Characteristics Colleges Look for in Students

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Kristen Seikaly
Kristen Seikaly

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When it comes to college applications, your personality matters. The characteristics colleges look for in students, while perhaps not all that unexpected, should be considered before you submit your application. Furthermore, you should think about how you can demonstrate these characteristics on your application, and what to do if you find you come up short on some preferred characteristics. 

Characteristics colleges look for in students

While you can look up what characteristics specific colleges look for, such as Ivy League colleges, there are some traits we found on college websites again and again:

  • Leadership
  • Commitment
  • Work ethic
  • Public service
  • Openness
  • Ambition
  • Curiosity

How to demonstrate them on your application

While you may feel you possess any or all of these qualities, you must be able to demonstrate them through your application. There are a number of convincing ways to do this that go beyond simply stating, “I am a committed leader,” or something equally unsubstantial. 

Your activities

The kinds of activities you’ve done, along with the roles you’ve taken on in these activities can tell a college a lot about your character. Serving as the president of a club shows leadership, for example. Putting in long hours on a community project demonstrates work ethic and public service. Working on a complicated project throughout high school shows commitment and ambition. Think about what your activities say about you, or how you can frame your activities to demonstrate certain characteristics. 


An essay that blatantly states, “I am ambitious and have a good work ethic,” doesn’t say much. However, what you choose to write about and how you write about it can demonstrate a lot about your character. Perhaps you talk about the time you built houses in South America. Giving credit to your team and discussing what you learned demonstrates a lot of admirable personality traits.

Recommendation letters

Characteristics colleges look for in students carry a lot more weight when someone else attributes them to you. If your recommendation letters consistently share your positive characteristics, colleges will take notice.

Which traits do you have?

If you don’t have certain traits, or don’t have a way to demonstrate well, don’t try to make a mountain out of a molehill. Bring out your strongest characteristics instead. Perhaps you’ve never led a group, but you’ve participated in a lot of public service activities. Play that up! Additionally, if you find you can’t demonstrate a certain trait outright, like leadership, but can show how you would make a good leader, that can serve you well, too.

If you would like more college advice, check out our other articles in our blog.

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