What College Admissions Officers Really Want

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Ok, ready for the hard truth? When it comes to admissions, students with stellar GPAs, near-perfect test scores, and ample extracurriculars are a dime a dozen, whereas those with evident emotional intelligence, initiative, and grit are much harder to come by. So how can your hard-working teen stand out among thousands of qualified applicants? Even more, what are college admission officers really looking for? In a word: curiosity.

As an essay specialist, I’ve worked with many kids who have invested heavily in resume-building and not nearly enough in character-building. Subsequently, they struggle to tell their most profound story. An important distinction to make to students is that your transcript is what you’ve done, but your essay is who you are. That is what admissions officers are looking for in a college essay.

In the book, The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, the authors interviewed University of Pennsylvania’s former dean of admissions, Eric J. Furda. He said:

We see students apply to Penn with transcripts that include eight AP courses, dozens of extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation that make the student out to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. What we wonder when we read these applications is, “Who is this teenager? And why isn’t someone helping him or her slow down a little and focus some of their energy on just enjoying life?”. . . What they don’t understand is that college admissions offices are not looking for perfect students. We’re looking for students who can contribute to campus life and who are well-rounded enough to benefit from being part of a diverse community.1

It seldom works in a student’s favor when they take on anything strictly because it’ll “look good on college applications”. Their lack of interest and authenticity will come through in their essay or across their application. In fact, some admissions officers use designated codes like “QBNC” (Qualified But Not Compelling) and “DNSO” (Does Not Stand Out) in their decision-making processes. It’s essential that we, as parents, give our kids the time and encouragement to engage in activities that are genuinely meaningful to them and add value to their lives.

Here are three ways you can help your child stand out to admissions officers:

1. Foster a love of reading

It’s shocking the number of high-achieving students I’ve worked with who haven’t read anything for leisure since they were twelve. Many cite a lack of time in their schedule. But reading is proven to make people better writers and communicators, which are both critical life skills.

Consider setting aside family reading time. Not only will it create a wonderful family tradition, but modeling this behavior shows your kids that, as busy as you are, you prioritize reading as well. If this seems like a nice idea in theory but is unrealistic for your family, encourage them to listen to audiobooks while getting ready in the morning, working out, or doing other activities instead of mindlessly scrolling. If you need more convincing, some elite colleges have supplemental essays asking students to list books they’ve read strictly for pleasure. This could be a great motivator to get your college-bound child to consider what admissions officers are looking for in a college essay.

2. Encourage hobbies, but set expectations

Your child taking up scuba diving even though you live 1,000 miles from the closest ocean may not make much sense to you, but pursuing hobbies creates a sense of independence, discipline, and pride–qualities that matter a lot to admissions officers. When your child is fascinated by something, encourage them to explore it from multiple angles. They should watch documentaries, follow experts on YouTube or social media platforms, listen to podcasts, and connect with mentors. Reinforce their intellectual pursuits by asking questions and letting them tell you about what they find intriguing.

When your child’s passion for their hobbies and interests stands out it makes for a much more compelling story next to the countless essays written about extracurriculars that students are only partially or not-at-all invested in. Maybe one of their hobbies will develop into a career, or maybe not. Either way, they’re guaranteed to be a more interesting, well-rounded person – and college applicant.

3. Support rather than judge

One mom I spoke with was concerned about how much time her son was “wasting” playing video games until she learned that universities including Cornell, Penn, USC, and Northeastern all have video game design programs. So rather than nagging him to stop playing, she asked him why he loved playing so much. He had never really thought about it before, but he began talking about the storylines, music, graphics, and even marketing. Experiencing his mother’s support rather than judgment further ignited his curiosity. As a result, his involvement shifted from passive participation to proactively learning about computer programming and music production.

What College Admissions Offices are Looking For are Well-Rounded Individuals

Too often, I see parents prioritize busy schedules while neglecting that kids need free time to delve into hobbies and interests. Focusing too heavily on academic achievements over personal growth can create a toxic mindset, and hurt rather than help, a student’s chances of college admission.

I’m not suggesting that course rigor, extracurriculars, GPAs, and test scores aren’t evaluated by college admissions office – they certainly play a role in college acceptance. But no matter how far into their high school journey they are, it’s never too late to infuse your child with a genuine love of learning that will help them succeed once they step foot on campus and beyond.

  1. Hibbs, B. Janet, and Anthony L. Rostain. The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019


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