What stands out the most on college applications other than GPA? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
The short answer is that other than GPA, the thing that stands out most on college applications is class rigor. How much a student challenged herself academically in high school (rigor) and how successful she was meeting that challenge (grades) go hand in hand as the #1 criteria to predict student success in college.
What many don't realize is that the student's high school transcript tells the college admission evaluator much more than letter grades. The transcript shows whether the student met the minimum requirements (i.e.: only 2 years of social studies) or went above and beyond (i.e.: 6 core classes instead of the usual 5 senior year). It reveals the student's interests through the electives the student has chosen. It shows where a student excels in addition to where she struggles (the lower grades are always in math classes), and more.
The transcript does show grades, as well as "honors" or "AP" designations, but students do not need to worry if their high school doesn't use those designations for the classes with the most rigor. Accompanying the high school transcript, colleges receive a high school "profile" that provides the information about the high school environment that colleges need to put the student's grades and academic program into a context. The school profile will also include the average GPA and test scores for the entire class, and other charts and such that will help the reader see where the student fits into her school environment. The same SAT score might be in the 60th percentile at a school located in a wealthy suburb but off the charts high for an under-resourced high school. The school profile will help the admission evaluator sort that out and read an application fairly.
Beyond grades and rigor, what makes a college application stand out differs from college to college and even evaluator to evaluator. Some colleges care a lot about test scores, while others are test optional. All things being equal, a gushing recommendation or endearing essay might tip the scales to elevate an applicant from the maybe pile into a "yes!" The most important thing a student can convey on a college application is her genuine self. If all you have time for is playing your sport and babysitting your younger siblings, own it. That kind of commitment, responsibility, and accountability will impress me more than if you filled in all 10 slots on your Common Application Activities resume with "impressive" one-week gigs. If you're (fabulously) geeky, play a leading role in only academic clubs, and uncoordinated, you do not have to sign up for a sport to impress anyone. The rumor that you have to check off certain boxes to be a competitive applicant when it comes to activities only leads to miserable teenagers and accounts, at least in part, for the massive spike in anxiety and depression among teens. The same goes for the essay, but that's a whole different topic. In short, if you present yourself honestly and highlight on your application that which makes you feel the most sparkly, the colleges where you would truly thrive are much more likely to notice.
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