The College List – Where Do I Start?

What are Colleges Looking For?



Key Factors to Consider in Evaluating Your College Preferences

Students and families sometimes begin the college search focusing on the well-known handful of highly selective colleges that are familiar household names.  I encourage you as you begin your search process to forget about college names, and concentrate on establishing and identifying your own personal, unique criteria for selecting a college before carefully researching a number of schools that meet your needs.  In your search, focus on your personal criteria – the list of schools will follow.  It is important that you, the applicant, assume the responsibility of researching schools for yourself, and not rely on the knowledge or opinions of others, as you formulate your own ideas and opinions about schools.

Be sure to consider the following key factors as you investigate colleges:

  1. Location – Location includes the section of the country, the setting, distance from home, distance from a cultural center, and your residential plans – on campus, near campus, at home. 
  1. Level of competitiveness – While it is considered wise to reach for the highest level in choosing a college, the most competitive and high-pressured is not always the best for you. 
  1. Program of Study – Select a school with a strong curriculum in your areas of interest. If you are undecided, you should choose a college with a variety of majors which may match academic and personal strengths. 
  1. Size – The size of the undergraduate population from under 1000 students to tens of thousands creates vastly different educational and social environments.  It is important to visit colleges of various sizes in order to assess your adjustment to size and location. 
  1. Cost – College costs vary greatly; therefore a serious consideration of the family’s financial situation and the level of eligibility for financial assistance is important. 
  1. Campus Life – Campus atmosphere, activities, and students facilities are important considerations since most time in college is spent outside of class. 
  1. Affiliation – Some colleges are public while some are private.  Some private colleges have strong religious affiliation while others are unaffiliated.  Religious affiliations are often loose and not reflected in student body composition. Public schools are tax supported and consequently have lower tuition and no affiliations. 
  1. Special Features – Special considerations such as quality of library, housing arrangements, co-operative work-study, study abroad, honors programs, sororities, and cultural events are also important items to explore. 

Support Services – Federal law now requires colleges and universities to offer extensive support services to students with physical or educational differences. These services can include physical accommodations, such as ramp access to buildings and handicapped restrooms. Other services for learning differences can include support for untimed testing, readers for the visually impaired, and note-taking services.



At the most selective colleges, applications often outnumber available places 5, 6, or even 10 to 1. Hence, as a practical necessity, you must consider the relative selectivity of colleges as you make your plans.  What factors are most significant in admissions? While colleges differ considerably in how much weight they attach to various factors, the following list (in approximate order of importance) should give you a sense of the chief factors that are most important to admission officers. 

  1. Course selection. College admission officers generally look first to the candidate’s course selection during the high school career. Check the individual college websites to view the high school curriculum that applicants must present.
  2. Academic Achievement for the Four High School Years. Grades are important, and colleges will look closely at your transcript to assess your success in the courses in which you enrolled. Some consideration will be given to the rigor of your course load in assessing your success.  The most selective colleges expect students to succeed in the most challenging curriculum. While improvement in the senior year is helpful, it will not remove the burden of a poor record for the first three years.
  3. Test Scores. Your scores on the SAT or the ACT exam (with the Writing Option – always register for the Writing Option!) are required at most colleges. Some colleges also require two or three SAT Subject Tests.  If you opt to take the ACT (with the Writing Option – always register for the Writing Option), you may be exempt from taking any SAT Subject Tests.
  4. Recommendations. You will ask individual teachers to write on your behalf.  Your high school college counselor will write the school’s “Summary Statement.” Colleges are interested in how those who have taught you and know you well evaluate you as a student and as a person, especially considering demonstrations of intellectual curiosity, motivation, engagement with material, and participation in class. 
  5. Athletics and Extracurricular Activities. The emphasis here is upon quality rather than quantity. Talent and genuine contributions to a team or an activity are important.
  6. Application Quality. Colleges look closely at the student’s part of the application, particularly at the quality of the essays. Each year, we see students who gain admission at the college of their dreams because their essays were strong. And each year, students are denied admission to colleges for which they were superbly qualified because their application demonstrated little thought or care. The quality of your application is the one aspect of this process over which you have complete control; take advantage of the opportunity to help yourself.
  7. Intangible “hooks”. Occasionally, a student will have what is known as a “hook factor” at one or a number of the schools to which she is applying. These include legacy status, development interest, diversity interest, athletic recruitment, artistic talent, even friends who are seemingly in a position of influence at the school. Always bear in mind that “hooks” account for little of the admissions process, and that only the admissions committee at a particular school can assess the candidacy of a student and the relative importance of those “hooks” at their own school. Connections that you may have may be useful in the process, but they cannot determine admission any more than other singular aspects of your file. 

One additional factor that varies in importance is the personal interview.  Over the years, many colleges have dropped the interview option for lack of personnel, however, other schools do continue to offer them.