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The Shocking Truth About What Colleges Really Want in Applicants

May 6, 2024

Are you wondering what colleges are truly looking for in their applicants? In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the various factors that can impact your college admissions process. From academic excellence to well-connected networks, learn what colleges are seeking in their applicants and how you can strengthen your application. College admissions can be a competitive and challenging process, with students facing an unfair playing field. However, with the right preparation and mindset, you can increase your chances of success. Discover the shocking truth about what colleges really want in applicants and how you can stand out from the crowd.

high school girl in a bubble in school yard
Students are mostly sheltered from the "real world" when they interact with things and people in school

Schools are a bubble

The education system is designed to be a safe and controlled environment for students to learn and grow. This artificial bubble is created by educators and teachers, who are responsible for enforcing the rules that keep students safe and create a fair environment for all. Parents, teachers, and administrators are the kind rulers who ensure that the rules are meant to benefit the students. They can be trusted to be more or less fair to everyone. In school, everyone has an equal opportunity to do well in tests, and the regulators are responsible for ensuring fairness in the system.

Real world

The real world is a very different place from school. It is not fair, and there are no teachers, principals, or parents to create a safe environment. The rules of the real world are created by a small group of people who are experts in their fields, and they control political power, capital, and money. These rules are not meant to benefit everyone equally but rather to benefit those who set the rules. The rule makers cannot be trusted, and their decisions are often made based on their own self-interests.

College admission is more like the real world than school

College admissions are more similar to the real world than school. In college admissions, not everyone has a fair or equal chance of getting accepted. It is important for students to unlearn some of the things they learned in school and prepare their mindset for the competitive college admissions process. To succeed, students must be willing to do whatever it takes to outcompete those who have a greater advantage than them. Unfair competition is the norm in the real world, and it is also the norm in college admissions. Therefore, students must be ready to handle the challenges that come with competing in a system that is not always fair.

College’s mission

A college's mission is to prepare students for the real world. However, one of the most important goals of a college is to admit a class of students who will maximize the chance that their alumni will be at the top, defining the rules of the real world. Colleges want to admit students who will bring prestige to their name and help them achieve their fundraising goals in the future. Therefore, they are looking for future leaders who have the potential to become somebody, not a nobody. For example, Harvard would much rather admit a future Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg than another software engineer at Meta or surgeon. So if you were trying to put together a class to conquer the world, how would you do it? Colleges want to admit students who will help them achieve their goals while also becoming successful in their own right.


Running a college is extremely expensive. The salaries of college administrators, the ones deciding who gets admitted, are paid through tuition fees and donations. Harvard and Stanford raise a billion dollars a year on average. However, the question is, who are they raising that money from? The answer is either someone from a billionaire family or someone with the potential to become a billionaire, not someone who is going to be just a doctor or engineer at Meta. Therefore, colleges accept students who will help them achieve their fundraising goals in the future.

Wealthy families

Colleges like to admit children of wealthy alumni because these children will inherit all the network, connections, and wealth that their parents already possess. These children will very likely continue to influence the real world from the very top. The likelihood of success is much higher when you are already starting from the very top. In fact, their chance of success is likely greater than a smart kid starting from the bottom. Therefore, colleges like to accept students from wealthy families for this very logical reason.

Leaders that have a Wikipedia article

Colleges want to admit someone who will help build the brand and prestige of their alma mater when they eventually become a leader of their respective fields. Someone who will have a Wikipedia article, make it to the Forbes rich list, or Fortune 30 under 30. Colleges want to admit someone who is a somebody. If you want to be admitted, show that you have the potential to become a somebody, not a nobody. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a nobody. However, colleges will not admit you if you do not show that you have the potential to become a future leader.

young woman surrounded by digital network lights with city sunset in the background
Cultivating powerful network can be highly helpful when it comes to entering the college of your dreams

Well-connected and powerful networks

Having connections is an advantage in the real world. It can make it easier to get things done, especially in certain parts of the world where achieving something may be impossible without the right connections. People make things happen, and being connected to the right person is required to make something happen, especially in non-democratic societies. Connections can open doors at companies, provide access to capital, and lead to positions of power.

College and universities are one of the best places to build your network and establish connections that will be almost impossible to form organically out in the real world. College alumni networks are a form of connections. Therefore, colleges want to admit students who are well-connected or can bring new connections to the table.

Academic excellence

Colleges want to admit smart people. Academic excellence is an easy proxy for college admissions to know if you are smart. Smart people have an easier time becoming somebody. You need to be smarter than most people in order to lead people or be an expert in any field. Academic excellence is not the only measurement of intelligence, but other forms of intelligence are much harder to objectively measure. Academics is just the easiest, laziest, and cheapest way for schools to measure everyone on the same, objective scale. However, some academic subjects like art and music are harder to quantify than math and science.

Easily quantifiable metrics

Admissions officers do not have a lot of time, so they use the easiest metrics to make their decision, like test scores and GPA. However, these metrics may not always be the best indicators of a student's potential. For example, how would an admissions officer be able to measure a violinist who won a city-wide violin competition in Hong Kong versus a top violinist who won a competition in Mumbai? The population of Mumbai is 4-5 times larger than Hong Kong, but Hong Kong may have a larger pool of talented violinists. There may be many city-wide violin competitions in Hong Kong, but only one such competition in Mumbai.

Wealth and good connections are hard to quantify, so only true outliers of wealth and connection matter. For example, being the son of a billionaire or the daughter of the president. Unless the admissions officer can Google and find information about the candidate's family wealth or connection on Wikipedia, this factor won't count for much.

White washing

Colleges want to admit future leaders who can change the world. However, it's possible that most of the kids admitted from wealthy or connected families are not very smart. Thus, genius kids help bring prestige to the admitted class, and smart kids are admitted to help "white wash" the "intelligence" reputation of the wealthy students. For example, if all of the Asian kids accepted to Princeton are more or less geniuses, then the wealthy kids accepted to Princeton can learn from and appear "intelligent" by association with the smart Asian kids.

Cogs in the machine

Colleges don't want students that are cogs in the machine. They don't want to admit future minions or followers. College wants student leaders who will change the world. A cog in a machine, even if it is a good nut, does not get a Wikipedia article, and therefore, do not benefit the reputation of the school.

Four multi-cultural racial women laughing together
Colleges are afraid of being trapped in their own bubble of academia, so they want to be reaching out to a more and more diverse class of students


Colleges are looking to admit a diverse class of students, not because "diversity" is a virtuous concept to strive for, but for more selfish reasons. The world is made up of many different types of people, in different industries, in different countries. The world is not 50% Asian kids who like science and math. If a college does not admit future leaders from a diverse group of communities, industries, geographies, then a college is less likely to educate the future leaders from a broad range of fields. Colleges are afraid of being trapped in their own bubble of academia, so they want to be reaching out to a more and more diverse class of students.

In conclusion, getting into a good college is competitive, and colleges look for a combination of qualities. At Aha, we understand the challenges of college admissions, and our AI learning platform can help you prepare for college and stand out from other applicants. Join us today and start your journey towards a successful college career!

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