Know What Colleges Are Looking For

You've thought about college until your brain's aching. You've done the research, and you've narrowed the list of institutions that interest you. Time to take the next big step toward making it all happen. Enter the application process.

Schools vary, but most require scores from a college entrance exam (either the SAT or the ACT, depending on the school), a college application, and your transcripts from high school. On the application, you'll most likely be asked to list your high school activities. Even if years have passed since you were in high school, think hard about your involvement in school, athletics, work, and hobbies and be sure to include all of them. However, just because you weren't class president or the quarterback on the football team doesn't mean you don't have applicable skills and experiences that you can use to illustrate your qualities. Perhaps you worked part-time throughout high school. If so, what were your responsibilities? Look for skills you used on the job that apply to the rigor of the classes you'll take in college.  Also include any volunteer work or service hours you completed.

You'll also have to write a letter or essay, perhaps answering a specific question. Spend considerable time on this element. Organize your thoughts, make clear points, edit and proofread for mistakes, and ask a teacher to give you feedback on it. Think of this as one of your most important graded writing assignments!

You may also attend an admittance interview or have to meet other requirements to apply. In an interview, you may be asked why you want to attend that school, what extracurricular activities you have participated in, whether you worked during school, and what major or career you plan to pursue. The interview is also a good opportunity for you to ask questions.

Many schools allow you to apply online (and to track your application online). Check with your high school guidance counselor for help with application questions. If your counselor can't help, check the college's Web site, which may include a list of frequently asked questions about applications. And if you're still stumped, call the admissions office directly. You want to make sure your application isn't overlooked or dismissed because you forgot or incorrectly filled out a required element.

According to U.S. News & World Report, colleges emphasize, in order, these factors when deciding on admission:

  • Grades in college prep courses

  • Standardized admission tests

  • Grades in all courses

  • Class rank

  • Essay or writing sample

  • Teacher recommendation

  • Counselor recommendation

  • Interview

  • Work/extracurricular activities

  • Student's demonstrated interest in school