Top 10 Qualities Colleges Look for in a Student

Highlight the qualities colleges look for. Stand out from competition. Build your college admissions advantage by enrolling in one of our college application boot camps.


Contrary to popular belief, data on the qualities colleges look for in a student is not some mysterious, closely guarded secret. In fact, colleges and universities regularly release information about how they make admissions decisions.

Although some schools may rank these factors differently in order of importance, below are the top 10 qualities colleges look for in a student.

1. Ability to excel in classes.

It’s common knowledge that colleges and universities want students to have a high GPA. Above all, admissions officers want to select students who will succeed in college. Good grades in high school are one indicator that students are likely to flourish in college as well.

If your grades at the start of high school weren’t as high as you’d like, don’t worry: colleges look kindly on students who show growth and finish strong.

2. Ability to excel in college prep courses.

More specifically, colleges look for applicants who have shown the ability to be successful not only in high school courses but also in college prep courses. This includes AP or IB classes, as well as any classes taken through dual enrollment programs.

It makes sense that grades in college prep courses are the most reliable predictor of grades in college. Of course, if your school doesn’t offer much in the way of college prep, colleges and universities take this into consideration as well.

3. Willingness to take on a challenging course load.

Colleges and universities will also consider the strength of your schedule. The more selective schools, especially, prefer candidates who have taken the most challenging courses available to them.

This demonstrates a strong work ethic and a commitment to academics and scholarship. A student who seeks to challenge himself in high school will likely continue to succeed in college.

4. Commitment to extracurricular activities.

When it comes to extracurricular activities, colleges are looking for quality, not quantity. An extensive laundry list of activities is not as impressive as a long-term, deep commitment to a few activities of high interest to you.

If all of your extracurricular activities fall under one category (like music, soccer, or science), that’s fine. Colleges actually like seeing that you have specialized interests and passions and are willing to make a solid commitment.

Try to take on just a few extracurricular activities for a long period of time and to spend several hours a week on each of these activities.

Additionally, colleges like to see that you have special accomplishments, achievements, or awards associated with this extracurricular involvement.

5. Leadership.

Another quality you can demonstrate through your extracurricular involvement is leadership. For example, are you a captain of a sports team? A president or officer of your favorite club? A section leader in choir or band? A mentor to at-risk youth or younger students?

Keep in mind that colleges and universities are also communities seeking to select students who will enrich the overall campus culture. Ideally, these students will be passionate leaders who will make a positive contribution to the campus.

6. Respected and admired by teachers and other adults.

This is where letters of recommendation come into the picture. Not all schools require letters of recommendation, but many want letters from teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, or even the principal of your school.

Through these letters, colleges are looking for an honest portrayal of your abilities and personality. These letters will show schools whether you are a leader in class, polite to teachers and students alike, someone who demonstrates strength of character, integrity, etc.

If you are able to choose who writes your letters of recommendation, you should select:

  • Teachers who teach the subject you are most interested in (the subject you plan to major in during college, the subject area that most of your extracurricular activities are focused on, etc.)
  • Teachers who teach a class that you particularly excel in
  • Teachers who have taught you for a long time or with whom you have developed a strong relationship

The better a teacher knows and likes your student, the better the letter of recommendation will be. It’s also great if the teacher is likely to have specific anecdotes or examples of you being a good person, a hard-working student, or a leader.

7. A good personality and/or excellent character.

The college admissions essay, also called a personal statement, is your chance to show admissions officers your personality. The essay can reveal more about your passions, character, ideas, views on life, etc.

A well-written essay that gives admissions officers a positive impression of you can be the deciding factor in admission to the school. A poorly written essay or one that reflects poorly on you can do just the opposite.

8. A genuine interest in the college or university.

Demonstrating a genuine interest in the school can work in your favor, particularly at the most selective colleges.

How can you demonstrate interest? This can involve going on tours/visits, talking to admissions officers, showing enthusiasm during an interview (if interviews are expected), or writing passionately about the school in a personal statement, etc.

For this reason, applying early decision can also be an advantage. Applying early decision demonstrates that a school is your first choice.

9. Ability to excel at a competitive school.

Although class rank is less of a factor than it has been in the past, some schools still look at class rank, and it can set you apart from otherwise similar applicants.

The schools that do look at class rank are particularly interested in seeing if you managed to come out on top of a highly competitive class. If you attend a competitive, rigorous school and are still in the top 10% of graduates, colleges will rightfully view this as a major accomplishment.

10. A willingness to serve others.

We mentioned earlier that colleges look for students who will make positive contributions to the school. Another way to demonstrate this quality is through a willingness to serve others. Community service hours and a passion for helping the community can be a big “plus” for you, and a bonus on your application.

Colleges want to know that you care about positively impacting the people, communities, and world around you. This is a sign that you will be a good influence on campus and you will use your education to make a difference in the future.

If you can demonstrate the majority of the qualities that colleges look for in a student, you should have a strong chance of admittance to even the most selective of schools.

And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions, check out our college essay boot camp.