"What do colleges want?" is a question nervous high school seniors and their parents ask over and over–especially as the application season approaches.

Individual requirements vary with highly selective private and public universities differing quite dramatically from less demanding community colleges of four year schools struggling to fill their freshman classes.

Overall, however, the colleges that tend to be selective to varying degrees look for students who will not only benefit from that college’s academic offerings, but who will also be a vital part of the academic community by participating fully in campus life.

The selective colleges look not only for academic excellence, but also for leadership qualities, special talents and altruistic concerns.

Many students feel–and fear–that an SAT score can make or break one’s chances of getting into the college of one’s choice.

While SAT scores play a part in the overall evaluation process, many college admissions officials contend that these are not of primary importance, that other factors such as high school grades, teacher recommendations, sincerity and insights shown on the application essay, commitment to and leadership in extracurricular activities actually count much more in the evaluation process than SAT scores.

However, an extremely high or an extremely low SAT score can cause admissions officials to take a special look at an application. If, for example, a student with high grades who seems otherwise qualified has SAT scores dramatically lower than the college’s average acceptable SAT (such as a score in the 900’s or below when the average score of applicants to that college is 1250), this may cause the SAT to be more important in the evaluation process than it would otherwise be.

In the same way, if a student whose grades are in the lower range of acceptable to the college has an SAT score much higher than average for that college, this may help his cause. However, if his grades are considerably below the acceptable range for that particular college, a high SAT score may not be enough to win admission.