What Colleges look for in High School Students

Ask the Experts by Carla Palffy, MA, LPC

Q: What are colleges really looking for in applicants today?

The 2010 survey of independent college consultants has recently been released, revealing this year's "Top Ten Strengths and Experiences Colleges Look for in High School Students." While several items topping the list are unchanged despite the overheated college application process, there are a number of changes to the overall list. 

This survey is conducted every few years, completed by hundreds of members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

  • A rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student and may include AP or IB classes remains the strongest student asset for college admission.
  • Grades that represent strong effort and an upward trend. However, slightly lower grades in a rigorous program are preferred to all as in less challenging coursework.
  • Solid scores on standardized tests (SAT, ACT). These should be consistent with high school performance. In 2010, high standardized test scores are rarely enough to secure admission at the more competitive schools; however, poor scores can be difficult to overcome.
  • Passionate involvement in a few activities, demonstrating leadership and initiative. Depth, not breadth, of experience is most important.
  • Letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselor that give evidence of integrity, special skills, positive character traits, and an interest in learning.
  • A well-written essay that provides insight into the student's unique personality, values, and goals. The application essay should be thoughtful and highly personal. It should demonstrate careful and well-constructed writing. The importance of the essay has moved up on the current list, suggesting perhaps that as more schools go "test optional", the essay provides a distinguishing voice for the student.
  • Special talents or experiences that will contribute to an interesting and well-rounded student body.
  • Demonstrated leadership in activities. Colleges want people who will arrive prepared and willing to take leadership of student activities and events.
  • Demonstrated intellectual curiosity through reading, school, and leisure pursuits.
  • Demonstrated enthusiasm to attend, often exhibited by campus visits and an interview, showing an interest toward attending the college. Increasingly concerned about yield in this competitive application environment, colleges are careful to offer admission to those students they believe are serious about attending.

Just missing the top ten list: "financial resources" (despite the economy) and "out of school experiences." This latter item fell off the top ten list, although "special talents and abilities" (#7) remained. In addition, there has been recent and considerable buzz in the admission community about the trend toward creative applications with videos or other unique components, but this placed well out of IECA's top ten list.

Carla Palffy is an associate IECA member and founder/managing director of College Prep Rx in Grosse Pointe.  College Prep Rx offers college counseling to high school students and their families as they navigate the college admissions process, visit  www.collegepreprx.com. This list has been printed with the permission of IECA. Palffy is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals and will be a presenter at the following presentation:

Download Carla Palffy's Collge Information links...

Thursday, November 3, 7pm
Today's Changing Landscape for College Admissions
A conversation for parents of students in grades 10th, 11th and 12th featuring an interactive discussion about navigating the college selection process in today's competitive culture.
Grosse Pointe South High School Auditorium
11 Grosse Pointe Blvd, Grosse Pointe Farms
No Fee. Info 313.432.3832

The Family Center, a 501(c) 3, non-profit organization, serves as the community's centralized hub for information, resources and referral for families and professionals.  
To view more Ask The Experts articles, please visit our website www.familycenterweb.org.
Please email your questions to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
To volunteer or contribute, visit familycenterweb.org or call 313.432.3832.
20090 Morningside Drive, Grosse Pointe Woods, MI  48236

Enriching Our Community Through Stronger Families
The Family Center serves as the community's hub for information, resources and referral for both families and professionals. The Family Center is a non-profit organization founded with a mission to serve our community through programs and resources vital to today's families.

All gifts are tax-deductible.
To volunteer or contribute, visit the 'Get Involved' page, call 313-447-1374.
Email: info@familycenterweb.org or write to: The Family Center
32 Lake Shore Drive, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI 48236.