Who Colleges Want

How Can You Become The Person Colleges Want?

Many students have general idea of what colleges are looking for:   Five College Students

  • Students who took the most challenging classes in high school
  • Students with excellent grades and a high class rank
  • Students with outstanding scores on the SAT or ACT

But they seem baffled when they learn that one student with a straight A average and great SAT scores was rejected at a certain college while a classmate with lower grades and lower SAT scores was accepted.  Many times a teacher will nod and assure you that it must have been their essays.

Check out the five college students in the picture. They all have good grades and test scores, but only two have great grades and test scores. Some were accepted because of their wonderful essays. Some were accepted because they  held positions of leadership in high school or because they were deeply involved with volunteer work. They come from three different countries. Most had middle class families, but several are on full scholarship because their families can’t afford to pay anything.

Writing a great essay is often more important than your grades or test scores

In all of your classes and in future careers, your ability to write a clear, well-organized, logical report or essay is more important than your grades in high school or college.

Be sure you start with a well-organized outline. Each paragraph will begin with a clear topic sentence, followed by examples and evidence to support that topic sentence. But it needs to go beyond just “well written.”  You might tell an interesting story that is relevant.  You might describe personal experiences that changed your life in some way.  You might describe a difficult time in your life and how you struggled to overcome obstacles. Perhaps, like my son Tony, you have learning disabilities. You could write about the pain and shame of being thought the “dumb kid,” and how you kept working and won awards at the science fair… or whatever you did.

Start out with a fantastic opening sentence. It’s called a ‘hook.” The person reading the essays is bored, tired from so many perfectly ordinary essays that start to sound all alike. You first sentence should announce, “This essay is different. It isn’t ordinary. It isn’t silly. It’s great.”

Your essay should be different from all the other essays they are reading. When the admissions staff goes home at night, you want your essay to be the one that rings in their ears, that sticks with them like one of those catchy songs you can’t get out of your mind. It shouldn’t stand out as the silliest essay, or the most poorly written. You want them thinking, “When he wrote about being lost on the mountain with no food or water, trying to find the path in the dark – then tripping and sliding into a ditch – I was scared just reading it. I couldn’t take my break. I had to keep reading. I was shocked that he didn’t panic – that he was able to think clearly.  I’d certainly like to meet this young man.”

Yes, you want them to know that you write well, that your essay is different from the others – and one more thing.  One purpose of a college essay is to let the admissions staff get to know you better, to know and like you, and to want you as  part of their school.

Think about the questions “Who do you most admire and why?” They expect, through your answer, to get to know you better.  Some students don’t understand this. They see this as an opportunity to entertain the reader. They claim to admire Mickey Mouse or Bart Simpson. Sure, they meant it to be funny – but the readers don’t want to be entertained; they want to learn more about you.

It isn’t necessary to tell them who you really admire most. Start by thinking what you want to tell them about who you are and who you want to be. Then select a person you admire with similar interests and qualities. It will help the people reading the essay to understand learn about you.

Colleges and Universities want students with GOOD CHARACTER

It might be your essay that tells them this. It might be those letters of reference. They want to know that you are honest, responsible, hard-working, generous, respectful, and a good leader.

And then, here is the real secret: The reason with students who don’t have the best grades are accepted.

Many Colleges and Universities want a DIVERSE MIX of STUDENTS

They really don’t want an entire class made up of Straight A students with top SAT scores.

They don’t want students all from the same part of the country.

They don’t want students who think alike and have similar backgrounds, interests, and talents.

They want students from many places, whose early experiences were different, whose interests and talents, experiences and passions are different. They want their students to learn from each other and  to discuss controversial issues with those who believe differently. They want their students to meet students and professors from many parts of the world, people of different races, different religious backgrounds, and different social and economic backgrounds.


First of all, you need to think about who you are? What is your greatest interest or passion? What are you really good at?  If you wanted people to remember one important thing about you, what would it be?

1. Then you get all the basics right: The grades, the class rank, the test scores, the challenging classes, and the amazing essays.

2. You must show admissions staff that you are a well-rounded student. You are active in several high school and community organizations, taking positions of leadership. You also participate in some kinds of sports. You don’t need to be on a team. You might run in several 5K races each year, perhaps raising money for charity. You might play tennis or golf. You might work as a life guard in the summer and you also teach children to swim.

3. You should show that, in addition to being well-rounded, you stand out from the crowd in ONE area.

Maybe it is science. You entered the Science Fair every year and won many awards. You also worked with a mentor, a science teacher or researcher, and participated in their research. You might have done independent research on your own. If you are interested in insects, you might have an amazing insect collection that you shared with your biology class and several elementary school classes.

Maybe your passion is music. You have taking singing or instrumental lessons for many years. Now you are part of a band that plays in local restaurants and at Art Fairs and other community events. Perhaps you have written and composed many songs. Perhaps you organized a youth choir at your church or place of worship and you continue to teach and encourage them.

Maybe your passion is business. You began with summer jobs in three kinds of businesses. Now you have started your own small business, perhaps on the Internet. You might help people who want to sell items on E-bay but don’t know how.  You might help local small businesses set up simple websites. You might buy books or jewelry or old toys, at estate sales and resell them online.

Perhaps your passion is helping the homeless and you regularly organize a drive for blankets, food, personal care items, and more. You might get to know many homeless families while serving in a soup kitchen. With homeless students, you might encourage them to stay in school and help them get the clothes and shoes and school supplies they need.

A person with a passion for writing might have written a novel and sold a few short stories or they might write a regular column for the local paper. A person with a passion for photography could have entered many contests and won some awards. A student who wants to work in construction could spend summers helping to build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

You might have a really unusual hobby.  Perhaps you have traveled or lived in unusual places. Perhaps you participated in the great hunt for Burmese Pythons in the Florida Everglades.

What is most important is to have ONE area in which you really STAND OUT.  Put the emphasis on this ONE area when you fill out your application and write your essays. Ask at least one of the people writing a letter of reference write about this.

4. If you have a college interview – a good thing to do – you might introduce yourself and add, “And if there is one thing you remember about me it is that I  —–.”

If I do everything on the page – Will I be accepted at my first choice school?

Maybe you will. Maybe you won’t.  There might have been many students who met all these qualifications. The difference might be that they needed more students from North Dakota, they needed a few more Hispanic students, they needed a few more people from India or Spain… or whatever.  Don’t feel bad. Don’t think you should have tried a little harder

Your qualifications might have been just as good as those who were accepted.

And I have another secret.

If one college sends you a rejection letter, another wonderful college or university will want you. You will be exactly the person they are looking for.  You will soon be very glad you went to whatever school accepted you.  After all the fuss about choosing the schools that are best for you….most of us are very happy almost anywhere.

I attended 18 colleges and universities. I have degrees from 4 of them. Some were large and some were small school. Some were inexpensive State Schools; some were very expensive private schools. Some were in big cities; some were in rural areas.  But every one of them was wonderful. In every school I had great professors, met wonderful students, learned a lot, and enjoyed myself.

You are the person that some college wants.
You just need to find that college that is looking for you.

The next page is  How to Make Great Scores on those Entrance Exams    The answer is to start now.

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