What Colleges WANT to See. How to Create Impact and a Lasting Impression.

Your college application is a culmination of your personal and academic experiences that showcase your strengths, talents, challenges, interests and are hopefully a prediction of the work yet to be done in the four-year journey ahead.

As a college counselor who has worked with students over the past five years, I have heard the “what would look better for college” phrase quite a few times. It is not an awful question to be fair, but it certainly is not the right question.

High Point University

When a college admission officer is reading through your application, their looking to get to know you as an individual and also get to know a sense of what your impact and experiences could be on their campus. Which is why it is incredibly important that you pause at the end of each semester throughout high school to do a check. A check on your academic performance, your activities outside of the classroom and your personal experiences that make up who you are and where you are going. The following exercises are helpful to see where you are and how you can start to get a sense of how you would share your story in a way that a university will not only appreciate, but celebrate as they consider you for their university. Get a sense of not only if your activities are worth your time, but if you are creating the impact and experiences that will propel you not only to college, but your best self in life.

1. Academics

Action Items: Answer the following questions.

  • Reflect on this past year
    • Was your academic schedule challenging, yet supportive and doable?
    • How was your time management?
    • What classes were your strengths and why?
    • What classes were tougher for you and why?
    • If you struggled, what actions did you take to give yourself more support and did they work? If so, why did it work for you?
  • Next year’s schedule
    • Do you feel comfortable with your course load?
    • Are you continuing on in areas of strength?

Your transcript tells a story to colleges. It lets them know your areas of strength and how you perform in times of difficulty and challenge. Consider the college prep electives that allow you to showcase your interests and not only meet the minimum requirements, but exceed in appropriate areas.


Your transcript also shows when you challenge yourself appropriately (take advanced, Honors or AP coursework). Hint: Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but don’t kick it into cruise control all four years. 

There is more than JUST your GPA. So if you add a challenging course and don’t do as well as expected, it’s OKAY. Your course rigor is a big consideration beyond just the numerical GPA.

Bonus Activity: Print out a blank weekly calendar and write down all of your classes, estimated homework load AND your outside school commitments. Write the expected challenging classes visually see how tough/balanced your course load is.

2. Activities Outside the Classroom 

Action Items: Complete the following: 

A lot of students get worried about which activity will look “good” for college. Here’s the beautiful secret…IT DOES NOT MATTER what you do, but IT DOES MATTER that it is meaningful, purposeful and creates impact to YOU.

  • Create a resume. You can do one easily in Naviance or on a word document.
    USF front 1
    Front steps to USF Admissions
    • Write a list of your activities, your role within the activity and the amount of time on average you have spent. This includes everything from sports, to volunteering, to awards, community service, time spent tinkering around the computer, helping your family, etc.
  • An activity is ANYTHING you have a committed responsibility to. 
  • Go through each activity and ask yourself
    • Does this give me joy?
    • Does this give me purpose and meaning?
    • Can I see myself continuing this activity?
    • Can I see myself taking on a bigger role within the activity?

3. What’s your pitch? 

Action Items: Complete the following: 

When you’re applying for jobs, often times there is a cover letter that you submit with your resume. The cover letter is a short introduction to who you are, your skill sets and goals and how you would fit within the role that is up for grabs.

  • If you wrote a cover letter now what would it say? 
    • Example: My name is Casey Rowley and I am a Sophomore at Beverly Hills High School. I have a commitment to service throughout my community and spend a majority of my time outside of the classroom assisting homeless shelters. I maintain my academics at school and have added advanced courses in my area of strength which is foreign languages and creative writing. I hope to major in international relations and attend a university that allows me to continue my service work. 
  • My cover letter includes my strengths, my goals and what type of university will complement me. 

The pitch exercise is a good way to laser focus your strengths and what you hope to accomplish!

The BEST way to feel confident about college and your future is to be confident in YOURSELF. Take the time to reflect, write your accomplishments and remind yourself of the awesome things you have yet to do…because trust me…you’re just getting started!


Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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