Top 7 Ways to Get a School’s Attention

Today we are very lucky to have a guest post from the CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, Mark Sklarow. The IECA is a a not-for-profit, international professional association representing experienced independent educational consultants. To learn more about the IECA and how they can help with your college search please visit

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For far too many students and parents, the college search is about “getting in.” The sole focus is on how to get accepted to the toughest and most exclusive school that will accept you. “Why sell yourself short?” asks a well-meaning friend when a top student indicates a desire to go to some lesser-known liberal arts college.

Choosing a college this way doesn’t make much sense. Instead, spend more time thinking about which college is a great match for you—where you’ll live for the next four to five years, roommates and friends and activities that will dominate your life, and much more. Some colleges are high-pressure, dog-eat-dog, all work and no play. Other colleges embrace their students, the faculty is supportive and inviting, classmates share, and an academic balance is the priority.

So, while this article will explore what colleges are looking for in upcoming freshman class applicants, you should also be working on another list—a personal list—of what YOU are looking for in a college. It’s that match that makes for a great college experience. And remember, the concern about choosing a college that’s less known only lasts until you arrive on campus. Once there, everyone’s wearing the sweatshirts and shorts of your new school.

Here are the top 7 things colleges are looking for:

1. A rigorous high school curriculum

Colleges want to see that you are not afraid to take tough courses and embrace a challenge…and, hopefully, that you rose to meet that challenge. Sure you can slack off and take photography or bowling in your senior year, but colleges will worry that you might do the same in college—choose easy courses to skate by. Instead, take courses that challenge you (for some that’s AP’s up and down the schedule, for others that’s a statistic course, or French III).

2. Good grades

Of course grades are important. But don’t sweat a bad grade or two: challenging yourself is more important, and showing an upward trend is valuable.

3. Standardized test scores.

These tend to be more important at large state universities and less important at small private colleges that tend to look at an application more holistically.

4. A great essay

A well-written, personal essay reveals information about you—on the inside. What makes you strong or a softie, caring or tenacious? It must, however, be genuine AND put together well.

5. Activities

It’s not about how many activities you do, or even which ones. It’s about a demonstration of passionate interest, of deep commitment, and willingness to lead. Colleges want to know what you love to do and what causes are meaningful to you, since you’ll bring those interests to campus. Remember, they need to replenish their student activity leaders regularly.

6. Unique characteristics

Colleges want to know about the qualities you have that make you an interesting addition to campus. When you hear that a campus values “diversity,” you might assume that refers to race. Actually, a diverse campus is diverse in all ways—geographically, ethnically, religiously, and politically. And schools want students that want to be in such diverse environments.

7. Curiosity

Schools want to see that you have two types of curiosity. First that you have intellectual curiosity, i.e. a desire to learn and an active interest in exploring new ideas. And second, they want you to be curious about their school, something they call “demonstrated interest.” They want to know that you want them! Some key ways to demonstrate your interest are to interview, visit the campus, or even follow them on Twitter.

Of course, there are a few other things that schools pay attention to, like special talents, church and community experiences, and letters of recommendation. But if you focus on the 7 tips above, you’re sure to peak the interest of some of the schools that are the best fit for you.


by Mark H. Sklarow, CEO,
Independent Educational Consultants Association