A Former Admissions Officer Shares What Qualities Colleges Look for in Teens
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A Former Admissions Officer Shares What Qualities Colleges Look for in Teens

Have you ever wanted to get inside the mind of a college admissions officer to figure out what exactly they’re looking for? There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there. Do schools want well-rounded applicants or candidates with specialized expertise? Luckily, we’ve got the inside scoop for you.

Jasmine Hardy (? helping a student on the ropes course during Summer Camp Leadership in the Dominican Republic) discovered Rustic Pathways while working in admissions at a highly-selective liberal arts college. After reading about the Rustic experience in a student’s essay, she successfully applied to be a Program Leader in the Dominican Republic before summer 2016. She returned to Rustic to lead programs last summer in Costa Rica and Cuba.

Hardy shared a few key attributes that colleges generally seek from their applicant pools. Of course, the specific admissions criteria vary from school to school—so make sure you do the research on your top choices! These are the top five qualities that students applying to any school should exemplify.

1. Independence: For many students, college is their first time being away from the comforts of home for a substantial amount of time. Teens with the ability to persevere through challenges are more likely to succeed in the college environment. “Their willingness to explore, be independent, and take risks is a great trait that translates well into the whole college process and into their college years,” Hardy said. One of the benefits for teens traveling without their parents is they learn to rely on themselves and follow their own path. Admissions officers look for students who have pursued their own passions and interests.

2. Responsibility: Admissions officers take note of students with a sense of responsibility to others. “Students should demonstrate that they want to be a shared contributor to the world,” Hardy said. Rustic Pathways is committed to creating a world where all people are connected by a shared humanity and all decisions are made with a global perspective. This vision informs the educational objectives for all of our programs. In fact, Rustic students experienced the most growth in intercultural competence after participating in programs this past summer.

3. Focus: Universities value students that demonstrate a sustained commitment, not a smattering of various activities or casual involvement. In a survey for Money magazine, the Independent Educational Consultants Association advised that “commitment and depth are valued over minimal involvement in a large number of activities.” That’s why many Rustic Pathways trips have a thematic approach. Whether students are passionate environmentalists, aspiring doctors, sharp-eyed photographers, or dedicated athletes, there are trips designed to broaden every student’s experience and deepen their knowledge in a particular area of interest.

4. Commitment: “Colleges want to know that you are prepared to succeed once you arrive on campus,” Hardy said. Identifying students who will contribute to the campus community is a priority for admissions officers. Will a candidate actively participate in campus life and make the most of the school’s unique offerings? A key measure of this success is whether students took advantage of the opportunities available to them. Aside from rigorous academic pursuits, students should also use their downtime outside of school or over the summer productively. It’s a great time to explore teen travel programs to develop new skills that they can apply in the future.

5. Competence: There’s no getting around it: grades matter. According to Hardy, “the academic transcript is the spine of the application.” Although academics are certainly important, they aren’t the only deciding factor. In addition to the transcript, the essay(s) is a critical element of the application. “Essays give access to the student’s own voice and perspective which can be especially helpful at schools that don’t offer interviews,” Hardy said. Application essays should stand out by showcasing a student’s unique talents and interests, but also prove their qualifications with solid writing skills and thoughtful personal insights.

Teen travel programs allow students to demonstrate these key characteristics and distinguish themselves from their peers. “Being excited about traveling and wanting to learn about cultures that are new to you or about other parts of the world encourages global citizenship, which is a trait that colleges and universities are eager to have on their campuses,” Hardy said.

In an increasingly globalized world, having cross-cultural fluency in addition to these five core qualities is an asset that admissions officers won’t overlook.


Looking for a teen travel program that could help you develop these and other qualities admissions officers consider when evaluating applicants? Enroll by Oct 14, 2018 and save 20% off the program cost.

About the Author

Kelly Baker

Kelly joined Rustic Pathways in 2017 as the Global Communications Coordinator in Costa Rica, after completing her master’s degree at The New School. An AmeriCorps alumna, she has worked with organizations in Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Hungary, and all over the US to address issues such as refugee resettlement, economic development, and youth empowerment. She received her undergraduate degree from McGill University in Montréal, where she played hockey and learned to love poutine. Her French is pathétique but she’s nearly fluent in Portuñol.