What Do Top Colleges Look For? Exclusive Insights From A Former Admissions Officer

03/03/202418 minute read
What Do Top Colleges Look For? Exclusive Insights From A Former Admissions Officer

Former Harvard admissions officer, Devery Doran, reveals the key qualities colleges look for: academic excellence, passionate engagement, strong personal character, and a genuine fit with their school.  Read on to discover how to make your application shine! Get expert tips on everything from choosing the right schools to demonstrating interest.


Getting into a top college is a dream for many students. The application process can feel overwhelming, with so many factors to consider.  While there's no guaranteed formula for success, former Harvard admissions officer Devery Doran shares valuable insights into what top colleges genuinely look for in a successful applicant.  Let's explore her insights and how you can make your application stand out.

We regularly host webinars with former admissions officers from prestigious universities. These experts share their knowledge and help students navigate the complex application process.

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10 Things Colleges Are Looking For In Your Applications

Academic Excellence

Your academic performance in high school is the most significant predictor of your ability to succeed in college, often making up approximately 40% of your application's overall evaluation.

Strong grades and a rigorous course load demonstrate essential qualities like work ethic, time management, and intellectual curiosity. They signal to colleges that you possess the dedication and drive to thrive in a demanding academic environment. While academics aren't the sole factor in admissions decisions, excelling in this area lays a solid foundation for your application.

What US universities look for in your university application

We need to see that you can succeed in our classrooms. Your grades, the difficulty of your classes, and test scores all give us a picture of that.

- Devery Doran

How do you make your academics stand out to admissions officers?

  • Challenge yourself: Prioritize challenging courses whenever possible (Honors, AP, IB, dual enrollment, etc.).  This shows colleges your willingness to push yourself intellectually.
  • Get good grades: Create a study plan and prepare strategically for your exams and standardized tests (SAT, ACT). Solid grades and test scores solidify your academic potential.
  • Aim for a high GPA: Maintain consistent excellence across all your courses. Colleges look at your overall GPA in addition to individual class grades.
  • Demonstrate Intellectual Curiosity: Pursue learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Participate in academic competitions, independent research, summer programs, self-study for AP exams, or explore new subjects through community organizations.

Strong Test Scores

With increasing numbers of colleges adopting test-optional policies, it's essential to understand how standardized tests fit into your application. Devery emphasizes that strong scores can provide an additional metric to demonstrate your academic readiness even in a test-optional environment.

Strong test scores are a universal metric that colleges can look to. It's kind of the icing on the cake to help them see that you can handle the workload.

- Devery Doran

Tips for Navigating Standardized Testing

  • Research is Key: Understand the specific policies of each college on your list. Look for published testing averages of admitted students.
  • Strategic Submission: At test-optional colleges, carefully choose where to submit scores. They can make a big difference when your other application elements are slightly less impressive.
  • Aim High: If you submit scores, strive to be in the top 50th percentile, or ideally the 75th percentile, of the specific college's range.
  • SAT vs. ACT: Take practice tests for both to determine the better fit for you.
  • Prepare for Potential Shifts: As some schools reinstate testing requirements, it's wise to prepare even if your target schools are currently test-optional.

Passionate Engagement Outside the Classroom

Your extracurricular involvements are critical in your application, often accounting for around 30% of the overall evaluation. They give colleges a glimpse of who you are beyond grades and test scores.

Dedicated participation in activities showcases essential skills like leadership, teamwork, and time management. Moreover, aligning your extracurriculars with your intended major demonstrates your passion and commitment to your chosen field.

We want to see what you do with your time outside of class. Are you involved in your school or local community? Do you have hobbies or interests you pursue with dedication?

- Devery Doran

How do you make your extracurriculars stand out?

  • Quality over Quantity: Focus on a few activities you genuinely care about Devery emphasizes exploring different interests to discover your passions.
  • Leadership and Initiative: Seek opportunities to organise an event, start a new club, or mentor others. This aligns with her point about leaving organizations "better than you found them."
  • Showcase Impact: Highlight how your involvement benefited your school, community, or yourself. Devery stresses the importance of "quantifiable impact.
  • Demonstrate Your Passions: Dedicate yourself to activities that reflect your interests and potential major. This showcases your genuine commitment to a field Devery suggests.

Your extracurriculars are not just about the organizations you are in, but how you spend your time outside of class.

- Devery Doran

  • Community Engagement: Colleges value " community-minded " students who care about issues beyond themselves.
  • Breadth vs. Depth: It's okay to explore initially, but eventually, focus on a few key areas to maximize your impact.
  • The Importance of Summers: Use summer breaks for academic enrichment, internships, or meaningful service projects.

Are you working to solve problems that you know are common problems but you're coming at it from a new angle?

- Devery Doran

A Compelling Personal Narrative

Your essays provide a unique opportunity to give colleges a deeper understanding of who you are as a person, something that grades and extracurricular lists can't fully convey. A compelling essay can significantly influence an admissions decision, especially if your academic record or extracurriculars have some weaker points.

Essays are how we see the person behind the transcript. Share an experience that shaped you, a challenge you overcame, or simply something that reveals who you truly are.

- Devery Doran

How do you write essays that stand out?

  • Be Authentic and Show Your Voice: Don't try to write what you think colleges want to hear. Sincerity shines through. Use your natural style of writing.
  • Show, Don't Tell: Use vivid details and anecdotes to make your story come alive rather than simply stating your qualities. Devery emphasizes the importance of demonstrating your traits, not just listing them.
  • Reflect and Connect: Share what you learned from your experiences and how they tie into your goals or aspirations. This is where you show your thoughtfulness and maturity.
  • Choose Your Essay Topics Wisely: Pick prompts (or come up with your own) that allow you to share something meaningful not already covered elsewhere in your application.
  • Focus on the Takeaway: What do you want admissions officers to learn about you from this essay? Are you highlighting your resilience, creativity, or empathy?
  • Essays are about Values: Colleges want insights into your character and the contributions you'll make to their community.
  • Be College-Specific: Tailor your supplemental essays to align with each college's unique questions and mission.

Strong Recommendations

Strong letters of recommendation can make a significant difference in your application. They provide an outside perspective on your strengths, character, and potential. Admissions officers value insights from teachers, mentors, and coaches who have observed you in different settings and who can speak to your unique qualities beyond what's evident on paper.

Recommendations help us round out our picture of you as a student and as a person. We want to hear first-hand about your work habits, your personality, and your contributions to your community.

- Devery Doran

How do you secure strong recommendations?

  • Choose Thoughtfully: Pick recommenders who know you well and can provide specific examples of your abilities and character.
  • Diversity of Perspectives: Consider getting recommendations from teachers in different subject areas, coaches, or mentors involved in your extracurricular activities.
  • Give Ample Time: Ask your recommenders well before deadlines to allow them to write thoughtful letters without feeling rushed.
  • Provide a Support Pack: Include a resume or activity list to help your recommenders highlight relevant experiences. Share essay drafts or discuss your goals if it helps them give personal insights.
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Revealing Personal Qualities

Colleges aren't just looking for smart students; they seek individuals who will positively contribute to their community.

Your application should highlight desirable personal qualities like intellectual curiosity, resilience, a strong work ethic, and a collaborative spirit. While these traits can shine through in essays and extracurriculars, even your recommendation letters can be a powerful way to showcase your best self.

We look for students who are intellectually engaged, driven to overcome challenges, and who will add positive energy to our campus

- Devery Doran

How do you showcase your personal qualities?

  • Essays: Use your stories to illustrate your character. Share examples of overcoming obstacles, demonstrating a passion for learning outside the classroom, or dedicating yourself to a long-term goal.
  • Activities: Highlight teamwork, initiative, going above and beyond within your extracurricular involvements, or taking on leadership roles within your school or community.
  • Recommendations: Choose teachers or mentors who can speak to your work ethic, integrity, or how you interact with others.

You've Done Your Research

Choosing the right college is a significant life decision. Thorough research isn't just about finding the perfect fit for yourself. It also demonstrates to admissions officers that you're a serious and invested applicant.

Your ability to articulate why a specific school aligns with your goals and interests can be a powerful asset in essays and potential interviews.

It's important to find a place where you feel you can succeed academically, but also where you'll be happy and comfortable outside of the classroom

- Devery Doran

How do you research colleges effectively?

  • College Websites and Resources: Explore official college websites, course catalogs, and student life pages. Utilize online college search tools and rankings to expand your options.
  • Dig Deeper into Your Interests: Research specific majors, departments, and faculty within your chosen field. Look for opportunities like research labs, internships, or study abroad programs connected to your area of interest.
  • Campus Life Exploration: Investigate student organizations, clubs, athletics, and residential life. Envision yourself participating in these activities and building your social connections.
  • Visit Campus (If Possible): Nothing beats experiencing a campus firsthand. Attend tours, sit in on classes, and interact with current students to get a feel for the campus atmosphere.
  • Connect with Admissions: Reach out to admissions officers with specific questions and attend virtual information sessions.
  • Financial Aid Focus: Thoroughly research each college's scholarships, grants, and aid programs. Use the Net Price Calculator on college websites for a personalized financial aid estimate.

Former Admissions Officer Teaches YOU How to Stand Out to an Ivy League!

Demonstrated Interest and Fit with the School

Colleges want to admit students who are genuinely excited about the prospect of attending their school.

Demonstrating interest goes beyond just researching a school; it's about actively engaging with the campus community meaningfully. This shows initiative and that you see yourself as a potential community member.

We pay attention to who has gone the extra mile to learn about us. It shows us they aren't just applying anywhere; they're seriously considering our school.

- Devery Doran

How do you demonstrate interest to colleges?

  • Campus Visits (If Possible): Attend tours, information sessions, or open houses. If possible, ask current students about their experiences or sit in on a class of interest.
  • Virtual Engagement: Participate in virtual events, webinars, or online chats hosted by the college. Look for opportunities where you can ask questions and interact with faculty or admissions staff.
  • Reach Out to Admissions: Ask thoughtful questions via email or attend "office hours" if offered.  Focus on topics like specific academic programs, student life, or research that showcases your alignment with the  school.
  • Follow on Social Media:  Engage with the college's social media accounts to stay updated on events and news.

If an applicant can't take the time to carefully proofread their own application, it makes us wonder about their approach to their schoolwork in general.

- Devery Doran

Attention to Detail

Your application is your first major presentation to a college. A polished, error-free application demonstrates your attention to detail, organizational skills, and the care you put into your work.

Sloppy applications can raise red flags for admissions officers and suggest you might not take your academic work seriously.

Tips for a polished application

  • Proofread Meticulously: Read your essays and short answers multiple times, not just relying on spellcheck.
  • Get a Second Opinion: Ask a teacher, parent, or meticulous friend to review your materials for any errors you might have missed.
  • Follow Instructions Carefully: Demonstrate your ability to follow directions by adhering to word counts, formatting guidelines, and submission deadlines.

Proactive Use of Resources

The college application process can be overwhelming. Don't hesitate to seek help and advice! Guidance counselors, teachers, mentors, and even college admissions consultants can provide invaluable support throughout your journey. This demonstrates your proactivity and willingness to utilize available resources for success.

We encourage students to reach out for guidance. It shows maturity and a commitment to making the most informed decisions about your future.

- Devery Doran

Where to find support?

  • Guidance Counselors: Your school's guidance counselors specialize in college applications. They can offer help with school selection, essay review, and navigating the application process.
  • Teachers and Mentors: Reach out to teachers who know you well or mentors in your field of interest. They can provide insights and potentially even write strong recommendation letters.
  • Family and Peers: Lean on supportive family members and friends who have gone through the application process themselves for advice and encouragement.
  • Professional Support: If you feel overwhelmed or want personalized assistance, consider working with a college admissions consultant. Our experts offer in-depth guidance on everything from school selection to essay editing.

Final thoughts

Getting into a top college requires dedication and hard work. Focusing on academics, showcasing your passions, crafting a compelling application, and seeking guidance will increase your chances of achieving your dream.

Let Devery's insights guide you as you navigate this exciting, sometimes daunting, process. If you're feeling overwhelmed or want to ensure you're maximizing your chances, we're here to help!

Register for one of our free webinars to get expert advice.

Need even more personalized support? Crimson Education's experienced academic advisors can provide personalized guidance throughout your college application journey. From strategizing school selection to perfecting your essays, we're here to help you stand out to admissions officers.

Book a free consultation today to learn more about our services!

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