Hello, Class of 2020.

That's right. Now that this year's high school seniors have accepted their offers and started thinking of life after graduation, the college admissions cycle has begun for this year's juniors, the collegiate Class of 2020. Around the office, my staff and I have been busy with juniors working on essays, polishing resumes and working on the list of schools they'll apply to in the fall.

And one question nearly every applicant asks at one point is: What do I need to do to get in?

Unfortunately, there's no one answer to that question. Every school has its own criteria, weighted to support its own institutional priorities. We may know that high SAT scores are extra important at School A, and that class rank matters more at School B. But there's not always a guarantee that a certain combination of factors will win a student admission, especially at highly competitive schools.

Still, if you follow the higher education industry, a few trends become clear. The Independent Educational Consultants Association, of which I am a member, has put together a list of the top qualities colleges look for when evaluating applicants. Although individual schools may rank these factors differently, this list gives students a good idea of where students should concentrate their efforts.

n Rigorous curriculum. Admissions officers want to see advanced courses and AP courses that show a student has stretched.

n Strong GPA. It doesn't need to be perfect, but it's best if it can show a steady or upward trajectory over a student's high school career. (A mix of As and Bs in difficult courses, however, often looks better than straight As in lower-level classes.)

n Good SAT or ACT scores. Ideally, test scores mirror GPA; test scores that are much higher or much lower in comparison to a student's grade point average may raise questions in an admission officer's mind about whether the student has applied herself to her coursework.

n A well-written essay showing a thoughtful, personal side of the student.

n Achievement in a few extracurricular activities. A laundry list of activities is less impressive than a student who can show years of involvement in two or three clubs, sports or arts groups.

n Leadership roles. This doesn't mean you had to be class president, but admissions officers like to see students take on leadership roles within their core activities, which suggests that students will arrive on the college campus ready to lead.

n Personal characteristics that demonstrate the student is ready to be an interesting contributor to the student body.

n Intellectual curiosity. Especially at competitive schools, and with students who are on "the bubble" of winning admission, officers may evaluate a student's course schedule, reading list, activities and essays to develop an overall picture of how the student views studying and learning.

n Demonstrated enthusiasm toward the college. If you've visited the school, attended a camp there, sought out an alum for a recommendation, or just always dreamed of being a graduate of School Z, make sure that comes through in your application.

n Letters of recommendation. Make sure they represent you well and match your passions and talents to the school's mission and values.

n Unique talents. Again, schools are looking to build a diverse, interesting class and want to know what you'll bring to the campus: if you have a gift for public speaking, have participated in community theater, or are an expert skier, some schools want to know.

n Volunteer and community service. To many schools, your history of work at a youth group, church mission or community nonprofit is considered a good indicator of your character and commitment and can help convince admissions officers that they need you at their school.


Donna Spann is the CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college advisor for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration and admissions and find the college that's right for them.

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