What do Colleges Look for Besides Grades?

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As any parent knows, students are so much more than their GPA. But there’s no denying that grades matter when it comes time to apply to college. In a sea of thousands of college applications and countless data points, what stands out besides the grades on a student’s transcript?

The short answer is: quite a few things. In this post, we’ll walk through key admissions criteria and how your teen can best showcase their skills, interests, and accomplishments on their college applications. 

In recent years, the admissions game has become more competitive than ever. Top colleges receive tens of thousands of applications each year, and taking on that challenge can seem intimidating at the outset! 

The good news is, there are strategies that students and their families can implement to make sure the application that gets dropped in the mail or uploaded to a university website is the very best it can be. And looking beyond grades alone is the perfect place to start.

What do colleges look for besides grades?

Besides grades, colleges look at SAT® and/or ACT® scores, leadership experience, course load difficulty, letters of recommendation, application essays, and more. So, it's important for students to realize that good grades require time and dedication, but so do many other important factors. 

To illustrate, let’s step into an admission officer’s shoes for a moment. What do you think matters most to them? Numbers on a piece of paper, or a vivid portrait of the type of student who could enhance their campus community?

Yeah, we’re thinking it’s the second one too!

So, while grades are an indisputably important piece of the puzzle, it’s crucial to consider the other components that will complete the picture. Because as many college admissions experts will tell you: grades aren’t everything. A GPA may be a starting point, there are many other places students can use to show admissions offices why they would be a great asset to the class of 2026, 2027, and beyond!

With that in mind, here are details of those seven things - besides grades - that can help students stand out on their college applications.

7 things colleges look for besides grades

From extracurricular activities to killer admissions essays, each of these components can speak volumes about your student’s strengths. Talk with your teen, their teachers, and their school’s guidance counselors about how to best showcase unique interests and skills. 

1. Leadership experience

We recently spoke with a panel of professionals in the gaming industry, and they had a lot to say about how to impress potential colleges with leadership. 

Mark Deppe, Director of UCI Esports, said during the session, “[Admissions officers] hate to hear “I played Legos growing up, therefore I'll be a good engineer… Your essay will sound like 10,000 other of our 120,000 applications, and it just doesn't stand out. So if you love games, talk about the club that you started around games… or how you failed really hard at something but learned from that and grew. Those are interesting stories that we want to hear: we want to hear about overcoming adversity.”

This advice goes well beyond gaming and other STEM hobbies. Extracurricular involvement is important (we’ll say more on this later), and students should be able to demonstrate times they have taken the lead, overcome challenges, pushed their comfort zone, and collaborated with others. 

In other words: just showing up doesn’t cut it. Encourage your teen to pursue leadership activities and positions.

2. High school courses taken 

That’s right, again, it’s not just grades that matter—it’s the courses that appear on teens’ high school transcripts. For instance, if a student has a perfect 4.0 GPA, but has taken no honors or AP classes, it might raise a red flag that they might not have challenged themselves in high school. The converse is also true, as an extremely academically rigorous course load and low grades and test scores aren’t a great combination. 

So, work with your student to find the best balance for them! If they’re interested in pursuing STEM in college, for instance, they should probably register for the best high school classes for STEM majors

If your student really shines in English or math, a benefit of taking AP® classes in those subjects is that doing so shows their willingness to challenge themselves and tackle advanced material. If your student loves the arts and other subjects outside the core curriculum, elective classes are a great way to showcase their far-ranging talents and skills. 

3. SAT®  and/or ACT® scores

Is the SAT® optional? Experts say "not really." 

Admissions officers use SAT® and ACT® test scores to get a sense for teens’ academic aptitude above and beyond what appears on their transcripts. Not only that, but recent data from top colleges like Emory, Vanderbilt, and Colgate show higher acceptance rates for students who chose to send in their SAT® or ACT® scores. 

And while standardized testing can be stressful, and hardly the most exciting part of applying to college, teens should take it seriously. For help with test prep, an expert SAT® tutor can make a huge difference, and so can practice with these SAT® prep apps

4. Extracurricular activities and community engagement

Universities want students who will do more than thrive in class: they want to create vibrant communities of athletes, activists, innovators, artists, volunteers, and so much more! 

Every teen has interests, but the key lies in getting them to channel those interests in ways that can enrich their community and even change the world. And like we said earlier, teens should do more than just show up. 

As they get involved in clubs, teams, and other school or community-based organizations, encourage them to bring their 100% effort, ideas, and teamwork to the table. That way, they can not only get more out of their extracurriculars, they can show future colleges that they are committed to making a positive impact. 

5. Detailed letters of recommendation

If you suspect that admissions counselors can tell the difference between a recommendation letter written by a teacher, coach, or community leader who barely knows your student and one written by someone who knows your teen very well, you’d be 100% correct.

With that in mind, encourage your teen to get to know the leaders who are in a position to sing their praises in a rec letter. And no, that doesn’t just mean knowing their favorite color or beverage from Starbucks.

Teens should show effort and investment, particularly in the areas that matter most to them, by doing things like engaging with teachers during office hours, asking for feedback and pointers from their coaches, and in other words showing their genuinely great qualities in a way that can make a difference in class or on the field. That way, the letter writer will have plenty of specifics to describe, and those make all the difference. 

6. Compelling admissions essays

The admissions essay offers the ideal opportunity for teens to not only show off their writing abilities, they also paint a picture of their personalities, interests, passions, and so much more. In fact, this is probably the most significant component of the application in which teens can, in their own words, make a compelling case for their admission.

Sound like a major undertaking? It is. But don’t panic—with the right preparation, reflection, and diligence, your teen can utilize this aspect of their application to their advantage.

To help them do that, check out the 7 most common college essay mistakes and how to avoid them.

7. Highlight your student’s “superpower”

While many parents may have heard about the value of presenting a “well-rounded” college application, recent advice has shifted slightly. Rather than show your student can do a little bit of everything, their application may have a better chance of standing out from the crowd if their “superpower” is clear.

Chelsea Harder, Associate Vice President-iD Tech Partnerships and experienced college admissions advisor, puts it this way, “Colleges are really looking for students to be an expert in their field and have done a lot of different things related to a specific area or the major they're applying into.” 

Does this mean students shouldn’t expand their horizons with diverse interests? Of course not. However, students should be encouraged to highlight a particular field or two in which they really shine: it gives colleges an idea of the future STEM stars, journalism majors, social justice activists, artists, and more who could be arriving on campus.

Build a stand-out college application

Looking ahead to application season, or to the start of high school, the iD Tech blog offers a wealth resources to give your student the upper hand as they apply to their dream colleges.

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains. 

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