What Admissions Officers Are Looking For

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a female interviewing a male student

In the Mind of an Admissions Officer: What They’re Looking For

The admissions process seems full of secrecy and unknowns. Students work diligently to submit their applications and materials on time and then spend months waiting to hear back. Behind closed doors, expert admissions officers review student applications, looking for specific student attributes as gatekeepers of every entrance into every school.

Each college and university has a different process for deciding admissions, so there are no uniform procedures that every school follows.

There is no universal checklist every admission officer uses. Instead, each admission officer has specific aspects they are looking for in students that range from minimum GPAs to proven interest in their major of choice.

Despite differences at each school, there are some parts of the application that admissions officers do pay special attention to. These parts include looking for unique and authentic essays, a well-rounded academic transcript, and evidence of potential college success through a variety of combined factors.

Let’s look at some of the steps of the admissions process, what admissions officers do, and what admissions officers are looking for in student applications.

Application Materials

The ideal student application starts with the application materials. Over 900 schools use the Common Application which allows students to simplify much of the admissions process.

The Common Application includes demographic questions related to student background and financial data, academic questions on GPA and test scores, extracurricular activities and employment, and essay topics.

The most important role of an admissions officer is reviewing student application materials for demonstrations of potential for college success.

A student who can submit all their application materials on time in a way that illustrates their talents and accomplishments will have a significant chance of being successful at the school of their choice.

The job of each admissions officer is to hike through the mountains of applications they receive and narrow it down into the top applicants for that year.

It is a difficult challenge, especially when considering the number of applicants against the number of available spots at the school. Students have the four years of their high school careers to distinguish themselves from other applicants and make the admission officers job much easier to find what they are looking for.

Demographic Information

Admissions officers want to know a student’s demographic information to ensure each class has an abundance of diversity. From racial and ethnic to socioeconomic and political, the demographic information students provide helps a school to keep track of what students they are admitting each year.

Students may decline to provide this information, but it is no different from the information provided to your high school. This information is also important for schools that provide significant financial aid awards.

Knowing the income of your family will help the school know how much aid your family will expect to need. Not providing this information could limit access to being considered for other demographic specific scholarships and opportunities.

Admissions officers may use demographic information for a variety of reasons to have a clear picture of each student being considered.

Academic Information

Admissions officers look for evidence of academic success through students’ academic information that includes their transcripts and GPAs, test scores, and whether they have college credits. Transcripts will list out classes taken each year.

Admissions officers want to see a variety of rigorous courses taken each year with emphasis on advanced courses like AP, Honors, IB, and dual enrollment.

Writing an essay on a notebook

The GPA and whether it is weighted or unweighted are important factors that demonstrate a students’ performance level. Higher GPAs indicate greater potential for success, but the GPA is not the only factor when looking at academics.

In more recent years, test scores have waxed and waned in their important. Many schools no longer require standardized test scores. Other schools give students the option to submit their scores.

For admission officers, it is another piece of data that can be used to review and evaluate each application. The more data, the better picture they will have of each student throughout the admissions process. Test scores include not only the SAT and ACT, but AP exam scores where they are available.

Admissions officers also look for students who have already earned college credit in high school through dual enrollment programs. Many schools offer students the option to enroll in local college courses and receive college credit that can be transferred.

Schools differ on how they accept these transfer credits, but seeing college credits on a high school transcript can lend itself to a positive evaluation for the student’s application.

Extracurricular Activities and Employment

Along with the academic information, admissions officers want to see how students used their free time. Did they join extracurricular activities? Were they employed on weekends and during summers?

A student who can successfully complete all AP courses while participating in a dance team and working part-time and during the summer at a retail store would be a well-rounded applicant.

a person taking a math test

They’ve shown their academic potential, their passion, their responsibility, and maturity, and their ability to handle the pressure and be successful. These are the students admissions officers want to admit.

So which is better for applications–team captain or working a job? Having extracurricular activities and employment are both great demonstrates of a student’s potential. They show leadership and responsibility.

They can also make it clear the student is passionate about their selected major. For admissions officers, both are great additions to an application. Students should avoid having no extracurriculars and no outside employment.

Essay Topics

Admissions officers are looking for powerful essays they love! How you write and what you write are great indicators of your potential for college success.

Use the essay as a way to individuate yourself from other applicants, highlight your uniqueness, and explain any other aspects of your application in more detail.

high school students taking an exam

Try not to use topics or concepts that other students will likely use unless you have a truly unique experience that no one else will have. Major social events or political events that happen during your high school years will be obvious choices to avoid.

If you do choose a topic others might also use, try to take a different angle that elevates your personality and background. The worst essays simply repeat expected lines and acceptable phrases without giving admissions offers something new and unheard of.

The strongest essays will be descriptive and include lots of sensory details. They’ll have a strong and clear voice with a consistent style.

They’ll be relevant to the student’s other application materials and help support what’s already been indicated. The essay will not only be a good example of your writing and reasoning skills, but give admissions officers a chance to see and hear what you find important and how you present yourself.

Holistic Review

Most universities strive to look at each student in a process of holistic review. All of the application materials are important to the student’s profile, and no detail is excluded from the evaluation. Admissions officers use holistic review to take into consideration all the application materials as well as any relevant contextual factors.

Every student’s application tells a story, and it is the admissions officer responsibility to view that story in its entirety. Let’s say an application features a student with a 4.5 weighted GPA, high SAT and ACT scores, but no extracurricular activities.

They might view that student as not being well-rounded enough, but a holistic review would reveal the student’s employment history and several part-time jobs starting their sophomore year of high school.

Looking at all aspects of a student’s application helps an admissions officer to make a better decision about the student’s potential for success.

Multiple Rounds of Review

During the holistic review, admissions officers ask important questions like:

  1. Did the student submit all their materials?
  2. Is there anything missing or incomplete?
  3. What contextual factors are important for this student?

Once it’s clear the application is complete, admissions officers may submit an application for multiple rounds of review that include general education admission and major-specific admission. Having multiple rounds of review ensures that each application is reviewed by multiple highly-qualified admissions experts.

University Admission Panels

Did you think admissions officers acted alone? Not in the least! Many universities employ admissions panels, so the number of people who view your applications will vary. These are teams of admissions officers, administrators, and sometimes faculty, who weigh in on the final students admitted.

They may be hands-on during the entire process from receiving application materials to submitting admissions letters, or they may only access applications as the final round of review.

a female student being interviewed

The admissions panels are usually very well versed on the universities admissions policies as well as the ideal student type who would best fit in and be successful at the school.

Admissions officers may have several ideal student types of the students they are looking for and want to admit. They know what to look for with each application from the number and source of letters of recommendation to the value and benefits of a weighted GPA.

At Harvard, every student is an individual, and there is no one ideal type of student. At Yale, the admissions team asks itself two questions: “Who is likely to make the most of Yale’s resources?” and “Who will contribute most significantly to the Yale community?”

Each panel of admissions officers develops a pattern of characteristics and traits they are looking for. This may include academic qualities revealed by their transcripts or personality quirks illustrated by the application essay.

Each member of a team will evaluate or score the applications according to a proprietary set of values. That score will then be used to determine if a student will be receiving an admission offer or a rejection letter.

Additionally, admissions panels may act as a funnel for general education admission or major specific admissions, so the number of people who look at each application ranges in each round.

General Education

With general education admissions, students are admitted into the university, but may not be admitted into more rigorous or selective programs.

The students will be admitted into the basic education program that allows students to take prerequisite courses. Students may only need to meet the minimum requirements of the university to be admitted into the general education student population.

Major Specific

Major specific admissions may require students to meet higher standards and submit additional application materials, like projects and interviews.

These programs vary from school to school and may include majors like honors, business, engineering, nursing, gallery art, or pre-law. At other schools, like Yale, there are no major-specific admissions, and all freshman students have access to all of the majors in their first year.

Admissions Officers Wish List

Universities may not have a specific checklist of attributes they’re looking for in each student, but admissions officers definitely have wish lists of what they are looking for in applicants they admit. Here are a few of the qualities students can embody to stand out during the admissions process.


Imagine a room full of teenagers. Every teenager has the exact same voice and accent, they’re wearing the exact same outfit and hairstyle, and they’re all doing the exact same action.

Into the room walks a teenager with a different voice, wearing a different outfit and hairstyle, and doing something completely new and exclusive. People are going to notice the person doing things differently.

Admissions officers want to see student applications that reflect uniqueness and individuality. Your application should demonstrate what’s different about you, how your experiences and background make you unlike anyone else, and how you will bring a perspective to the school unlike anyone else they could enroll.

Admissions officers want to see students who embrace what makes them different. Does your family have a rich history or a fascinating background? Have you spent an inordinate amount of time perfecting a sport or an instrument?

Did you overcome an adversity or challenge that required strength and grit? Highlighting what makes you unique will draw the admission officers attention when they’re reviewing your application.

The worst thing an applicant can do is regurgitate what thousands of other students will say in their applications and essays because that is what they think an admissions officer wants to hear. Go for being your unique self over merely giving them what they want to hear.


A mixture of integrity and authenticity, sincerity is being committed and fully immersed in the picture you present in your application. Admissions officers look for students who have thought deeply about their application from school selection to who they choose to submit their letters of recommendation.

Spending four years in your high school band, giving music lessons part-time, and applying to schools with great music programs is an act of sincerity.

Scoring high on all your AP classes and exams, participating in the U.N. high school program, and volunteering in several countries abroad would indicate a sincere application to a government or international politics major.

Admissions officers look for students who present applications that holistically reflect the student’s passions and how those passions will be best served at specific Ivy League schools.

They don’t want students who hopped around from sport to sport each year or took just one or two advanced classes in their four years. These don’t indicate a student with a sincere interest in going on to college success.

A strong application will show throughout how the student has spent their four years thinking about the next four years of higher education.


While many students will be venturing out on their own for the first time, admissions officers want to see examples of the students’ responsibility and maturity. Whether this is a leadership role in student government or captain of the basketball team, student applicants should demonstrate some level of maturity.

College will be the first time many students live on their own or move out of state. Students with strong potential for success will have already risen to the occasion in high school and shown they can lead and handle situations on their own.

Responsibility might look like working as a summer intern at a science camp over several summers or having younger siblings you take care of after school. The goal is to showcase your maturity and ability to handle any situation you encounter.


Closely tied to the other aspects of the admission process, a student’s application should clearly and repeatedly show a passion for their chosen subject. This passion should be clear and obvious over several years of their high school career.

Four years of choir or musical theater would be a show of passion for theater arts or music theory. Two years of newspaper and two years of yearbook along with being yearbook editor would show a strong passion for journalism and photography.

What if you don’t know what you want to major in just yet? That’s okay, a student’s application should show what the student is passionate about even if it is not tied to a specific major. The best way to show passion is with consistency over time.

What activities did you participate in again and again? What leadership roles and activities did you seek out year after year? This will make it clear to admissions officers what you are passionate about.


Remember those awards and trophies, those titles and certificates? Including your achievements in your application gives admissions officers a glimpse at your potential. They can see what you’ve accomplished so far as an indication of what you might accomplish in the future.

If you’ve competed in science fairs and robotics competitions, include any wins you received as an individual or a team. If you submitted poems and short stories that were published online or in print, these publications are a very creative accomplishment.

Have a photo or a cattle that was placed at the fair? A gaming software that was purchased by a company? An invention for detecting heart disease in saliva?

These are the types of achievements admissions officers want to see! These are the students who go on to achieve even greater success. Anything you’ve accomplished or done in your high school career will indicate your fit for the school of your choice.

Applying to College Successfully with AdmissionSight

AdmissionSight wants to help you get inside the mind of the admissions officers. We’ll help you craft your student application to present your uniqueness, sincerity, responsibility, and passion, so that any Ivy League school will want you admitted to their student class. Connect with us to learn how AdmissionSight can get you started with applying.




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