Top Five Qualities That Colleges Want

  • College Advising
  • The Teenage Years
Top Five Qualities That Colleges Want
Katie Gomulkiewicz '13, Dean of College and Academic Advising

The college application process can be daunting for many high school students and their parents. For this reason, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of what colleges are looking for in applicants.

Trends in Higher Education

To understand how colleges review applicants, it is important to first understand the trends within higher education since the 1940s. The shifts in higher education can be boiled down to “three up, one down.”

“Three up” refers to the three upward trends:

  1. increased number of colleges
  2. increased number of students attending college
  3. increased cost of college

“One down” refers to the one downward trend:

  1. decrease in acceptance rates across all types of colleges

These changes within higher education have also altered the ways in which colleges evaluate applicants, focusing more on both academic factors such as test scores and transcript as well as nonacademic factors such as activities, leadership and service, character, etc., to make decisions on which students they believe will fit best in their college communities.

With that context in mind, below are the top five qualities that colleges look for. Please note, these are accurate but broad brushstrokes. There are certainly colleges that deviate from this formula, but this will provide a general overview of what the majority of colleges are looking for in their applicants.


Quality 1: Commitment to Academics

Colleges ask the question: How have students challenged themselves within their academic contexts and are they prepared for our academic program?

The transcript is the main document that colleges use to answer this question, analyzing not just a student’s GPA but also the rigor, breadth, depth, and number of courses taken by the applicant.

Studies have consistently shown that a student’s academic performance in high school is the best predictor of college success as well as matriculation, which is why college admissions offices spend a lot of time reflecting on the academic interests and strengths of the applicant.

Additionally, Bear Creek’s School Profile gives colleges a window into the Upper School’s academically rigorous program and the many opportunities students are provided to pursue rigor, breadth, and depth throughout high school.  So, what can students do?

I recommend students at Bear Creek take advantage of one-on-one advising with the Office of College and Academic Advising to tailor their high school experience.

Students in lab

Quality 2: Focused Extracurriculars

Colleges ask the question: How will this student contribute to our community outside the classroom?

Colleges want students who have invested deeply in their community and who have clear, identifiable passions. Grades 9 and 10 are a great time for high school students to explore a variety of interests, e.g., join a new sport, sign up for clubs, volunteer, etc.

As students enter grade 11, I encourage them to begin to dig deeper into the activities that they are most passionate about. For example, apply for a leadership position in a club, volunteer to assist with coaching a sports camp, sign up for the band buddies program, etc.

With multiple student-led clubs, ASB and House, a no-cut sports program, etc., Bear Creek provides many, many opportunities for students to invest in the community and try new things. So, what can students do?

I recommend students invest proactively and intentionally in the school and local communities.

students laughing

Quality 3: The Good Roommate Test (Character Matters)

Colleges ask the question: Will this student be a conscientious roommate and a kind, supportive member of our community?

Research shows that motivation and mindset are strong predictors of college success, which is another reason why colleges care about a student’s personality and character as a part of their admissions process. Ultimately, colleges are building not just a group of students but a community. Additionally, traits such as resilience and self-efficacy help students be successful in the college setting.

As Christians, we care about our character because God is shaping us and using us to shape His world, not just because good character might gain us college acceptance. As a Christian school, Bear Creek infuses character and virtue formation into all our programs, encouraging students to grow in wisdom, compassion, and courage both inside and outside of the classroom. So, what can students do?

I recommend that students be respectful of their teachers and supportive of their peers. Character often comes up in letters of recommendation, so demonstrating strong character is valuable not only for college applications but also for life.

Teenagers laughing

Quality 4: Demonstrated Interest

Colleges ask the question: How interested is this student in attending our institution?

Within the world of college rankings and prestige, institutions want to keep their acceptance rates low and their yield rates high, and one of the best predictors of yield is a student’s demonstrated interest in their program. Recent data from the National Association of College Admissions Counseling indicates about 80% of colleges use demonstrated interest to some extent in admissions decisions.

Demonstrated interest means student's engagement with the college, the program or major, and, at times, the location of the institution as well. The good news is that each fall over 100 colleges visit Bear Creek, so students have an easy way to demonstrate interest in a college and learn about the programs offered at the institution. So, what can students do?

I recommend that students attend on-campus college visits. For grades 9 and 10 students, I recommend attending a minimum of six college visits next year (three for colleges the student has heard of and three for colleges the student has never heard of).

For grades 11 and 12 students, I recommend attending at least ten visits, especially those for colleges to which they may be interested in applying.

If your school does not host as many colleges as Bear Creek, then look out for college fairs and other local area visits by admissions directors at colleges to which you might apply.

students reviewing notes

Quality 5: Alignment with Institutional Goals and Mission

Colleges ask the question: How does this student fit into the overall class we are building?

All colleges have their own institutional mission and strategic goals, and often, these impact the admissions process. Some of these factors are within an applicant’s control such as alignment with programs offered, i.e., I love marine biology and this college has a top marine biology program. Other factors are outside of an applicant's control such as geographical residency. Ultimately, colleges want to bring in a vibrant class of students to enrich their communities.

It is important to understand that colleges do have varying missions and institutional priorities, and Bear Creek’s philosophy of best-fit college admissions allows students to consider what type of institution will best serve them and their future goals. There is no one college that is right for all students, so focusing instead on best fit allows students to align their goals and beliefs with that of the college they will attend. So, what can students do?

I recommend that students be intentional about researching best-fit colleges that truly align with their goals for the future.

Group of students

Concluding Thoughts

Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

As a college advisor, I think it is important to share information that demystifies the college admissions process with parents and students. However, I also believe it is critical to always point us back to the bigger picture.

At a recent conference, my advising colleague and I heard from Washington native and esteemed author Jess Walter about his journey to and through college. He said something that stuck with me, a reminder really, “College is not the goal, it is not the destination, it is merely a vehicle to get us to where we want to go.”

God knew us and loved us before we were even born, and His promise to each of us is clear. As you support your child through this college process, I pray that you keep God’s promise and Jess Walter’s words in mind.

About the Author

Katie Gomulkiewicz

Katie Gomulkiewicz is the Dean of College and Academic Advising at The Bear Creek School. Katie graduated from Bear Creek in 2013 and returned as the Assistant Director of Admissions for Middle School and Upper School in 2017. In 2022, Katie completed her master’s thesis, “An Exploration of Standardized Psychosocial Measures Within the College Admissions Process,” and began her new role as the Dean of College and Academic Advising.

When not working, Katie enjoys reading, listening to podcasts, and boxing at a local gym. She also spends time with her dogs, Jean Louise (Scout) and Oscar Wilde, walking, playing fetch, and training for scent detection competitions. Katie holds a B.S. in Psychology and English from Davidson College and M.P.S. in Higher Education Administration from Georgetown University.