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What do universities look for in their applicants?

29 October 2015

An all As transcript? 2400 SAT? Leadership? International awards?

Not entirely.

Although it is true that any applicants with a perfect transcript, excellent test scores, and amazing extracurricular activities will prove to be a very competitive candidate, universities look for a little more than just a candidate’s profile. They look for the real person behind all the papers. They want to know the story, the personality of the student, what motivates them, what makes them special, and most importantly, how they are going to contribute to the university, and to community.

For example, take a look at the list of factors that Stanford University consider important when they make decisions on accepting applicants. Many factors, ranging from scores, activities to personality are taken into account by admission officers before they admit an applicant.


Academic factors

1.Rigours of curriculum

Universities highly value candidates who challenge themselves academically in school. This means that students should choose the most challenging subjects, if they are hard-working and have potential to. For example, year 10 or 11 students who take IGCSE additional maths or do IGCSE triple science will be considered highly by universities.  Colleges will take this as proof that such students will be able to continue to challenge themselves in college and cope with the higher level and profuse coursework in college.


2.School grades and standardised test scores

Colleges consider school grades to be the most important factor to make their decision. A transcript of As will ensure a student’s success, although some Bs are still acceptable, but any grades from C or lower should be limited. Students can always seek help from teachers, parents, their peers, and make use of resources in the library to improve their grades. When students apply to schools in foreign countries, an English certificate is usually required. Students should prepare for tests such as IELTS, TOEFL, and make sure they get the required scores that their schools want (for example, at least a 7 on the IETLS and at least 100 on the TOEFL). If students want to study in the US, they should also prepare for the SAT. A score of 2000 or above on the SAT will increase the chance of getting into good universities for students.

mock exams

3.Letters of recommendation

Recommendations from teachers help colleges understand the students from the view of teachers.  Recommendations will show how teachers evaluate a student: how committed, hard-working they are, and whether the students show any notable qualities in the classroom as well as activities in the school. Students should attempt to pay attention, ask questions, submit work on time, and work with teachers on projects or activities in the school to create a strong connection with their teachers.


4.Personal statement

The personal statement is considered the most important part of the student’s application. Personal statements are the chance for students to express their passion, motivation, and why they choose the university/ intended majors. Colleges look for the authentic voice of the students through these essays. They want to get to know the student as a person, the story of the students, and how the students’ experiences and environment shape them into the person that they are. Students should be creative yet honest in their personal statements. This is the chance for student to present themselves as a person to the college admission officer, not just a statistic, a grade, or a certificate.

Non-academic factors

1.Extra-curricular activities

Extra-curricular activities are viewed by universities as evidence of passion, level of commitment and leadership qualities of students. Universities look for commitment in a student’s activity, for example, if a student volunteer at an orphanage, he or she should do so on a frequent basis (monthly, weekly). Universities also consider how long a student is involved in an activity, for example, if the student has played piano since they were 8 years old, or play on the football team for 4 years. Continuation of activities shows that the student is passionate and responsible about certain things.  Also, their engagement in these activities shows the university what they care about and how they make a change in the community that they live in. Universities look for applicants who can take advantages of the resource around them and turn them into opportunities that improve the community around them.



A candidate can showcase their talents through any awards that they obtain. These awards can include athletics, musical, artistic, mathematics, enterprise, etc on a school, local, national, or international levels. Although any international achievements are highly valued by universities, it is not mandatory that every candidate must earn some kind of award. Students can demonstrate their talent by producing their own pieces, for example, if a student has a talent in filmmaking, he or she can produce short films. A student’s personality will be naturally expressed through their entire application, especially their personal statement. Through the student’s activities and essays, a university will be able to understand the qualities of the student that grades and test scores cannot demonstrate. These qualities help universities select candidates that best suit their school’s personalities.



Although US universities put little weight on interviews, UK universities consider interviews as one of the most crucial factors in the selection process. Cambridge and Oxford Universities are well known for their tough interviews, in which candidates are asked questions that require highly intellectual thinking. Interviews allow students to articulate their ideas and demonstrate their critical thinking skills as well as practice the art of first impression and social graces. Interviews are the only chance that a candidate can get direct interaction with the college admission staff. Students should make use of these chances to impress and convince the university why they are a great suit for their institution.


Although grades, test scores, awards show universities that students are capable of performing well at colleges, other factors such as personality, extra-curricular activities, interviews give universities the chance to understand the student as a person, understand the student’s passion, desire, motivation, and therefore help them decide whether the student will be a good fit for their institution.

Annie, 12V