What Do College Admissions Officers Really Look For? 10 Tips for Seniors

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Written by Jason

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Last updated Sep 22, 2021 | Published on Aug 21, 2021

I have talked to many, many admissions professionals over the years. In fact, it is one of my favorite things to do when I visit college campuses. I also build relationships with admissions officers as part of my regional leader duties in the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). I coordinate and arrange monthly meetings with universities throughout the country which gives me some insider’s insight to admissions officers.

Admissions officers offer such engaging personalities, such vivacious personas that I truly enjoy just about everything about them. And truth be told, if you do not get to know your admissions counselors at the colleges you visit, you are missing out! 

At any rate, if you have ever asked the question, “What do college admissions officers really look for?” you are not alone. My clients ask this question all the time. 

Here is what my cumulative experience has found over the last fifteen years about what admissions officers really want:

Tip 1: They want you to make an impression. 

Admissions officers want you to make an impression, in more ways than one. You should make an impression on your application, in your in-person meetings with them, your essay, your phone calls to them, and more. (And by the way, they log every conversation you have with them in a computer system. They know how much you have contacted them, what you have done in the past, and how communicative you have been on your own.)

Make a Great First Impression With Admissions Officers

In other words, show up in every single way possible. They are watching how you interact with them!

Tip 2: Ask yourself how you can contribute toward a balanced class.  

Admissions officers want to see the balance you can bring to an incoming class. In other words, what do you offer that other applicants do not?

What do college admissions officers really look for? The Personality in Your Application

Even if you make a good case for yourself on your application, you still might not get in. Schools need to develop a well-rounded class. In other words, let us say that the majority of individuals applying for a college have chosen pre-health majors. You, as an English major, may have a pretty good shot because you bring diversity to the group. (Note: This in and of itself does not guarantee your admission to a college.) Every school presents different needs. Every year, however, colleges need a well-balanced group of incoming freshmen.

Tip 3: Your personality matters and should shine through in your application. 

You may wonder how you can show your personality through something as uncreative as a college application, but you can. Show your penchant for creativity in the ways you list your interests on your application. Explain how your extracurricular activities have shaped you in an attention-grabbing activities section on the Common App.

For example, you have some space to write about these activities:

  • 50 characters: Position/leadership description
  • 100 characters: Organization name
  • 150 characters: Activity details, honors won, and accomplishments description.

Make Sure You Fill Out Your Common App Activities Effectively

How do you use language to describe even the briefest of descriptions in your extracurricular activities section? Do not be afraid to show who you really are, rather than your perception of what a college or university wants. Be you!

Tip 4: Academic performance matters, but so does a specialty. 

Colleges and universities want to see that you have an awesome GPA. They also want to see that you are involved in extracurricular activities. But instead of loading up on 100 activities over the course of four years of high school, hone in on just a few. 

If it is already too late and you think you spread yourself pretty thin over the course of four years, no worries. Display the activities you’ve been involved in, but show the depth of your involvement in one or two in particular. Show not only how you were the president of the entrepreneurial club, but detail (in an interesting way!) how you engineered a desktop tablet. Share how each student desktop served as a touchscreen and the teacher’s board interacted with what students wrote on their desktops. (That would be a cool invention!) 

Tip 5: They want to see meaningful extracurricular involvement. 

How deep into your extracurricular activity did you go? Did you dive deep into the inner workings of the school government or make amazing changes for the better for your community? Again, rather than getting involved at the surface level in dozens of activities, you choose to dive in deep and make true change and lasting impact.

Tip 6: They want you to demonstrate informed interest.

Admissions officers and schools want you to know that you are interested in them. It is really disheartening for an admissions officer’s school to become just another “checkmark” on the Common App. In other words, if you applied to a particular school but do not really want to go to it, the college or university will take note.  

Actually demonstrate a keen interest in the schools that you apply to because the admissions officers will give your application a second look, particularly if you lead with something like, “I knew I wanted to become a Michigan State University Spartan from the day my aunt gave me a Spartan helmet for Christmas.”

Michigan State University Spartan

And, of course, be genuine about it!

Tip 7: They want you to write an active, engaging essay.

Boy, do they ever. 

Essays that launch out of the gate with a compelling narrative make an impact. You have no idea how many essays admission officers read that plod on in the same tired gait or start with the same phrase: “I learned a lot of lessons during COVID-19.” 

Check this out. 

I put my hand to my bedroom door, then jerked it back. 


The sound of crackling, splintering wood cut through the shrill fire alarm. I could feel my heart up somewhere near my Adam’s apple, sweat slicking my face. 

 I had to get to my sister’s room. But how? The only way through was my bedroom door, and smoke was billowing under it like some sort of demented, ethereal entity nobody on earth would ever mistake as friendly. Heck, touching the doorknob was out of the question. 

 But my baby sister was across the hall, and our home was engulfed in a California wildfire. Yes, one of the wildfires you’ve watched on the evening news. 

 Well, I would keep reading. Wouldn’t you?

 You may think you have nothing to write about. “Nothing dramatic has ever happened to me,” you say? (In that case, you are probably lucky that nothing this dramatic has ever happened to you!)

Tip 8: SAT and ACT scores still matter. 

Many of my clients have applied to selective universities without submitting test scores. However, it is important to remember unless they are completely test blind, colleges and universities will still look at your test scores if you choose to submit them. 

Compass Education Group is nationally respected for their test prep and academic tutoring services. They are always at the forefront of SAT and ACT trends while keeping up with the latest admissions data. I have been able to have them present to my Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) regional group for the past couple of years to stay apprised of the test prep changes. Interestingly, test scores mattered significantly for applicants, especially to highly selective colleges, in the 2020-2021 application cycle. Check out the video below to learn more how test scores were a major admissions factor for applicants submitting scores.

Tip 9: Recommendation letters matter more!

So, what is crucial in this changed admissions environment? 

Recommendation letters. 

You better have great recommendation letters as part of your application. Application letters can give college admissions officers a more robust, in-depth look at your personality, ambitions, and future goals. Applicants with outstanding letters of recommendation always have a competitive advantage. 

And admissions officers are looking for great ones.

Tip 10: Overall, admissions officers want to learn who you are. 

How are you coming across as an applicant? Admissions officers can learn a lot about applicants from their territories (admissions offices split up students into different areas of the country) based on their essays and other quick summaries. If you come across as mean, arrogant, selfish, or another undesirable characteristic, try writing your essay again. Ask someone you trust for his or her honest opinion as to how they would rate you based on your essay. 

Why not go for humor, charm, or show your obvious love of service to others? Colleges and universities (even at the most competitive schools) need students who will serve as teammates with their classmates and excellent community members.

Admission Officials Look for Students Who Will Build Community

How can you give admissions officers the best possible glimpse of your personality? Try to inject it throughout your application and essay so you become so compelling that they cannot help but admit you. It works!

Make the Best Impression Possible 

As I mentioned before, I have had the pleasure of getting to know dozens of admissions counselors over the years. In my support of clients, I can honestly say that when the students follow these golden rules from admissions counselors, they significantly help their odds of being admitted. 

Need help putting together the best package possible for admissions officers? Let us dive into the process together at Campus to Career Crossroads. We will help you navigate this often complex journey. We will help you put your best foot forward.


What do admissions officers look for in a personal statement?

Your personal statement gives you an opportunity to expand on your own unique life experiences. Admissions officers want to see well-written personal statements that showcase compelling experiences beyond your extracurricular activities or classes. You may want to share any number of compelling stories — how your family escaped a fire like the essay above describes, how you sailed around the world or another experience that changed you. Remember, it does not have to be a major experience. You can write about something simple, such as how treating a dog with a limp made you realize you want to become a veterinarian.

What do admissions officers read first?

Admissions officers read your basic information first, so make sure you have all your basic information correct. Spell your name right, get your address correct and double-check your cell phone number! (Yes! You would not believe how many students make mistakes on their basic information!)

What are the top three things that you want a college admissions officer to know about you?

First, they want to see that you have taken challenging classes in high school. Above all else, they want to know that you can succeed at their institution. If you have taken rigorous courses in high school, admissions officers will see that it is more likely that you will succeed in college. 

Next, they want to see a strong essay with evidence of personal growth. Showcase what you want them to know about you, or what you think offers the most compelling personal story about yourself. You have so much to offer the world. What can you do to show that in your essay?

Finally, you want a college admissions officer to know that you are passionate about attending their college or university. If you indicate that their college or university is on the “second tier” of your choices, how do you think they will feel about that? 

Probably not very good.

What do admissions counselors look for?

Overall, admissions counselors want to get to know you. Beyond your personal statement and essay, make sure you communicate. Call, email, schedule Zoom calls, and meet them in person. They want to get to know a human being, not just a profile on a computer screen or piece of paper. You are a real person with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Show them that in as many forms as you can. Admissions counselors love that!

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