions decisions. 

These activities indicate a student's genuine enthusiasm and likelihood to enroll if offered admission. Colleges track these interactions as part of 'demonstrated interest,' which can be a deciding factor, especially in more selective admission processes, as they prefer to admit students who are most likely to attend.

Tips to Get Into a Good College

To gain admission to a good college, it's essential to start early and focus on a few key areas, such as actively participating in extracurricular activities, mastering challenging courses, and crafting compelling personal essays. 

Additionally, demonstrating your fit for specific schools through customized essays and strategic college visits can make your application stand out as well-rounded and tailored to each institution. Here are 20 tips to help you with your college admissions process.

  1. Start Early: Begin your college preparation in your freshman year or even earlier. This gives you more time to build a strong academic record and develop your interests in extracurricular activities.
  2. Excel Academically: Strive for top grades across all subjects, especially in challenging courses. Colleges look favorably upon students who show a commitment to academic excellence over several years.
  3. Study for Standardized Tests: Dedicate time to preparing for the SAT or ACT by taking practice tests, enrolling in preparation courses, and learning test-taking strategies to improve your scores.
  4. Engage in Meaningful Extracurriculars: Select extracurricular activities that reflect your passions and allow for progressive responsibility. Demonstrating sustained commitment and leadership roles in groups such as the debate team or athletic teams will make your application more attractive. 
  5. Take Challenging Courses: Commit to AP, B, or honors courses to show your academic ambition and preparation for the rigors of college-level study. This not only strengthens your transcript but also signals to colleges your ability to succeed in challenging environments. 
  6. Build a Strong Personal Essay: Write a personal essay that showcases your unique qualities and life experiences beyond academics. Share personal stories that display your resilience and creativity, helping admissions officers gain a deeper understanding of who you are, thereby enhancing your application.
  7. Seek Out Leadership Opportunities: Exhibit your leadership capabilities by taking on significant roles such as club president, event coordinator, or sports team captain. Colleges appreciate applicants who have proven leadership skills and the ability to impact their community positively. 
  8. Get to Know Your Teachers: Cultivate relationships with teachers who can provide insightful recommendations. Participating actively in class and seeking additional academic challenges can help forge these relationships.
  9. Apply for Internships: Gaining practical experience in your field of interest through internships can strengthen your application by showing your commitment to and preparation for your chosen field.
  10. Participate in Summer Programs: Engaging in academic summer programs at colleges shows your dedication to education and can also provide a taste of college life and studies.
  11. Volunteer Regularly: Show your commitment to community service by volunteering regularly. This demonstrates your willingness to contribute to society and your ability to manage time effectively.
  12. Stay Organized: Utilize planners and digital calendars to meticulously track all deadlines for college applications, required tests, and necessary documents. This systematic organization prevents last-minute rushes and errors, ensuring a smooth application process. 
  13. Research Colleges Thoroughly: Investigate beyond college rankings to understand what each institution offers in terms of academic programs, campus culture, and extracurricular opportunities. Tailoring your application to match the unique characteristics of each college can significantly enhance your chances of acceptance. 
  14. Visit Colleges: Whenever possible, tour college campuses to experience the environment firsthand and demonstrate your genuine interest in attending. Engaging with admissions staff and current students during these visits can yield insights that are not available through brochures or websites. 
  15. Demonstrate Interest: Actively show your interest in colleges by participating in their college fairs, engaging through emails, and making campus visits. Demonstrating interest can be a crucial factor in admissions decisions, as it suggests you are more likely to enroll if accepted.
  16. Prepare for Interviews: Practice articulating your experiences, achievements, and future ambitions in preparation for college interviews. Such preparation ensures you present yourself as well-spoken and thoughtful, leaving a strong impression on interviewers. 
  17. Apply to a Range of Schools: Submit applications to a broad spectrum of colleges, including safety, match, and reach schools to create a balanced list of options. This strategy maximizes your chances of acceptance and provides you with a variety of educational environments from which to choose. 
  18. Highlight Unique Aspects of Your Background: Prominently feature any distinctive elements of your background, such as cultural heritage, unique life experiences, or notable accomplishments, in your essays and interviews. Highlighting these unique aspects can differentiate you from other candidates and add a rich, personal dimension to your application. 
  19. Focus on the Supplemental Essays: Craft your supplemental essays to specifically address why you are a suitable match for each college, discussing how your personal and academic goals align with their offerings. This focused approach demonstrates your interest in the program and can influence the admissions decision in your favor. 
  20. Ask for Feedback: Solicit constructive feedback on your applications and essays from mentors, teachers, or family members. This feedback can refine your submissions and help you avoid common errors, increasing the overall quality of your applications.


This FAQ section addresses additional questions about what colleges look for in applicants to help you navigate the complex journey.

1. Is a 93 Average Good Enough Score for College?

Yes, a 93 average, roughly equivalent to an A- in the U.S. grading system, is excellent for college admissions and competitive at many colleges, including selective ones. 

However, the impact varies depending on each institution's requirements and other factors like course difficulty, extracurriculars, and test scores. For top-tier schools like the Ivies, a strong overall application is crucial.

2. What Is the Hardest University to Get Into in the US?

Stanford University is among the toughest schools to enter, with an admission rate below 5%. Other highly competitive schools include Harvard University, MIT, and Princeton University, which are known for their very low acceptance rates due to their prestigious reputations and high applicant quality.

3. What Is the Lowest GPA Accepted in College?

The lowest GPA accepted varies widely. Highly selective colleges may require a minimum GPA of around 3.5, while less selective institutions and community colleges might accept lower GPAs. 

For those with lower GPAs aiming for four-year universities, strengthening other parts of the application, like test scores and extracurriculars, can help offset lower academic performance.

Final Thoughts

Getting into college involves more than just wanting to attend; it demands a well-rounded approach that takes into account various college admission factors. From academic achievements to extracurricular contributions, each element of your application plays a critical role in your admissions success. 

Remember, even if you're aiming to get into college with a low GPA, there are strategies you can employ to enhance your appeal to admissions committees. Highlighting unique talents, securing strong letters of recommendation, and crafting compelling essays can significantly bolster your application.

As you embark on this exciting journey, keep in mind that every student has a unique set of strengths. By strategically showcasing yours and understanding the specific needs and preferences of your chosen colleges, you'll improve your chances of turning your college dreams into reality. 

Whether you're perfecting your application components or seeking ways to compensate for a lower GPA, remember that persistence and a thoughtful approach can open doors to fantastic educational opportunities.

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