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7 Qualities Colleges Look for in Applicants

Student Life

December 08, 2023

The college game can be difficult to play due to how vague and uncertain the admissions process is. As test scores and grades become less of a factor in acceptance and admission become more geared toward the infamous extracurriculars and activities list, students have less of an idea of what colleges want to see and what they can do to get accepted. However, here are seven things colleges look for in an extracurricular list to determine whether to accept or reject an applicant.

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1. Passion

The number one quality college admissions officers look for is passion, a word that could not be emphasized enough. Passion does not mean a small hobby you pick up over the summer: playing the ukelele and learning simple chords. Passion is something you love – something you bring to the next level.

Do you think about the ukelele all day? Do you go out of your way to spend hours playing the ukelele, teach students online, and perform at your school's talent show? That's passion.

One way to show passion through your extracurriculars list is by involving yourself with activities revolving around your passion. If your passion is writing, did you join the writing club? Did you start a blog?

Did you get a writing internship? These are all ways of showing colleges a layer to yourself deeper than test scores and grades. Demonstrate to colleges that you are more than test scores and grades; you are a multi-dimensional person with passions and hobbies. This is crucial in standing out from the crowd and increasing your chances of being admitted.

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2. Leadership

The second quality colleges look at is the ways you've held positions of leadership throughout your high school career. Perhaps tied closely together with this quality is commitment. You don't need to be the founder and president of the environmental club, but by consistently attending throughout the four years of high school and gradually attaining the role of president, you've demonstrated passion, commitment, and strong leadership qualities.

One mistake many students make is having the assumption that they need to be a participant or hold a leadership position in a multitude of clubs. You do not have to be the president of ten different clubs at your school. But take two or three clubs you're sincerely passionate about and contribute your blood, sweat, and tears to those activities.

This will be pivotal in showing colleges you are involved and genuinely interested. These acts demonstrate to colleges what you can bring to their school and what you will be involved in while attending.

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3. Initiative

The third quality college admissions officers look for is initiative. If you are passionate about writing but there happens to be no writing club at your school, you can show initiative by founding a creative writing club. By creating opportunities for yourself and by going out of your way to dive deeper into your passion, you communicate to colleges that despite the circumstances holding you back, you can still learn and grow on your own. Colleges don't admit students who will do well because they go to those colleges, but because they will succeed even without going.

A demonstration of initiative can be anything from beginning a business to starting a small club with friends. Having the initiative to start something, to change the world, shows colleges that you are willing to push your resources and abilities to their limits and that you are willing to challenge yourself and grow because of it.

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4. Impact

One important factor that is often overlooked is the impact the student's activity has on the community and society around them. Thousands of students flower their descriptions to make them seem meaningful, but when you list a numerical value, it quantifies your work and shows the admissions officers how much impact you've created. Colleges want students who not only have a passion but use their passion to help make the world a better place.

Your impact can be shown by listing the number of hours you've spent in community service, the number of views or followers you have on social media, the number of people you've helped in your tutoring project, et cetera. By having solid numbers on your application, you give colleges an easy and robust way of judging how much of an impact you have made on the world.

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5. Excellence

Another quality colleges look for that is much harder to achieve is excellence. Colleges want a well-rounded student body composed of individuals who are excellent in what they do. The easiest way to show colleges that you excel in your passion is through the Awards and Honors section of the CommonApp.

Listing the awards you've received shows colleges that you are at the top of your field even when compared to others around the globe. Winning competitions and contests show admissions officers that you are better at your passion than anyone else is.

Excellence can also be exemplified through the Activities section. By joining the basketball team and working your way up to captain, then competing in tournaments, show diligence and passion in the sport, as well as a competitive edge to your passion. You show admissions officers that you are willing to put yourself out there and win as well.

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6. Commitment

Last, but certainly not least, colleges consider the student's commitment to the activity they participate in. Colleges do not want to see ten internships you've done over the summer or a small three-day camp you attended unless they've significantly impacted who you are as a person. Actively participating in a club that you've been part of since freshman year is a wonderful way of demonstrating to admissions officers that you are someone who doesn't easily give up and sticks to what they love.

The activities section is a way of showing colleges you are a three-dimensional person with passions and hobbies of your own; you are not merely defined by your test scores and grades. Showing colleges the activities that matter to you the most, the ones that define you as a person and make you who you are today, is the best way of standing out in your application. Millions of students around the world try to achieve the status of the ‘perfect student’ with perfect grades and test scores, but what matters is staying true to yourself: only in this way can you be unique.

Samuel Teoh
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Samuel Teoh is a homeschooled high school sophomore in Taiwan. He is the News & Media Director of AspirAsian, a Senior Editor and Video Editor for Polyphony Lit, and a published author. He is passionate about identity and self-expression, whether through writing, art, or film. His favorite pastimes are drinking bubble tea, listening to K-pop (especially NewJeans!), and reading/writing stories.