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What Do Colleges Actually Look For?


These are the three things colleges actually look for in your application:

Ever read a college’s post about what they look for in applicants? It’s all fluff. It’s hard to distill the flowery language into actionable items you can include on your application and it’s probably not what they are actually looking for. Take a look at Harvard’s How Your Application Is Considered post. You will see phrases such as “growth and potential,” “interests and activities,” “character and personality,” and “contribution to the Harvard community,” Many other colleges say they are looking for similar things. Some will just use a bunch of buzzwords like leadership and teamwork.  So what does this all actually mean? What do you need to think about when you are actually putting together your application? We have the answers.

Before we dive in, the most important thing for you to understand is that there are only 4 items that set you apart from other applicants: resume, essay, recommendations, and interview (for schools that offer one). Grades and test scores are not as important, as you are likely competing against applicants with similar grades and test scores. Here at Prompt, we have helpful content on dealing with all four items that can set you apart. For more details on how to separate yourself from your competition, check out How to Differentiate Your College Application.

Without further ado, here are the specifics you need to include in your application to differentiate yourself from your competition.

Drive and Initiative

Achieving challenging goals and consistently going above and beyond expectations is a strong indicator of future success. Colleges may talk about “growth and potential,” but they really try to understand what you have done in the past to indicate a successful future. Colleges are looking for people who are hard-working, driven, and constantly striving for success. Make sure your resume, essay, and recommendations all clearly point to your propensity for taking on challenges and being successful. Here’s how you do it:

  • Write an IMPACT focused resume. Some colleges ask for your activities to be entered into their format, others want a full resume; the end result is the same. When writing the details, do not describe mundane tasks that anybody could do. Instead, focus on the impact you had on the organization and indicate what you did to achieve that impact. There is a simple formula for writing your points as espoused by a Google HR exec – accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z].
  • Tie your essays in with your future ambitions and past successes. If you have solved tough problems in the past that may be relevant to your future career choice, focus in on those tough problems and situations. Ideally, focus on past successes where you needed to take the initiative to move a situation forward and to achieve an amicable and successful resolution for all parties. Read through our posts on the 3 Keys to Writing the Perfect College Essay and How to Select Your Essay Prompt for the Common Application.
  • Make sure your recommenders can speak to your personal drive and continuous need to take the initiative. Here at Prompt, we recommend you choose recommenders who have known you for multiple years and have seen you succeed in difficult situations (e.g., student activity leadership, challenging AP/honors classes, athletics). Make sure your recommenders are articulate and will put in the time required to write you a killer recommendation.


Being able to interact with people in an effective, constructive, empathetic way is vital for success. In fact, interpersonal skills are the single most important skill to success in your future career. Colleges talk about “character and personality;” what they really mean is that you need to be a nice person who plays well with others.  It’s hard to make this come across in your application, but if you do it successfully, you will have a significant leg up on other applicants.  Here’s how you do it:

  • Display clear cases of leadership and teamwork on your resume. I am sure you will list your leadership positions, but how can you make your leadership and teamwork show interpersonal skills? Use examples like “Led team of four to design and create an underwater basket weaving autonomous robot that took second place in a regional competition.” This clearly indicates that you were able to lead an effective team and therefore likely have strong interpersonal skills. “Led baseball team to 2nd place finish” does not indicate interpersonal skills as it does not indicate your explicit role.
  • In your essay, tell stories in which you resolved a conflict within a group of people. Relaying a story in your essay where you played a central role resolving a conflict between two or more individuals (including yourself) will clearly display your interpersonal skills.
  • Select recommenders who have seen you work in or lead teams. Ask your recommenders to write about some specific situations involving conflict resolution in which you played an integral role.
  • Do an interview if offered. An in-person interview is generally the best way to showcase your interpersonal skills because the school actually gets see how you interact with people. You will likely get questions that allow you to discuss your interpersonal skills such as “tell me about a time where you had to lead” or “tell me about a time where you had to solve a difficult problem with a team.”

Diversity of Thought

Colleges are “trying to build a class.” This means taking people from a multitude of backgrounds with variety of passions, opinions, and goals. When colleges ask for “interests and activities,” they are attempting to understand how your unique personality will fit with the other students they are selecting. Contrary to popular believe, colleges are NOT looking for “well-rounded” people unless the people are REALLY round. They are looking for “spikey” people; meaning that a person will be exceptional at one thing and may only be mediocre at others. Admissions officers look at a person’s “spike” to determine their potential “contribution to their college community.” They combine these “spikes” from a multitude of individuals to create a class that is exceptional across a variety of different areas. In other words, you need to showcase what makes you unique – your spike. Maybe it is your passion for pursuing your career choice based on your past experiences. Maybe it is your fondness for unique and different “interests and activities.” Who knows, the possibilities of uniqueness and spikiness are endless! The main thing is that you need to be memorable and come across as authentic. Here’s how you do it:

  • Showcase your uniqueness on your resume. Highlight your school activities and your activities outside of school. Top 10 ranked in a video game? Put that; it is unique. Heavily involved in your church youth group? Put it. Passionate about band? Make sure your description in your bullet points makes it clear that you are a “band geek.” Colleges love geeks. Geeks are spikey.
  • Write a unique essay. The most memorable essays are the ones that are truly different than the typical applicant. For MIT, I wrote about how I wanted to be a roller coaster designer. Clearly that did not work out (sadly, I am not a roller coaster designer today), but I was passionate about it and it differentiated me from other candidates because it was unique and memorable while still coming across as authentic. A rockstar who got into a multitude of schools once told me, “Look at applying to college as a sort of “political campaign” in which you need to make your campaign platform known. Central to my platform was the idea that I am absurdly curious and I use everything as a learning opportunity.” Smart words. Create your platform and wave it throughout your essay – this will make your uniqueness and spikiness shine.

I know that was a lot to digest. I suggest coming back to this article often as you put together your application to make sure you are acting on the 3 Things Colleges Actually Look for in Your Application. Follow the actionable advice above on drive and initiative, interpersonal skills, and diversity of thought to improve your chances of getting into your dream college. Make sure you read some other important articles regarding the parts of the college application that will differentiate you from other applicants. When it comes time to write your essay, make sure you use Prompt to provide professional feedback on your essays by editors with college admissions expertise. Take advantage of a FREE upgrade to a 6 hour turnaround by using the promo code WRITEWELL.

Write well and prosper.

Other valuable sources:

The 40/60 Essay Rule: Story Time Versus Introspection (quite possibly the most important article we have)

3 Keys to Writing the Perfect College Essay

How to Select Your Essay Prompt for the Common Application

How to Differentiate Your College Application

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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