1. Strong Scores on Standardized Tests. Admissions counselors are looking for scores that match or exceed the scores of their current students. Standardized test scores are seen as the most objective measure of your college potential. Colleges are inundated with more applications than they have time to review, so the first eliminations are those that fall below the minimum SAT/ACT requirement. Your application won't even be reviewed without meeting that requirement.
2. High Grade Point Average. It goes without question that grades are an extremely important element of your college application. Colleges will ask you to submit official transcripts from your high school, and possibly recalculate your grade point average based on the internal system they use for weighting different types of courses. Your goal, from the first year of high school forward, is to achieve the best grades you can. If you had a rough freshman year, but have since rebounded with much stronger grades, fear not. Colleges look for trends in academic achievement — and a record of constant improvement when your GPA is not as strong as you would like is a good sign to most admissions counselors about your growth and potential.
3. Challenging College Prep Courses. Your challenge is not just to get the best grades you can — but to get the best grades you can in the most academically challenging courses you can. You don't need to enroll in an International Baccalaureate (IB) Program at your high school, but where you have the strengths, skills, and aptitude, you should at least strive for Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Most colleges will place greater weight on these “tougher” courses — and even go so far as to rate a B in an advanced class (IB, Honors, AP) on a higher scale than an A in a comparable mainstream class.
4. Top Percentage of Class Standing. Class rank and class standing are moving a little further to the back of the pack, partly because class rank means almost nothing in high schools that are at the extremes — horrible or exceptional. In some of the top high school programs, class rank has been found to actually hurt some of the very best students — because only so many can be in the top 1, 5, or even 10 percent of the class. Grades obviously drive class rank, so you should of course strive for the very best grades — and then just hope that the ranking works in your favor or that the colleges you apply to don’t use rank as a top criteria for admissions.
5. Leadership Positions in a Few Organizations. Most colleges and universities are seeking leaders from within their applicant pool, and you can make your application stand out by having one or two leadership positions over the course of your high school career. Being a leader in one or two organizations means much, much more than simply being a member in 10 clubs and organizations. Not only does leadership show a certain level of maturity and character, but colleges also have an eye to all their student organizations and their need to recruit future leaders. You don’t need to be the president of an organization, but you should be an officer of at least one group by the time you’re a senior.
6. Active Involvement in Community Service. There’s no requirement for community service to gain admittance to college, but just about all college-bound high school students volunteer throughout their local community. It seems to be one of those unwritten rules that applicants who volunteer many, many hours in the service of supporting others will become a key campus activist. Regardless of the importance for admission to college, most experts agree on the value and self-fulfillment people get in helping others.
7. Insightful and Well-Written Essay(s). Of all the 10 items on this list, the essay either gets the most attention or the least respect — depending on who you ask. Like some of the other 10 elements on this list, not all colleges require an essay as part of the admissions application. The essay — or essays — are a tool used by some universities to learn more about you and why you want to attend their school. Definitely take the time to carefully consider the questions and write, edit, rewrite, and proofread your essays — with an eye to what the essays reveal about you and your personality. Some admissions counselors admit that an amazing essay can push a marginal applicant into the accepted student group.
8. Quality Recommendations from Teachers and Guidance Counselor. The recommendation letters that you ask your teachers and your guidance counselor to write can play a key role in your college application. Ideally, you have a few favorite teachers — teachers who not only know the quality of your work and academic acumen, but also can talk about some of your personal qualities. It’s best to ask your teachers for letters as early as you can so that they have the time to write a quality letter.
9. Relevant Recommendations from Professionals and Others. One other nice touch — especially for a college you really want to attend — is to ask a professional, such as a former (or current) boss, to write a letter of recommendation for you. Even better if that person has some sort of tie to the college as a donor or alumnus. Other possibilities include your supervisor from one or more of your volunteering/community service projects or a coach from one of the teams you have played for. If you have run your own business, you might ask a favorite customer to write a letter. Finally, you can also ask a family friend or religious leader to write a letter — but personal references are not as strong as academic or professional ones.
10. Work and Entrepreneurial Experiences. While you certainly do not need to have ever held a part-time or summer job or started your own business, if you have some unique experiences, writing about them can be a great essay topic as well as showcasing your professionalism and time-management skills. College admissions directors love self-starters — applicants with a strong entrepreneurial spirit — so proudly tell the story of your babysitting, lawn mowing, tutoring, painting, or pet-sitting business (or whatever YOUR business is).