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Showing Academic Achievements & High School Accomplishments on Your College Applications

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I often talk to students about how colleges want to get to know them by reading their college applications. Instead of making them feel better, this usually causes anxiety and questions like, “How?”

It’s a fair question! There’s only so much space on an application to include what you’ve accomplished, who you are as a person, and what you would contribute to a college campus on an application. However, it’s almost a benefit not to have too much space. You just need to be thoughtful about what you include. 

In this article, I will provide actionable tips for approaching your college applications to showcase your academic and high school accomplishments.

Note: For this article, I include the names that the Common App uses for its different sections since you’ll likely apply to a college using the Common App. Regardless, most applications ask for similar information.

Highlighting academic achievements

Let’s start with your academic achievements and how you can highlight them for colleges. 


There are so many places you can highlight your academic achievements—one of the most obvious being on your transcript. Most colleges require you to either send your transcript or self-report your courses and grades on your application. 

According to a report that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) put together, course rigor and grades are consistently the top factors that admissions officers consider when making admission decisions. 

Why is this? There are a variety of reasons, but one is that colleges want to gauge how academically successful you will be in college. They want to see how you handle more rigorous courses and whether you’re academically prepared for the major you indicate on your application.

Your transcript, along with your high school’s “school profile,” a document that provides colleges with information like courses offered, the percentage of students who attend college, average SAT scores, AP passing rates, etc., can tell admissions officers a lot about you. 

For example, it shows how much you challenged yourself based on what was available to you.

Depending on your transcript, you can demonstrate the academic growth you experienced—either year to year or even semester to semester. 

I find it particularly impressive if a student struggles the first semester in a class and then significantly raises that grade the next semester. 

That brings me to another place to highlight your academic achievements: letters of recommendation. 

Letters of recommendation 

Most colleges require one to two letters of recommendation. They tend to want two from core academic subject teachers and one from your counselor. 

Teacher Letters of Recommendation

Your teacher letters of recommendation are meant to give colleges a better sense of what you are like as a student and what you could potentially contribute to a college’s academic environment. This is why it’s so important for you to form close connections with your teachers and put your best foot forward during your classes. 

If there is a class that you struggled in and were able to turn around your performance, that teacher might be a great one to ask for a letter of recommendation from since they would be able to speak to how you work through challenges.

Counselor Letters of Recommendation

The counselor letter of recommendation can contextualize your academic performance. Maybe you took more courses than most students do, or you were one of the few students who enrolled in challenging courses, something colleges wouldn’t be able to tell just from reviewing your transcript. 

It’s important that you make an effort to connect with your counselor and inform them of information you’d like them to highlight in their letter. 

Education Section 

So far, I’ve talked about ways to highlight your academic achievements that depend on someone else. Your registrar prepares and sends your transcript while your teachers and counselor write the letters of recommendation. 

You, however, are in the driver’s seat of filling out your actual college applications. So, let’s turn to the Common App.

Adding this to the Common App

The education section: In the main Common App tab, which is the section that is sent to all the Common App colleges you apply to, there is a whole section titled “Education.” In the first part of it, you include the high school you attend and whether you’ll be graduating early, late, took time off, etc. This could be a place to highlight an academic accomplishment. 

For example, I had a student who was selected for a prestigious year-abroad program that impacted his progression in high school. He selected that he took a gap year and then was able to explain it in a box that popped up to provide more details.

The college coursework section: There’s also a section where you can indicate whether you’ve taken any coursework at a college or university. This is a great way to highlight your academic achievements. 

For example, I had a student who participated in a selective summer research program at a university and another who enrolled in rigorous math courses at a nearby university since they had taken all the math available to them at their high school. They were able to include these opportunities in this section.

The current or most recent year courses section: Most transcripts don’t include which classes you’re taking your senior year, so the Common App asks you to list your senior year courses. That way, colleges can see if you have continued to challenge yourself in your senior year. 

One tip for this section is to list your more advanced classes first, starting with the one(s) most related to the major you’ll list on your applications.

Many students think that senior year doesn’t matter, but it does! Not only do colleges get to see which classes you’re taking from what you report on the Common App, but they also will receive a mid-year transcript from your high school with your fall semester grades. 

Colleges can also request to see progress reports during your fall semester if you apply early to an institution. Unfortunately, I’ve seen situations where a student is so close to being admitted, but their senior year grades end up being the factor that leads to them not receiving an acceptance. The moral of the story is to continue prioritizing your academic performance your senior year.

The honors section: The “Honors” section is meant for you to showcase your academic achievements. If you’re in any honor societies at school, you can list those in this section. If you’ve done well on your APs and have received the distinction of AP Scholar, list that here. 

If you’ve done well in academic competition-type clubs like HOSA, DECA, UIL, etc., list them here. You can include up to five honors in this section.

A tip for this section is to first list the ones where you’ve received the highest level of recognition, which would be “National” or “International.”  For example, AP Scholar Awards are national awards, so you would list that one before the National Honor Society since that’s more of a “School” level since it’s the chapter at your school. 

Testing Section 

If you’re a strong test taker, you can highlight those achievements in the Testing section of Common App. In this section, you are self-reporting any scores that highlight your academic prowess - this includes standardized testing (SAT, ACT) and AP/IB scores. 

You can include future AP/IB testing dates, as well, to show colleges that you will be taking the AP/IB exams for classes you take senior year.

The “self-report” is key. You do not need to report scores that you don’t believe accurately reflect your academic ability. The choice is in your hands in this section.

It can be helpful to have access to your high school’s “school profile” so you can get a sense of what would be seen as impressive in your school context in terms of standardized testing and AP/IB scores. 

For example, I’ve seen schools where the passing rate for AP scores is low, so reporting a 3 might make sense for a student there. However, I’ve also seen schools where almost everyone passes, so you may only include scores of 4 or 5.

Highlighting non-academic high school accomplishments 

Academics is only one aspect of your high school experience. Referring back to the report that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) put together, right below course rigor and grades comes positive character attributes. 

This may be surprising to you, but colleges really do care about the type of person you are, what has shaped your character, and what you will bring to the campus community. 

How can colleges tell this? Well, they’ll be able to learn about your character from many of the components we’ve already discussed, especially letters of recommendation. But they’ll mostly learn about your character from sections we haven’t discussed yet: Activities and Writing. 

Activities Section 

When I start working with students, I usually ask them about their involvement. It’s a great way to learn more about a student and what matters to them. 

Some of the most common that colleges look for are curiosity and persistence. Activities are a great place to showcase your interests and commitment level, especially if you’ve been involved in certain activities for several years and dedicate a lot of hours to them. 

Colleges want to know how you spend your time outside of the classroom, including formal activities, family responsibilities, and hobbies. Some of the most interesting students I’ve worked with are those who spend significant time on part-time jobs, hobbies, or independent pursuits. 

For example, I had a student who was interested in business who started her own kpop merchandise venture. I had another student who really enjoyed gardening in his free time and would spend hours researching plant care. You never know where one of your interests could lead you! 

Adding this to the Common App

On the Common App, you have space to list 10 “activities.” I put activities in quotes because the term can confuse students. 

In terms of showcasing your involvement, you only have 150 characters to describe each one, including what you’ve accomplished and any recognition you’ve received. I recommend starting each description with a strong action verb and using semicolons in between each thought. 

Be as specific as you can be in your descriptions and quantify your impact as much as possible. 

For example, in the plant example above, the student could say something like: “Enjoy gardening; research plant care.” Or he could say, “Maintain a personal collection of 30+ exotic plants; research & use plant care methods, like cloning and reverse osmosis; sparked interest in biology.” 

The latter is more descriptive. An admissions officer gets a sense of just how many plants this student cares for, what he has researched, and how this activity motivated his interest in a major he may pursue in the future.

The most important takeaway here is to not take the activities section for granted. How you’ve spent your time in high school allows a college to envision what type of impact you might have on that college campus. 

The Essay 

The last section I want to highlight in this article is your main college essay. Your essay can be a great place to highlight your high school accomplishments. 

As I mentioned earlier, space is limited in the activities section. If an activity has significantly impacted you in high school, you can expand on it in your essay.

Essay example: I once had a student who worked part-time at a grocery store. We included it in his activities section, but he wasn’t able to express just how much this part-time job meant to him. He started the job after he decided to stop playing basketball, which had been his primary activity. He felt like he had lost himself playing basketball and had only continued because it was what he knew. 

His job helped him regain a sense of self, and he really came out of his shell. He was quickly promoted to a position that had never been given to a high school student before. He was very proud of this accomplishment and wanted colleges to know why he’d been given this position, what he learned from it, and how it had shaped the impact he wanted to make on a college campus.

Essay example: I worked with another student who had spent a full year lobbying to start a club at her high school. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to get the necessary approval from the principal and the school board. She wasn’t able to include this in her activities section since the club hadn’t come to fruition, but she had learned a lot through the process and wanted to include it in her college applications, as she was proud of all the persistence she had shown.

Although it may feel like there’s not enough space on a college application for you to adequately showcase your academic achievements and high school accomplishments, be strategic about what you include and where. 

You’re also not alone in this. Your teachers and counselor can also help highlight what you’re most proud of and want to bring to attention. Own your narrative!

Knowing your chances for college admission

It's crucial to remember that your application is a comprehensive package, not just what an admission committee sees on your high school transcript. 

To prepare for applications and understand where you stack up against your peers, you can use Appily's college admission calculator. By sharing a few data points, like any test scores, majors you're interested in, and your GPA, you can see your chances for admission into all the colleges on your list. 

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