What Looks Good on College Applications? 10 Key Elements Your Application Needs

Knowing What Looks Good on College Applications Improves Admissions Odds

Written by Jason

It is simple: I envisioned Campus to Career Crossroads helping students have successful outcomes, dreamed up by the students themselves. Our mission at Campus to Career Crossroads is to develop a supportive and individualized partnership with you and your family to help you navigate the complex stages from high school and throughout your career. Let's work together!

Last updated Apr 26, 2022 | Published on Feb 21, 2022

Curious about what looks good on college applications? It is a great question to ask because application volume has spiked to record setting levels over the past two application cycles! You are navigating a new admissions world when applying to colleges now. Having a standout college application is critical to being read and hopefully accepted into your dream college.

The Changes in College Admissions Have Impacted the Application Process

What looks good on college applications changes from year to year. For example, admissions officials at many big-name universities and U.S. News and World Report colleges are crushing annual records for application volume and application readers are stretched thin on time. Your ability to craft a clear, concise, and achievement-driven college application is more important than ever.

10 Elements for Winning College Applications

What looks good on college applications depends on how your college application will be read at a desired institution. Colleges all have different criteria for evaluating college applications. 

For example, Penn State takes a very academic approach. They focus on the transcript as the most important factor in their application review. The University of Miami reviews all applicants in a holistic manner, which means admissions officials read all of your application materials to fully understand your background and experiences. A holistic review generally includes grades, essay(s), standardized test scores (if submitted), activities, and letters of recommendation.  

If you shape your application items to the most selective colleges, you will likely be ready for any review process. If you are uncertain about whether a college may read more academically or holistically, ask us!

What are the application elements you need to know about right now? Let us go over that information, below.

Transcripts Rule the Review Process

Your transcript forms the foundation of each college review’s process. All colleges will review it closely to determine your potential for academic success at their school. Through your transcript, admissions officials can learn about your academic progress and how you challenged yourself over your high school career. Colleges will also review your senior year class schedule, so do not think you can slack off with your classes during senior year.

Your Transcript is the Foundation of Your College Application

Your electives matter to admissions officials as well. It is a mistake to only focus on core subject areas like math and history. Pay attention to your electives because you can let your interests and passions shine through them. 

Challenging Curriculum and High GPA

Curriculum selection is one of the most critical aspects of college planning and begins prior to your freshman year. The classes you select will allow you to step up in academic rigor to honors and AP classes when possible. Always know the prerequisites in your freshman and sophomore year so you will be able to take challenging courses during your junior and senior years.

Your junior year is one the most important years to demonstrate academic rigor and a high GPA. Do not get too aggressive with your class load or load up on too many AP classes. Admissions officials want to see you taking the most challenging classes available to you and achieving the best possible grades!

Strong Test Scores Still Look Good on College Applications

The test-optional movement does not seem to be slowing down. All Ivy League universities have committed to test-optional plans at least through the 2023 admissions cycle and expect other universities to follow in their footsteps.

As more colleges extend their test-optional policies into future years, you need to know the fine print. It is important to note that test scores can be advantageous to include in your college application for increased acceptance odds. Admissions officials will review them if you indicate on your application you would like them considered.

I recently hosted Compass Education Group as part of my regional leader duties for the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). One of the most impressive aspects about Compass Education Group is their nationwide research and data collection about standardized testing in college admissions. Check out the video below to see the recent trends in standardized testing that will impact you in the 2023 application and the years ahead.

Know the Common App 

If you are not aware, the Common App is the gateway to applying to over 900 colleges throughout the country and even some international colleges. It sounds easy to create a profile but it is a little more complicated than it appears.

Little mistakes can add up quickly in your Common App profile, especially when answering college application questions. In these record-setting application cycles, little mistakes become deal breakers.

What are some of the most common mistakes we see every year? Take a look:

  • Incomplete senior class schedule
  • Extra double spacing in the essay section
  • Incomplete activity descriptions
  • Entering test scores even if you’re applying test optional
  • Selecting Early Decision when you want to apply Early Action — there’s a big difference!

Well-Written Personal Statement

Your main college essay, or your personal statement, is the heart and soul of your college application. You need to showcase your amazingness, what talents you will bring to the campus community, and have it well-written. 

You only have to write one main essay on the Common App essay prompts (650 word max). Getting a head start on your essay writing always looks good on college applications. A well-written essay gets better through multiple rounds of feedback and revision.

Admissions officials read a lot of essays each day, so you need to make yours stand out. Check out this helpful resource for tips to write your best personal statement.

Supplemental Essays 

Supplemental essays often come as a surprise to many students. As you build your college list, you should know how many supplemental essays you will have to write for each college on your list. We have had some clients write over fifteen supplemental essays for the colleges on their list! 

Not all colleges require supplemental essays but the ones that do are often very selective in nature. You need to make them count, just like your personal statement. Admissions officials will review how well you connect and understand their campus. 

Here are some supplemental essay tips:

Supplemental Essays are Very Important In College Applications

  • Make sure you understand and answer the prompt.
  • Always bring forward new information not covered in your personal statement.
  • Be clear and concise. Some supplemental essays only require you to write 250 words or less.
  • Do not reuse supplemental essay prompts without changing the names of the colleges!

Activities Always Look Good on College Applications

Ready for your college application to shine beyond your GPA and standardized test scores? The new admissions reality at highly selective colleges is that impressive GPAs, numerous AP classes, and near-perfect standardized test scores may get you “read” but not admitted. 

While admissions officials are struggling to read all application items, your activity list provides a quick overview of what you may bring to the campus community. Many admissions officials may quickly skim your activity list to determine how much time they may spend reviewing other parts of your application. Your activity list needs to instantly communicate to admissions officials about your unique interests, passions, service, and leadership.   

Here are five questions to ask about your activity list:

  • How do your activities connect to your core interests?
  • Where are you making a tangible contribution?
  • Are you building clubs or projects that may be carried on after you graduate?
  • Are you spending over ten hours on these interests outside of school?
  • What are your unique extracurricular interests?

Feel like you need to add a home-run activity related to your interests? Check the benefits of college summer programs.

Compelling Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are extremely important and often the unsung hero of your college application. Colleges that will review your application holistically will look very closely at what your letters of recommendation say about you. Your letters should describe any points of excellence, key personal traits, and achievements to help you stand out.

While you cannot tell what you want your letter of recommendation writer to actually write, you can provide them with important information. Some teachers may require you to provide a résumé or fill out a form (a brag sheet) to help them compose the best letter possible.

Be mindful of the subject areas of the teachers you ask to write letters of recommendation. An engineering applicant with two science teachers providing references may also benefit from asking an art or music teacher for a recommendation. This may show a new dimension of your capabilities as a learner and a student.

Meaningful Volunteer Experience

Volunteering always looks good on college applications but admissions officials are not looking for you to volunteer at every possible opportunity. Rather, what are you passionate about in your community or school? How are you making a difference with your time and talents?

Volunteering Always Looks Good on College Applications

You may be able to create volunteer opportunities that show your initiative and drive. Love playing music? Create a community concert, provide private lessons to younger students, or organize a summer camp. A little brainstorming can help you think of endless volunteering possibilities.   

Work Experience

Do not take your part-time job lightly! You can showcase experiences, time management skills, and other attributes through this part of your college application. Many students load up on AP classes, which leaves them little time to work, especially if they play sports or other activities.

Can you highlight some of these work experiences?

  • Were you entrusted to train new employees?
  • Did you get promoted or receive awards?
  • Do you have perfect attendance or have never been late to a shift?
  • What key responsibilities do you have on the team?
  • What are three key attributes your managers would say about you? 

The Common App activity section has a 150-character limit (spaces and punctuation count) to describe an activity. 

Steps to Incorporating These Key Elements in College Applications 

Now you know the elements that look good on college applications, how do you bring it all together? Follow these four steps to make your application come together and look amazing!

Step 1: Know Your Application Focus 

What are three key areas you want the admissions official to know about your application? What skills separate you from other applicants? This is not the time for modesty. You must showcase the hard work and accomplishments you have been achieving since ninth grade.

Always Know and Describe Your Application Focus

How are these areas brought forward and demonstrated in your activities, essays, and letters of recommendation? Admissions officials want you to prove points with specific examples.

Step 2: It Takes Time and Revision

Admissions officials we know at big name universities receive the majority of applications forty-eight hours from their deadlines! Talk about making things stressful on yourself.

Plan ahead! Competitive college applications start taking shape in the summer months before your senior year. Give yourself time to avoid feeling overwhelmed or submitting a subpar application. Do not expect to complete your college application or your Common App profile in one sitting. You will need to revise your application multiple times.

Step 3: Be Careful of Outside Feedback

Too many cooks in the kitchen may not know what looks good on college applicationsWhile it is tempting to have friends or family members review your applications items, they can unintentionally change your application focus. We have seen watered-down essays that miss the mark when well-meaning family and friends give too much feedback.

When looking for college application feedback, seek out a few people who are familiar with college admissions.  

Step 4: Get Expert Help

At Campus to Career Crossroads, we know what looks good on college applications because we talk about this with admissions officials every week. We have extensive professional relationships with admissions officials throughout the country. Our expertise is bolstered by professional associations and by serving on three college admissions advisory boards.

Professional Association Expertise Can Improve Your College Application

We guide clients through an intimidating time by our proven step-by-step process. We also take pride in assisting our clients to recognize and describe their strengths. The application process is rewarding for us because students develop a stronger sense of their abilities and achievements. We also provide objective admissions feedback to take your application to the next level. 

Takeaway: What Looks Good on College Applications

Students who demonstrate their academic passions, a self-starting drive, curiosity to learn, and who have a commitment to better their community in a thoughtful manner stand out from thousands of other applicants!

We know it can be difficult for students to talk about themselves in their college applications. If you are feeling stuck or uncertain of what to say, contact us to get your application on the right track.


How do I make my college application stand out?

Be authentic. Admissions officials can quickly recognize when students are writing to impress them. Do not try to produce a college application that you think colleges want to see. You want your application to be a reflection of who you are and how you connect to a college’s mission, academic atmosphere, and campus community.

Does taking the SAT or ACT still matter?

Yes! Standardized testing still looks good on college applications. The chart below from Compass Education group illustrates how many highly selective colleges are admitting more students who submit standardized test scores. However, if standardized testing is not a strength for you, you may want to strategize a test-optional pathway. 

Standardized Test Scores Looks Good on College Applications

Why the recent surge in college applications?

Great question! The number of high school seniors is not growing and is projected to shrink in the coming years. The test-optional movement last year spurred a major spike in application volume, especially at selective colleges. The 2022 applications cycle has seen this record application volume continue, with no end in sight.

Do I need a résumé for my college application?

The majority of colleges do not require a separate résumé. The Common App activity section serves as a résumé to admissions officials. The Common App activity section allows up to ten activities from ninth grade through twelfth grade. This provides ample space to describe your most meaningful activity experiences.

If a college does ask for a résumé, use the opportunity to showcase new information beyond what is noted on your Common App activity list.


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