How to Get Into a Good College

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: June 10, 2021

If you remember anything from this year, building a balanced college list is important. A balanced college list is 8 to 10 schools that fit what you’re looking for in your education. Beyond the rankings, a good college is one where you’ll learn, be engaged, thrive, and speak highly of for years to come after you graduate. The post, How to Build a Balanced List, outlines the questions to ask to find the right college for you. But how do you know what colleges look for in students?

In this post, I will show you how to find out the reverse. Are you a good fit for the colleges you’re considering? Are you among the students colleges look for in their incoming class? You being a good fit for the colleges on your list makes it easier for you to get admitted. Also, colleges give merit scholarships to students they highly value. You’ll want to check that you’re high on the priority list of every college you apply to, ensuring you get money to make the cost more affordable.

Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

What is a Good College?

First, let’s talk about ‘what is a good college?’ If a college is considered good is not decided by the US News & World Report, Forbes, or any other list ranking company. You decide what’s a good college based on what you know about yourself. What do you desire in your college experience? What type of environment do you need to thrive in classes, work with peers, live in the dorm, and participate in campus activities? Where will you feel most comfortable and fulfilled?

All colleges want to attract students who will be successful and graduate. If you’re not clear on if you will be happy at the college, it’s probably not for you. If the college doesn’t think you’ll attend and graduate, they won’t admit you. It’s important that you look past rankings, and do the research to learn about yourself, what you want, and how you fit into who the college seeks to add to their next incoming first year class. Before you can understand what colleges look for, you have to be clear on if the college is good for you.

How to Learn About Colleges

After you know what colleges are good matches for you, you’ll need to visit the schools. Try hard to make this a priority this year. I know it was difficult during the pandemic because of all the lockdowns. As things open up, take a look at campuses, go to information sessions, speak to current students and professors, and sit in classes. Previously, I think we took these things for granted. We didn’t know how important it is for students to step foot on campus to make a better decision about where they’ll be most happy. I suspect there will be a lot of students transferring next year. I don’t want this for you. Every college is different, and the virtual tour doesn’t capture those unique qualities. 

What if I can’t afford to visit colleges? Between the plane ticket, hotel stay, and food, the costs to visit colleges can add up quickly. Each trip can easily be $1,000 minimum. If cost is a barrier to visiting colleges, check if the colleges you’re interested in offer a fly-in program. A fly-in program is designed to increase campus diversity and reduce barriers, including cost, from considering the school. Check out this resource for a list of colleges that offer fly-in programs.The list from College Greenlight is a great start, but I encourage you to ask all colleges on your list if they have a fly-in program.

How to Know What Colleges Look For

studying to get into the best college for you

Applying to a college without knowing if you’re a good match to them is a no-no. It’s like trying to pursue a friendship without knowing if the feeling is reciprocal. The same is true when you’re looking for an internship or job. Colleges don’t accept you. They match with you. Once you understand this, you’ll start to verify that you are a match for the college as well.

How do you do this? Colleges tell admissions staff directly who they are looking for in their next year’s incoming student class. This information is rarely publicly available. The term used in the college admissions world is a directive. College directives are usually part of a document from the President’s Office that lays out the college or university’s plan, including the types of students that they want, as part of the class that they’re building. It’s so important that you understand this. From time to time, I hear from students about friends at school: one student with lesser credentials getting admitted over a student with better stats. The bottom line: the student with lesser stats fit more into who that college wanted on campus. 

If you read the post about What does an Admissions Officer Do, I discuss the suggested step of contacting your area representative. Doing so can give you an idea of who they are looking for. Also, you may be recruiting an advocate to promote your candidacy during the admissions decision roundtable. If you ask them, they may give you a broad response of who they are looking to admit. But don’t count on the full answer.

Ultimately, it’s your job to do the research and figure out what colleges look for. But there are so many clues and places to find the information you need. It’s easier than you think.

Here’s where to look:

The News section on the college’s website. You’ll want to go back at least six to nine months and see what’s been happening. What are the new initiatives, programs, and buildings. Who are the newest big donors or what existing donors have made a big renewal gift? When a college unveils something new, linked to money or donors’ wishes, there are hidden directives about student recruiting and class building priorities. For example, when Cornell announced a new public health program, my student Franchesca knew that they’d be needing public health students. She wrote her essay about her passion for the public health field as a result of her childhood trip to the Philippines. Cornell accepted her.

Check endowed scholarships listings Most colleges and universities maintain endowed scholarships. These scholarships are funded by individual donors connected to the school, such as a former student, to help support a particular student’s education. Endowed scholarships have specific criteria, such as the Evans Scholarship, offered by the Western Golf Association, endows scholarships at 17 colleges, including Indiana University, the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University, and the University of Chicago. The award is a total cost of attendance scholarship to a high achieving golf caddy. If you are a caddy, a high performing student, and interested in applying to any of the colleges, then your chances may be better.

Another example from Spelman College, where endowed scholarships  emphasize civic duty and community service. Another award is for students living outside of Georgia. The descriptions of the awards listed give criteria in which the college highly values. This is true across the board. For all the colleges on your list, look for an endowed scholarship list. The list will hint into who they are looking to attract into their incoming freshman class.

And if any of them speak to something specific that you fit, you probably have a good chance of admission. You will help them solve two problems: who to admit and who to award the scholarship.

Capital Campaign Marketing. Another great, hidden place to check for insight into what colleges look for is their capital campaign marketing. A capital campaign is a longstanding fundraising program. Above all else, you should know that colleges are nonprofits that must raise money to stay afloat. There are for-profit schools, but you should avoid those (here’s an article from Forbes on the 20,000 more reasons to never go to a for-profit school). Every so often, a college will launch a capital campaign to raise money for something big, like a building or endowment fund for first-generation students. If you can find marketing materials, usually provided to the school’s alumni, you can get some great clues about who they hope will benefit from the campaign.

Other ways to learn about a college’s capital campaign are setting up an informational interview with someone from the Alumni Services Department. Or try connecting with an alumnus or alumni of the school to grab any correspondence, such as an annual appeal letter, annual report, or monthly magazine. 

In summary, these three places described are good ways to find the types of incoming students the college is looking for.

Conclusions + Next Steps

Now that you know how to find what colleges look for in building an incoming class, here’s what to do next:

  1. After you have a balanced college list of eight to 10 schools, you should plan a college visit. 
  2. If the cost of a college visit is a barrier, look into college fly-in programs that will cover the costs of travel, board, and food. 
  3. Connect with your area admissions counselor to find out what they’re looking for in a candidate while building a relationship. 
  4. Meanwhile, do your research to learn the scoop about the incoming freshman class the college is making. You’d check the news section on the website, the alumni services department, as well as find any capital campaign documents.

The more you know who the college is looking for, the better you set yourself up for applying and getting financial aid. It’s my goal to help you learn how the admissions process works. You don’t want to apply to colleges and get rejection after rejection or apply to colleges to get admitted and then not get the merit scholarships you need to make it financially feasible.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.