What Colleges Want

Cracking the College Admissions Code

A high school student with a 3.9 GPA, cello lessons, a varsity letter and an essay about her mission trip to Haiti should get into the college or university of her dreams, right? Not necessarily. “The search process is very individual to a particular student,” reports Karin Mormando, director of admissions at Temple University in Philadelphia. 

College applicants should focus on several areas to strengthen their admissions chances. 


Starting in freshman year, high school students should pay careful attention to their course selection and grades. Douglas Zander, director of admissions at the University of Delaware, Newark, DE, urges students to consider whether “they are taking the most vigorous curriculum available to them and how are they doing in their courses.” 

“The best indicator of potential is what students have already demonstrated in their accomplishments,” adds Courtney McAnuff, vice president for enrollment management at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. “We look at how these accomplishments have been recognized by grades, commendations and other indicators of success,” she says.

Extracurricular activities

Students should choose activities they love, rather than ones designed to make them stand out. “The actual extracurricular activity usually isn’t as important as the commitment to it, reflected by leadership, responsibility and persistence,” advises McAnuff. She emphasizes that “activities that show group leadership and peer respect are highly regarded by colleges.”

Standardized tests

Most colleges and universities accept both SAT and ACT scores, but each test’s importance differs by school. The University of Delaware uses standardized test scores to help evaluate the applicant overall, but “some populations of students do not do well on standardized tests, and they shouldn’t assume that they should not apply if they haven’t met some magic cutoff,” says Zander.

Temple University is test optional. Students can submit standardized test scores or respond to four short-answer questions in addition to the admissions essay. About 24 percent of students applied to Temple without ACT or SAT scores this year, according to Mormando.


Most students struggle to choose an essay topic. Experts say the essay should reflect that the student has goals or has overcome some difficult experiences. “It’s more of an insight into who the student is and that he is interested in an academic pursuit,” says Zander.

Campus visits

Students should identify their top school choices and visit as many campuses as they can to appreciate the differences among them. A city school feels different than a sprawling green campus; a small school feels different than one with 40,000 students.

It’s about a student feeling a sense of belonging, Zander says: “It would be unfortunate for a student to enroll based on what they read or see in a video and get there and feel like they don’t fit.” 

Onsite visits offer students the opportunity to speak with deans, faculty and school administrators, adds McAnuff. Students should ask questions related to their academic, social and recreational interests and try to speak with current students about their experiences at the school.

Plan ahead and be open-minded

Applying to college is a time-consuming process that requires organization and planning, which can be a problem for some students, says Mormando. Too often, students miss deadlines for early admission, grants or scholarships because they did not plan ahead. 

“Another mistake students make is getting their heart set on one school and being convinced that if they do not get in, all is ruined,” says Zander, who urges students to find two or three schools where they can be happy. “The educational benefit of diversity is real,” he adds. “We are trying to craft a class of students with rich differences in geography, race, ethnicity and economic status. All of those things are going to factor into the admission process.” 

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Secondary Education, Tweens & Teens