Top Alternative Skills Colleges Want in 2020

Test scores aren't the only thing colleges look for in potential students. Learn what alternative skills colleges want and how to give your student an edge.

College-aged woman holding a backpack while turning around and looking at the camera

Within the last five years, college admissions at certain schools have evolved. Prospective students today can face a much different process than even their older siblings once did. 

At many Michigan schools, including Wayne State University and Central Michigan University, the focus is still predominantly on high school grades and standardized test scores like the ACT or SAT, but that’s not the case for every college.

In 2015, Kalamazoo College decided students should have the option to not submit ACT or SAT scores at all. Instead, “Admission is determined by high school grade point average, academic rigor of the high school curriculum, the application essay, and participation in co-curricular activities,” says its admissions page.

Admissions offices across the country have been expanding their search for students who might not fit the typical model of a successful student. One of the ways they’ve done this is by looking harder at a student’s activities to reveal interesting skills that might spell success later on.

In fact, one of the required essay questions at the University of Michigan this admissions cycle is, “If you could only do one of the activities you have listed in the Activities section of your application, which one would you keep doing? Why?”

What are colleges looking for?

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Students should include “anything that shows leadership, being proactive and sustained commitment” in their application, says Lee Furbeck, the executive director of admissions at Central Michigan.

At Trinity College in Connecticut, instead of hyper-focusing on grades and test scores, a checklist was developed within the last few years to search for 13 skills they want to see in applicants.

Those skills are comfort in a minority of one, creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, delayed gratification, empathy, grit, innovation, openness to change, optimism, overcoming adversity, persistence and risk-taking.

Don’t stress at the length of the list – colleges definitely want to see things like creativity, perseverance and empathy in their students, but nailing every single skill in an application can be overwhelming. Instead, take an activity you’re truly passionate about and provide a lot of information about the skills you gained.

“It’s much better to be involved for a significant period of time with increasing responsibility in one or two activities rather than brief commitments to 20,” Furbeck says. “Most students don’t articulate their level of involvement (in their application), which is a big mistake.”

What skills should I include?

Maybe you’ve been an aspiring YouTuber since middle school. While it’s not a typical activity listed on a college application like being the president of the honor society or the star quarterback, it can still show many of the skills colleges want.

Did you have to teach yourself to code to make your channel? Did you download video editing software all on your own? Those alternative skills can strengthen an application and show things like curiosity or overcoming adversity.

Furbeck says to stick to what you’re really passionate about and to make it very clear to the admissions counselor what skills you learned.

“List the skills gained just as you would on a resume,” she says. Plus, letting the admissions office know how long you did each activity is paramount: “We don’t know if they did the service project for one day or if they have been volunteering 10 hours per week for three years.”

She adds that more students who have applied in the last couple of years list service work than in the past, but that arts and athletics are always popular.

“Students should also not hesitate to list employment,” she adds. Don’t forget to add the skills you learned on the job, though.

Another aspect to remember is that admissions counselors want to admit well rounded students. Were you the Dungeon Master in your decade-long game of Dungeons and Dragons plus the captain of the lacrosse team? Be sure to include that.

“Interesting combinations are good,” she says.

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