What looks good on college applications: student carrying some books and folders
Intermediate

What looks good on college applications? 5 things to include

Highlights:

- College applications can look different depending on the school you’re applying to, but most will require your transcript, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities.

- Even top colleges admit students from a wide range of backgrounds, so don’t be discouraged if your application doesn’t look like someone else’s. 

- The college admissions process can be intimidating, but it’s also an opportunity to express who you are and who you want to be as you find the right college for you. 

The college application process can be an emotional time for both parents and kids. While it’s exciting to plan for a new phase of your life and see years of hard work pay off, no big change comes easily. And college is definitely a big change — it’s basically the final level of our school lives. 

Whether you want to get started on the college application process, prepare for the future, or help your kids understand how to get into a good college, this guide will give you an overview of what looks good on college applications. Get ready to confidently go through the application process like the superstar you are. 

What do colleges look for in prospective students?

Before we get into what looks good on college applications, it helps to think about what kinds of students colleges want to accept. While grades, test scores, and extracurriculars all have their own impact on an application, colleges also look for well-rounded people who will bring unique value to their schools. 

That means that a college application needs to be more than a checklist of accomplishments. Like a successful resume , your college application should be unique and interesting — like you! College admissions officers will look through hundreds of applications, many of which will have very similar information. What sets an application apart is how well it represents the student the college will be admitting. 

Maybe your application will represent your curiosity and eagerness to learn. Maybe it will communicate that you’re someone who allows themselves to struggle and push boundaries. Maybe it will highlight that you’re charitable and like to add value. Or maybe it will portray you as a person who can find ways to be successful even when they are uncomfortable. 

An application that can get these personality traits across allows you to stand out and shows the colleges you apply to what an asset you can be to their schools. 

And if none of those traits feel like who you are, don’t panic. There are many, many combinations of positive traits, and these are just examples. Just remember that it's about the spirit of who you are and who you’re trying to be more than an exhaustive list of what you’ve done. 

College applications 101: What to include

What looks good on college applications: young man doing his homework

So how will you help your college find out who you are and why you’d be the right fit for their school? The way you’ll share your personality and talents with college admissions officers is through the key components of your application: your transcript, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities (such as being part of a sports team or having a part-time job), and personal statement or college essay.

Below, we’ll get into detail about these five components. Your dream college might have different requirements, so research the schools that are your top choices so you know exactly what they expect from their applicants.

1. Transcript

There’s no getting around the importance of a high GPA as one of the most important factors for how to get into a good college. Having good grades as a high school student shows an admissions counselor how likely you are to be a good college student, but it’s not just about the GPA. 

When it comes to what looks good on college applications, your course load can be just as important as your grades. Admissions committees want to see that you tried to get the most out of your high school career. Taking challenging courses shows that you are someone who isn't afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone to get what you want. 

The types of classes you took are easy to see at a glance. While a normal course will give you up to a 4.0 GPA, Advanced Placement classes (AP classes) go up to a 5.0, bringing your overall weighted average higher. A weighted GPA gives more difficult classes a larger impact on your overall average. So if you roll up with an average above 4.0, they’ll know at a glance that you put in the work. 

AP classes don’t just look good — they can help you get ahead before the semester even begins. An AP class can earn you college credits while you’re still in high school, which saves you time and money on your college education. That could mean less time in school, and less money needed from financial aid. (Your future financial you will thank you for this down the road!) Talk to your school counselor about the AP classes available to you and if they are worth college credit. You should also find out what AP credits the colleges you’re applying to will accept.

Course load and academic performance are major factors of a college application, but admissions counselors may also be interested in standardized test scores. 

2. Standardized test scores

High-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT can be stressful for everyone involved, especially for nervous test-takers. But if you’ve been worried that your SAT score won’t be good enough for your dream college, we have good news!

As of 2023, more than 1,800 four-year colleges no longer require standardized test scores for college admissions. Harvard, Yale, and the entire Ivy League made the submission of test scores an option for college applications during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They decided to keep test scores optional, and many other colleges and universities have done the same. 

But before you tear up your flashcards and cancel your practice tests, be sure to look into the admissions requirements of the schools you’re applying to. Just because Harvard is test-optional doesn’t mean that your dream school or state university will be. 

Plus, SAT or ACT scores may still be required for some scholarship or grant applications.

Test-optional applications can be especially difficult for parents to handle, since, until recently,  test scores were high on the list of what looks good on college applications. Parents likely had to put a lot of work into their own test prep in high school and may overemphasize its importance today. 

Parents can support their kids with the college admissions process by learning about the requirements of their prospective schools. If test scores are optional, they can talk to an admissions counselor about what components of the application are most important or when students would benefit from sharing their scores. This can help parents offer guidance while their kids navigate the application process.  

3. Personal statement or essay

The personal statement or college essay is your chance to tell the admissions counselors about who you are beyond the numbers and lists. This essay should showcase your unique qualities. It can be a reflection on an important experience in your life, or it can discuss a person who influenced you and helped you develop your values. You can even share your aspirations and explore how your past is shaping your future. 

The most important thing to keep in mind is that your college essay should show the admissions officers how your passion and personality will benefit their school. Be sure to express in your personal statement how your experiences, interests, and goals make you a good candidate for the college or university. 

In some cases, the college essay can be the key to how to get into a good college, especially if your GPA or transcript is on the borderline of the admissions requirements of your prospective school. 

This essay should represent you and your strengths, but don’t just list things that seem like they would impress an admissions counselor. Community service and leadership roles are important experiences, but they don’t say anything specific about you by themselves. 

Instead, focus on what you learned from a given experience or how it helped you understand yourself better. Maybe community service helped you realize that you are inspired by helping others and you want to bring that spirit to your college campus. Or maybe you learned that lesson when you stayed with your grandparents over the summer or helped your sibling with their homework. It’s not about how good the experience looks on paper. It’s about what you’ve taken from it. 

Parents, help your kids prepare for their college essays by talking to them about the qualities they can explore in their writing. It can be hard for people to see their own strengths and characteristics, so let your kids borrow your eyes and help them see themselves from your perspective. You can also reflect together on formative experiences and shared moments of inspiration. Pausing to appreciate and discuss these moments can help your kids understand the details that make a college essay stand out. 

4. Letters of recommendation

Student talking to a teacher

Just because you tell your prospective colleges why you’re so awesome doesn’t mean they’ll just take your word for it. This is where recommendation letters come in.

Letters of recommendation give the admissions counselors another perspective on you as a student. They can not only highlight your academic performance but also your contribution to classroom communities, your social and interpersonal skills, and your creativity. 

A crucial factor in gathering recommendation letters that look good on college applications is who you ask to write them. It’s best to ask for recommendations from teachers who know you well both in and out of the classroom. Coaches, advisors, and mentors are a good fit, since they will probably have a sense of you as a student and as a team member or advisee. 

Don’t forget to let time be on your side. Give your teachers plenty of notice to write your letters of recommendation. Find out all of your application deadlines, including any early decision applications, and make sure your teachers have at least one month to compose their letters. 

5. Extracurricular activities

Extracurricular activities are another opportunity to share a different side of yourself with your prospective school, but participation in too many of them can get overwhelming. Usually, that feeling comes from trying to do everything in order to seem as interesting and appealing as possible. But while extracurriculars are part of what looks good on college applications, you don’t have to join every school club to rack them up. 

Volunteer work, leadership roles, and internships are some of the most sought-after extracurricular activities to list on college applications — and with good reason. Volunteering shows a commitment to helping others and tackling problems, and participating in student government demonstrates that you care about affecting change at your school. Internships can tell your prospective college that you’re willing to work for your passions and that you’re excited to learn. 

But if you’re one of many students who hasn’t had the time or resources to participate in these kinds of extracurriculars because you’re working part-time or helping out at home, you can still share these experiences and the skills and knowledge they help you develop.

If you had to get a job for instance, use that work experience to show your strengths on your college application. Were you able to move up the ranks at your job into a leadership position? When considering what looks good on college applications, leadership skills developed on the job can go a long way to impress admissions counselors. 

Top colleges accept many kinds of students with a wide variety of backgrounds. Everyone is born into a different set of circumstances and opportunities. So don’t worry if you don’t have a long list of extracurriculars. 

Remember, this isn’t about checking boxes. This is about how what you have done — or even tried to do — shaped you as a person. It’s about what you learned and took with you and how those lessons and skills formed your next decisions. Colleges want to see that you’ve put work into becoming a well-rounded person who can bring value and grow over the next four years. 

Get ready for the next step with Greenlight

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Now that you’ve taken a deep dive into what looks good on college applications and how to get into a good college, you and your parents are ready to conquer the college admissions process together.

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*Greenlight is a financial technology company, not a bank. The Greenlight app facilitates banking services through Community Federal Savings Bank (CFSB), Member FDIC.

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