The Purpose of the College Application

“What is the purpose of the college application?” My team at Prompt and I always ask students this critical question. Students who don’t know the answer will struggle to write compelling college applications. After all, how can writing be successful if the author doesn’t know what the audience is looking for?

Students tend to give two answers: “I need to do the application because it’s required to get into college,” or “colleges want to learn something about me.” These are simplistic answers that lead students to focus on the wrong things in their essays, activities lists, resumes, and interviews. The full answer is:

The purpose of the college application is to prove you’ll be successful in college and beyond

The purpose of the application is the same regardless of a college’s selectivity. There are four primary themes behind this statement:

1. Colleges want students who will do well in their classes and will graduate. Colleges want students who are going to succeed academically. Colleges want students to succeed academically, not just for altruistic reasons but also for monetary reasons. Students who drop out before graduating stop paying tuition. Retaining students is critical, and the best way to retain students is to ensure the students they admit have a high likelihood of being academically successful.

2. Colleges want students who will contribute positively to the college’s community. Colleges want a student body that will support each other and learn from one another. Each student should have a unique contribution to the college’s community. Colleges know academics aren’t the only reason to attend the college. The “network” and lifelong connections are just as valuable. Therefore, colleges seek to admit students who are highly likely to engage with other students and seek out ways to make the community better.

3. Colleges want students who will have a positive impact on whatever they choose to do in the future. Colleges fulfill their mission by having successful alumni. What a successful alum looks like may differ for each college. However, colleges are still seeking out students who have traits that are likely to make them more successful after graduation, such as leadership, entrepreneurship, and contributing to a group.

4. Colleges want students who the college can help achieve their goals or put them on a path to achieving them. Colleges are more likely to admit students who are a good fit for the college and the college is a good fit for the students. Colleges like it when they feel they are uniquely positioned to help a student along their journey.

Next, students must understand how they’ll prove they’ll be successful in college and beyond. The students’ “proof” is their experiences. What students have done in the past is indicative of what they’re likely to do in the future. Students should focus on sharing their experiences related to one of five traits that will help them prove they’ll be successful: drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution, and diversity of experiences. Students with these traits are more likely to succeed academically. They’re more likely to contribute to the college’s community. They’re more likely to succeed after they graduate. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the five traits.

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