What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants

Nathan Wilgeroth

As you apply to different colleges, you’re probably going to wonder what exactly each school is looking for in a student applicant. Every college has its own unique qualities and is therefore targeting different kinds of students, so it can be hard to know how best to present yourself and your strengths.

We did our research and narrowed down some key aspects that were common among certain kinds of schools. Notably, there were a few significant differences between Ivy League Schools and the Colleges of Distinction, but there were also similarities we suggest you keep in mind.

If you’re unsure about the characteristics colleges are looking for, check out what we found.

What Are Ivy League Schools Looking For

The most difficult to get accepted to and graduate from, the Ivy League schools are considered to be the most elite and prestigious academic institutions. They are widely popular and incredibly selective, so we wanted to look at the characteristics they focus on to choose pick from all their applicants.

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According to an article written by Harvard graduate, Allen Cheng, for Prepscholar.com, Ivy League colleges seek applicants who have the potential to make a “world-changing” that truly draws attention. In other words, big-name schools want to graduate students who will be famous enough to reinforce the prestige of their alma mater.

That’s not to say that changing the world is a bad goal to have; it just means that Ivy Leagues are narrowing their admissions focus on a very specific kind of person. Instead of students who show a well-rounded sense of dedication, Ivy League schools are drawn to students who excel in a particular area.

These selective schools believe strongly in the idea that it is better to achieve highly in one field than to be knowledgeable in multiple fields. They think that people are not capable of making a world-changing impact if they do not hone their focus and become #1 in a single area.

Ivy Leagues want a student who they think will be remarkable. To them, “remarkable” is measured by fame, and fame is achieved through single-track commitment.

Colleges of Distinction

We understand the allure of Ivy Leagues. We all grew up with their names dominating conversations about and references to college, and there is little doubt that they have good academic programs. But although you may have your sights set on graduating from an Ivy League school, we want to invite you also to consider our Colleges of Distinction.

These schools are ones that operate on our belief that to be “remarkable” and successful isn’t limited to the elites. In fact, we recognize the impact of thought-leaders who are able to draw from many perspectives and experiences for the benefit of their communities.

Schools honored with the “Colleges of Distinction” recognition are those that offer exceptional degree programs that are complemented by the four distinctions, characteristics that help these future leaders grow: Engaged Students, Great Teaching, Vibrant Communities, and Successful Outcomes.

By attending an institution recognized by Colleges of Distinction, students are given unlimited opportunities to have a dynamic learning experience and develop as well-rounded individuals.

Engaged Students

Colleges of Distinction provide opportunities for students to take an active role in their education and take ownership of their experience.

Great Teaching

The quality of your education is affected greatly by your experience in the classroom. Colleges of Distinction make it a priority to personalize learning from accessible professors.

Vibrant Communities

Outside of the classroom, Colleges of Distinction provide an environment in which students can engage and explore their interests. Schools that have received this honor offer students ample extracurricular opportunities.

Successful Outcomes

Beyond a student’s degree, Colleges of Distinction hope to produce positive members of society—not just in their career, but also in their community and family.

The most important quality of the Colleges of Distinction is that they prioritize how they can best support each individual student. These are institutions that value their students’ growth and hope to foster a sense of belonging.

Colleges of Distinction put their students first and focus on helping them achieve success. It’s not just the Ivy Leagues—Colleges of Distinction equally want their students to graduate with a sense of pride, honored to have attended an institution of such high standards and quality.

What Do Colleges Look for Besides Grades

Colleges of Distinction are looking for students who are passionate about their potential to make an impact. These student-centered schools want the students who will take advantage of what they have to offer. Here are some of the qualities they’re looking out for.

A trend of steady growth

You do not have to have a perfect 4.0 GPA in high school from start to finish. In fact, Colleges of Distinction take note of any improvement in your grades all throughout school. That’s a measurable sign of commitment and dedication that cannot be ignored!

Or perhaps you began high school without any club involvement or interests but then found a passion later on. If you were a relatively uninvolved freshman and sophomore but began acting in school plays as a junior and became the vice president of the drama club your senior year, Colleges of Distinction will notice.

An impressive personal statement

Personal statements are often optional at a lot of schools, and most students who do submit one write an essay. Students who submit videos, portfolios, or something outside of the box really stand out. If you are comfortable in front of a video camera and proficient in editing, or if you have a series of artwork or designs that you are proud of, consider one of these projects as a personal statement submission.

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“Depth” rather than “breadth”

Unlike Ivy Leagues, Colleges of Distinction don’t believe that students must commit to one single area of interest. But that doesn’t mean you should stuffing your résumé with a bunch of activities in which you only half-heartedly participate.

Show true dedication in your interests, even if you do want to be involved in a variety of activities. try and follow one to three real interests that you can demonstrate growth in.

If you are involved in a club, describe a leadership role you held to demonstrate your growth and impact; if you’re an athlete, show whether you led as a captain or had played for multiple years; if you’re an artist, present a completed portfolio or anything you may have entered into a showcase or competition.


Everyone has their own failures, but how they recover from them is what truly matters. How have you failed and recovered in life?

College is tough; there will be moments during which you may want to pack it all up and head home. Schools want to know that you have the capacity and capability to remain dedicated to your education for the duration of your degree program.

Admissions officers are sure to be impressed if you demonstrate in an essay how you have worked through a previous challenge.


Learning, at its best, is not a solitary pursuit. You must be able to work with professors and other students in order to make the most of your education. Colleges of Distinction want to know that you can collaborate and be a good leader among your peers.

A desire to succeed

Schools want to develop positive alumni who go on to change the world for the better. Successful graduates are a good source for alumni donations and stories they can use in their marketing.

More importantly, to produce alumni who use their education to excel in their passions is at the heart of a College of Distinction’s mission. Once you believe in your own ability to make a difference, you can start achieving your goals and inviting others to join you on your journey.


Social media, when used inappropriately, can be a detriment to your college admission. Even if your accounts are private, it is in your best interest to keep them free of red flags, condemning photos, or posts that could be taken out of context.

When something is on the Internet, it’s there forever. Schools understand that teenagers make mistakes, but it is important to paint yourself in the best light and avoid negative attention on social media.

So what is the best fit for you?

Colleges are looking for students who represent their ideals, fulfill their mission, and plan on being impactful leaders. You want to stand out in a sea of applicants, and hopefully we have provided a few ideas that will help you do so.

Tap into your strengths and consider where you will thrive, which school will support you, and how you can make your application shine.

We want to help you market yourself in a way that gives you the best chance of piquing your desired college’s interest. You have the skills and experiences that make you a college’s desired student, and whether you apply to an Ivy League, College of Distinction, or anywhere else, we’re rooting for you as you find the right fit.