If you’re a college bound high school student, you’re probably wondering what that secret ingredient is for college admissions. Though every college is different, this blog post will outline basic points of what most colleges want to see from you and what actually matters in the college application process.  From spending over a decade consulting students who want to attend the universities of their dreams, I’ve compiled the following as a general guideline for you in your preparation and essay writing process.

There are three overarching elements that colleges are looking for.

1. Students who are going to change the world

Colleges are looking for the students who will be leaders and game changers in tomorrow’s world.  Often it doesn’t matter what field you’re in, but rather that you’re someone poised to make a series impact, whether in arts, thought, or business.  If you become a leader in your community or field, colleges want to claim you as their own. They want alumni who are doing awesome things and making the world a better place.

2. Students who have a passion for learning

Colleges want students who actually enjoy the cultivation of knowledge. You could call this intellectual vitality, a natural sense of curiosity, people who want to learn for learning sake. No matter what you call it, the idea is that colleges are searching for students who value intellectual inquiry. They want students who are interested in ideas, because ideas are what shape our world and our society.

3. Students who are capable of achieving great things

Colleges seek students with an obvious track record for performance. They want people who have worked hard, who know how to work hard, and who are capable and competent. How do you prove to a college that you’ve got all that and that you’re going to be that type of person after you graduate or while you’re in school?

For better or for worse, grades, scores and achievement records.

What you “need” in more concrete terms:

If you want to be a competitive applicant, proving the above three comes down to more specific metric.  Here are the 5 things that college will be looking at:

1. Grades

Grades matter. Your GPA totally matters, and for some colleges, it matters more than anything else.

2. Test Scores

It does matter how you do on standardized tests at most schools. Sure, there are some schools that don’t require tests, but at most competitive colleges and universities, your test scores are going to be taken into account. Even at schools where tests are optional, oftentimes, they are still considered.

3. Involvement

Involvement matters. This not only means the extracurricular activities that most high school students participate in, but it could also be the other activities and pursuits that students do outside of school or endeavors that they’re engaged in.  Along with involvement, you’ll be judged according to your potential for leadership and excellence.  Remember that part about changing the world?  Changing your school or having an impact in your environment are first indications of that kind of potential.  For top schools, activities that don’t show strong levels of excellence or leadership won’t impress.

4. Passion

Passion matters. You need to have something you’re interested in. That doesn’t mean you can only have one thing that you’re interested in, but you have to have at least something or a few things that interest you. You have to be somebody that has desire.  Hopefully some of this desire is academic or career oriented.

5. Vision

Having a vision for where you want to be matters. You need to have an understanding of yourself, who you’ve been in high school, and an understanding of where you want to go in college, and even beyond. You need to be able to communicate your vision in your essay.

Students who don’t have passion and vision but may have awesome grades, awesome test scores, and great activities, oftentimes don’t get into their first-choice schools. Both of these are vital pieces that colleges want to see from students.

It’s really important that you have some perspective on your life and have passion – the inspirational part to you – so you can show what you want and what you love and express that on paper as someone writing essays.

Many students ask me, “Is it ok if I don’t have the grades or the test scores, but I have an awesome essay?” My general rule of thumb is that at really competitive schools, you basically need to have every box checked off. Occasionally, if you’re really outstanding in one category, you can be a little less impressive in another, but on the whole, you need the strongest profile you can get.

Going back on those original 3 ideas, if you’re going to get away with something in those 5 categories that is a little less impressive, that just means that you need to convince colleges of those first 3 things in some other way.

Lastly, every college is a bit different. I’m generalizing all colleges right now, but some colleges are going to value one thing over another. A big state school might value your GPA and test scores more than the other criteria, because maybe it doesn’t have the budget to actually read through a ton of essays and applications.

A school like the University of Chicago or Stanford might be more of a wild card school,  looking for outside the box thinkers, game changers, and entrepreneurs above dull straight-A students with perfect test scores and no leadership abilities. These schools might choose a few token people who may seem to have some inconsistent records but are outstanding in one category, despite lacking in another.  At the same time, those students will not be the only admits there.

Overall, the admissions process is something you only have so much control over– the best you can do is understand what colleges value and shape your high school involvement and pursuits to help you put your best self forward in your applications.