What do colleges look for?

Applications require everything from essays to extracurriculars and more

When starting college applications during senior, it’s difficult to know exactly what to focus on, and what kinds of achievements students should brag about to schools.

Even before senior year, what kinds of extracurriculars should students sign up for? Is volunteer work really worth it? What about grades?

“Sometimes from the perspective of a high school student you’re thinking about where you want to get in and what you want to major in,” Suzy Thomas, a professor in the counseling department at St. Mary’s College, said. “But from an admissions perspective, they’re thinking about each student individually and what they might bring to campus.”

To the freshmen and sophomores rushing to get as many volunteer hours as they can and study for hours on end, keep in mind that Thomas said the most important aspects of school to focus on are your passions and doing what you love.

“I think what’s important [for college applications] is showing how activities connect to what you want to do in college, or something that you can demonstrate that you care deeply about that you’ve done for a while,” Thomas said. “Something that’s part of who you are.”

Two college counselors said something very important regarding students’ college admissions is that they focus on connecting extracurriculars that can show a possible career to pursue.

“It’s helpful if you have extracurriculars with a purpose,” Cal High’s college and career adviser Kathryn Nichols said. “So you’re doing things that you enjoy that might lead you towards a possible career or field of study.”
Some good extracurricular activities could involve volunteer hours, part time job, clubs, internships, and sports.

“[I’ve been involved in] things like clubs here, BSU, black student union, and leadership, there’s a lot of involvement helping out with the school,” senior Dinari Baez said. “I think I do those things because I have passion for that, for being a leader and even to mentor others.”

Grades are also fairly important when it comes to admissions. Nichols said having decent grades is helpful for college admissions, but other activities outside of school are also incredibly beneficial.

“At [Saint Mary’s College] for example, at the undergraduate and graduate level, we’re interested in who the person is and how they’ve grown and what their story is,” Thomas said. “You might have a student who was really strong freshman year and maybe something happened in their personal life and their sophomore grades dipped a little bit and they got back into the swing of things junior year.”

This is a good opportunity for students to take advantage of the essay portion of the application. Out of the prompts offered, it could be beneficial for students to choose the ones that mean the most to them, and use it to their advantage to explain any challenges they have experienced in high school.
It is important for students to demonstrate their personality in their essays because this is one of the only opportnities to do so.

“That personal statement is a big piece of how you share your voice, your story and what’s mattered to you and what your goals are and any challenges you’ve had,” Thomas said.

Since the pandemic, many schools have decided to no longer require students to take the SAT or ACT.

According to Best Colleges, roughly 2.2 million 2019 graduate students took the SAT, compared to 1.7 million 2022 students who took it. That’s roughly a 22 percent decrease since the test was no longer required for UCs in 2021.

“I took the SAT twice and I got a private tutor, but I didn’t end up taking it again because it doesn’t really matter,” senior Ananya Premanand said.

Since decisions were released throughout the month of March, many seniors were surprised to realize they were not accepted into as many schools as they had hoped. While acceptance rates for 2023 have yet to be released, some speculations have risen about why this is, and if rates really are lower.

“Sometimes it may be because campuses have decided on how many students total they can admit, and if they don’t feel they can’t admit as many as they did the year before, then it appears to be rigorous because there are fewer spots available,” Thomas said. “Also I’ve heard since the pandemic some students delayed college, and so it’s possible that some of those students who maybe graduated last year or the year before are now applying.”

Something on the lighter side is the amount of students getting off waitlists. Just because students are waitlisted for a school doesn’t mean they should lose hope. A large number of seniors are taken off the waitlist around early to mid May.

“More than usual are getting off the waitlist for Berkeley right now and some more getting off from UCLA,” Nichols said.