What do colleges look for in future students?

And how do you make sure you show your top colleges what they want to see? While each college’s requirements are different, most boil down to a few keys for success. 

#1 What Colleges Look for: GPA

Your grade point average is at the top of the list when it comes to college admissions.

The first step is to make sure that your GPA reflects your potential. When you have good grades and challenging classes, colleges will be impressed and often reward you for your efforts. It’s not about acing every basket weaving or photography class—it’s about taking courses that further your knowledge and interest in a subject area. 

Remember that schools look at your GPA from your entire high school career. This means that slacking off your freshman year will impact your chances of getting into the college of your dreams. 

Many selective schools are looking for a rigorous transcript. Difficult courses show colleges that you embrace challenges. This means that you should take AP courses (and tests), but be careful not to overburden yourself. Find the best teachers and the best classes, taking advantage of opportunities to challenge yourself in new ways. As a bonus, demanding core classes develop skills that often produce solid ACT and SAT scores. 

Some colleges also look at class rank, particularly when awarding scholarships. Learn if (many do not) your high school determines class rank, and how, and make course choices that demonstrate rigor without jeopardizing your class rank.

what gpa do colleges look at

#2 What Colleges Look for: Test Scores

While GPA and class rank are great starting points for colleges, these factors often can be difficult to compare because of the varying difficulty of classes and different grading standards at individual schools. That’s where the ACT and SAT come in. Colleges typically use standardized tests to provide an objective measure of all students to help them make admissions decisions. 

Even though the number of colleges with test-optional policies is increasing, these tests are still used by schools not only for college admissions but also for awarding merit-based scholarships. That’s why every student needs to prepare hard for these tests to increase their scores. Students who submit a solid score have an advantage over those who do not.

It starts by determining which test is better for you. Take each once to see how you do and how each test feels. Some regions of the country focus on one test over the other, but all colleges accept both tests. While the English and reading sections both have similar content, the SAT does not have a science section. However, math makes up  50% of an SAT score compared to only 25% of an ACT score. Do your research, take practice (and actual) tests, and focus your efforts on increasing your score on one of the tests. IMPORTANT: The Digital SAT is coming in 2024 with a completely online format and changes to its structure.

Take advantage of resources from your school and look into test prep courses to increase your score. An increase of a few points can mean thousands of dollars in scholarships. That’s why increasing your ACT or SAT score is the best-paying job you can have in high school. 

ACT Scores - What Colleges Look for

#3: What Colleges Look for: Extracurricular Activities

Another way to stand out is to focus on one extracurricular activity. This means participating in ways that matter, both to you and to the group to which you belong. Signing up means more than simply showing up. Participate as much as you can, and it will make a difference for your college prospects, too. You’ll develop leadership skills, learn new skills not taught in the classroom, and likely have fun and make lasting friendships. 

College admissions committees look for quality, not quantity. Listing nine different clubs and organizations may hurt, rather than help, your chances. Focusing eventually on one activity is the best option, as it highlights your strengths rather than just showing how busy you can be. 

Extracurricular activities don’t all have to take place during the school year. Participating in purposeful summer programs can offer you an immersive learning experience, as well as show your drive and determination to succeed. Champions are made during the off-season. Use your summers and vacations to have fun and be with your family, but find time for focused skill-building. 

what do colleges look for in students

What else matters? 

Volunteer Opportunities

Schools are looking for self-assured, creative, compassionate leaders; volunteering can demonstrate all these qualities. Volunteering in a hospital, soup kitchen, or the local YMCA are all good choices. Even better might be a volunteer activity that you create. Schools (and many private scholarships) seek volunteers and leaders. Creating your own volunteer opportunity demonstrates that you are both.

Personal Essays

In addition to outside activities, admissions counselors want to know if you will fit in well at their school, so they look to personal essays to discover your interests, values, habits, passions, and views about life. Writing an essay that truly reflects you will help match you with your best-fit college.

Recommendation Letters

Essays reveal your perception of yourself and your interests, but meaningful teacher and counselor recommendations show how others see you. Most selective schools require three recommendations: two from junior- or senior-year teachers in core academic subjects and one from your senior-year college counselor. Less selective colleges rarely require recommendations for admission, but scholarships or exclusive academic programs might.


Now that you know what colleges look for, it’s time to put your knowledge to work. Challenge yourself to take difficult courses, focus on increasing your ACT or SAT score, and pour your heart into an extracurricular activity. You’ll be well prepared to get into your best-fit college and to win scholarships.

Find the Perfect College at the Right Cost

College admissions can be complex, but you don’t have to do it alone. John Baylor and OnToCollege are here to help.