What Do Colleges Look for Besides Grades?

By Taylor Cameron

We all know that colleges care about your GPA and how you perform in your classes. After all, higher education is focused on academic performance. However, it’s important to know that colleges want students who go beyond simply making good grades. At this point, you might be asking, “What do colleges look for besides grades?

This isn’t meant to overwhelm you or lead you to believe that you aren’t doing enough to get into your top-choice school. The following list is intended to help you see that while grades are definitely important, they aren’t everything. It’s good to know what colleges look for besides grades because there are other ways to show a school that you’re a great candidate. Think of it as a list of ways to present all the different aspects of yourself. After all, you are more than just your grades.

With that in mind, let’s look at 10 ways to stand out to colleges that don’t involve your GPA.

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10 Ways to Stand Out to Colleges That Don’t Involve Your GPA

1. Volunteer

Schools desire students who care about their local communities and other people’s wellbeing. Volunteering shows schools that you are willing to donate your time and skills to better the world around you.

Volunteer experiences can benefit you by expanding your worldview and giving you opportunities to practice professional skills. Many people also discover their passions or establish purpose and meaning in their lives when they volunteer for causes that they care about.

Top colleges value compassionate and empathetic students because they make better teammates, employees, and community members. Competitive schools like Harvard and Stanford want their students to go on and make an impact on the world.

Volunteering also teaches compassion and empathy because it shows students how to focus on other people instead of themselves. It’s important to work to understand what others need and how you can support them.

To find ways to get involved, check out these volunteer opportunities for high school students.

2. Participate in Extracurriculars

Involvement in extracurricular activities is a great way to help admissions committees get to know you and see you as a well-rounded individual. But beyond that, extracurriculars allow you to gain valuable experiences and skills that help shape who you are.

High school is a time of self-exploration, which is why this time is often described as the “formative years.” There will come a time in the near future when you’ll have to select a college major or explain why you chose a particular career path. Extracurricular activities give you experiences that will help you answer those bigger-picture questions.

It’s also important to choose activities that actually interest you. Remember that this is YOUR high school experience. Parents and friends may throw ideas at you, but in the end it’s best to be honest with yourself about what you like and dislike. In other words, don’t choose a sport or instrument to learn just because it was someone else’s idea.

Your participation can demonstrate the following aspects, traits, and skills.

  • Engagement in your school or local community
  • Specific interests and passions
  • Dedication
  • Leadership experience
  • Time-management skills

Think quality over quantity when selecting your extracurriculars. In 9th grade, it’s okay to try out many clubs or extracurriculars throughout the year. But as your course load starts to shift toward more advanced classes, you may have to become more selective with how you spend your time. Just remember that colleges will look at the duration of your involvement in a club or extracurricular, and you’ll want to show that you remained committed to some of your extracurriculars (specific advice varies depending on your college list).

3. Develop Leadership Experience

Serving in a leadership role helps you grow and develop highly valued skills. You might be secretary of an anime club, drum major, team captain, or editor of your school newspaper. Maybe you’re a coach for a youth soccer team or a camp counselor. Taking on a leadership position helps you develop and strengthen the following skills and traits:

  • Responsibility
  • Dependability
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Time-Management
  • Problem-Solving
  • Decision-Making
  • Active-Listening
  • Critical Thinking

Possessing these will help you in your personal and professional life, as well as with your college application. Colleges look for students who demonstrate these skills and traits. They want individuals with the potential to serve as leaders on their campus and in their future communities after graduation.

4. Produce Strong Test Scores

A competitive SAT® and/or ACT® score can benefit your application in a few ways.

First, it demonstrates your academic and testing skills. For decades, colleges have used scores from admissions tests to gauge whether a student is ready for college-level material.

In addition, a test score that is in line with or above what is typically accepted can help move your application to the accepted pile. Top colleges have only become more competitive over the years, with admission rates reaching record lows in 2022. Good scores can help you stand out in a sea of college applications.

In recent years, many colleges have moved to a test-optional admissions policy. This means that test scores are not required for admission. However, the vast majority of test-optional colleges will still review test scores if you submit them.

Imagine this scenario: a college admissions officer is reviewing two nearly identical applications. They both have the same GPA, great essays, similar transcripts, and the same level of involvement in extracurriculars. However, one student submitted strong test scores while the other student applied test optional. Guess who stands out?

There are certain situations when we would suggest a student apply test optional, but our general advice to students is to take both the SAT and ACT tests and see how they do. In most cases, a strong score can help.

5. Write a Meaningful Admissions Essay

Admissions committees read thousands of essays, so it’s crucial to write one that sets you apart. You’ve got to write in a way that captures their attention and engages them, while also showing them who you are. The key here is to be unique and genuine. Admissions committees get enough boring and redundant essays.

But you aren’t reading this article so that you can blend in with all the other applicants, are you? You’re here trying to figure out how to stand out to colleges. Just that little bit of information tells me that you have the drive to make your dreams happen, and colleges want to see that in potential students. Take some time to think about what else makes you different from other people. Then think of a unique way to communicate that. Maybe that’s by sharing a story that shows your skills, interests, and drive.

No matter what you share about yourself in your admissions essay, be honest. Think of it this way, if you were an admissions counselor sorting through thousands of similar essays, wouldn’t you be relieved to find one that’s authentic and engaging? Write something an admissions official would actually want to read.

We know application essays are one of the more challenging pieces of the admissions process. Having a seasoned professional read your essays and give you honest feedback can help. Learn more about our college counseling programs.

6. Complete Challenging Courses

A transcript filled with challenging coursework provides more meaning and context to your GPA. It gives admissions committees an idea of how hard you’ve worked to get your grades. Competitive colleges look for individuals who accept challenges instead of choosing easier options. They want to see students who are motivated, are unafraid of hard work, and take advantage of the learning opportunities in front of them.

When you and your guidance counselor plan out your upcoming schedule, think about taking an Advanced Placement (AP), honors, or International Baccalaureate (IB) class when possible. However, we know that not all schools have the resources to offer these advanced classes. Colleges know this too. They will review your school’s profile when looking at your transcript.

7. Gain Professional Experience

Maintaining a job or internship while in high school demonstrates your work ethic, professionalism, and exposure to your field of interest. It can also provide you with opportunities to network with professionals, which can result in future job offers as well as great references to use on school or job applications. (More on that below).

Both jobs and internships give you hands-on experience in professional settings. No matter what type of position you have, be sure to make the most of the opportunity. Get to know other employees and put forth your best effort. Holding a job communicates to colleges that you’re reliable, mature, and can perform in a professional setting.

Quick tip: Include your part-time job on your college resume.

8. Obtain Quality Recommendations

It’s important to be strategic when asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for you. You want to ask a teacher, counselor, or supervisor who knows you well and has seen how you perform either academically or professionally. Request a letter from a teacher with whom you have a good relationship and are active in their class. That way they can write about your academic capabilities as well as your level of engagement.

If you can’t find a recommendation from one of the sources above, ask your work or internship supervisors, band director, or coach. These are also excellent options because they can speak to your professionalism, work ethic, skills, and dependability.

The most important thing to keep in mind when seeking a letter of recommendation is to find the individuals who can provide a quality recommendation. For example, if a teacher compliments you on a school project or admires you for helping a struggling classmate, remember that! It can help to remind him/her of that when you request your letters of recommendation.

9. Earn Awards and Recognition

Let’s be honest. Colleges like it when their students make them look good. And they love to brag about the achievements of their incoming freshmen. Students and alumni who receive recognition out in the world draw attention and interest back to their schools. If you follow any colleges on social media, you’ll see posts highlighting the achievements of their students and alumni.

If you receive awards in high school, colleges are more likely to see you as an applicant with the potential to make them look good in the future. These awards might be academic (E.g. National Merit® Scholarship), civic (E.g. Youth Impact Award, Civic Expression Award), or extracurricular (E.g. First Team All-District for your sports team).

10. Engage in Relevant and Ongoing Contact With the School

Another excellent way to stand out is to build relationships with campus staff and show that you’re truly interested in attending the school. There are a variety of ways to demonstrate your interest and build those connections.

Ways to Show a College That You’re Interested:

  • Attend a campus tour
  • Meet with an admissions counselor
  • Meet with the department chair of your chosen major
  • Attend admission events
  • Apply early
  • Follow the school and department on social media
  • Subscribe to the school and department email lists

Bonus Tip: Don’t ignore emails – Make sure you open the emails that you receive from the school or department. Some schools track whether or not you open emails that they send you.

It’s important to understand what colleges look for besides grades because schools want to see more than your GPA. After all, there’s so much more to you than that! Your task now is to use the list above to figure out how to best show all the different aspects of yourself. Show them what awesome things make you, well, you.

Need Help Preparing for College?

KD College Prep offers a variety of test prep and college counseling programs to help you put forth your best college application. Through college planning seminars, test prep courses, boot camps, and one-on-one sessions, we guide our students through every step of the college admissions process. To learn more about our programs, schedule a free consultation with a member of our team.

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Taylor Cameron is a blog writer at KD College Prep.

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Advika R. – Class of 2022

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Elise P. – Class of 2022

“I want to thank KD College Prep for helping both of my kids over the last years reach successful outcomes on their SAT® and ACT® scores, which helped them get into great colleges. I found the college prep class for parents very informative and helpful during the process as well.  My son (Jacob) graduated in 2018 and got a 32 on the ACT test. got accepted into Texas A&M but chose Baylor for Health Sciences.  My daughter (Morgan) graduated in 2020 and got a 1450 on the SAT test and a 32 on the ACT test. got into an Ivy League school (Cornell) for Engineering.  Both my kids say that they apply the test taking skills they learned at KD Prep to... Read more...
“I want to thank KD College Prep for helping both of my kids over the last years reach successful outcomes on their SAT® and ACT® scores, which helped them get into great colleges. I found the college prep class for parents... Read more...

Jon D. – Parent

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“Coming into this whole process, I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and your help was invaluable—your encouraging words, strategic advice, and wholesome stories and jokes really got me through a stressful time! I'm still on the waitlist at Harvard... Read more...

Shreyas R. – Class of 2020

“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a good school will help me find my path. Also, Steve's knowledge about what colleges were wanting to see in potential admissions candidates was a huge help... “There was not one specific beneficial moment or turning point in my time working with Steve, there were many. He encouraged me during the entire application process and brought to my attention many colleges I wouldn't have considered or heard about without his help.”
“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a... Read more...

Jake W. – Class of 2020

"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."
"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."

Zarni, Daughter – Class of 2021

"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."
"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."

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"My initial goals when I first started working with the KD Counseling crew was to compile a list of colleges that I would be somewhat interested in attending and fit my career goals. I think that this step I was by... Read more...

Nina H. – Class of 2020

"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."
"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."

Morgan D. – Class of 2020

"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."
"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."

Tiffany – Son, Class of 2021

"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students wanting an edge on their national test scores!"
"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students... Read more...

Daniel J. – Class of 2020

"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."
"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."

Sam H. – Class of 2020

"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the help from amazing teachers and staff. I am so grateful for KD!"
"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the... Read more...

Matt K. – Class of 2020

"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."
"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."

Thomas D. – Class of 2019

"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."
"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."

Piper F. – Class of 2020

"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."
"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."

Kathy – Son attends Mizzou

test prep testimonial grace
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure out a personal plan that would work for her and were always available for our questions and helping her reach her goals. Every employee from the managers to the students working at their locations are top notch.”
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure... Read more...

Tracy – Daughter, Class of 2020

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

Prema – Daughter attends Rice

Score Higher. Shine Brighter.

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*Restrictions apply. See discount page for details. Offer ends December 7, 2022.