Many times students feel that in order to get into college they simply need to do one thing very well. Maybe you’re an AP or IB high school student relying on your grades and maybe a National Merit Finalist status to see you into your undergrad years. Or you may excel at a sport and see your future relying on your ability. The truth is that colleges are looking for students with broad backgrounds and experience to help create a vibrant community at their university. Remember that your application will ask about many areas including volunteer work and general engagement. Read on for two of the most important ways to make sure your experience stands out from the pack.

Have a Passion

Over 57% of admissions boards rated involvement in extracurricular activities as moderate to considerable importance. Most students know that they should be involved in extra curriculars, but colleges are looking for more than a student who does a little of everything without any real dedication. Law graduate Rachel Lader emphasized her work with humanitarian causes like Habitat for Humanity and Realizing the Dream to help her get admitted to her political science program. Find your focus and when applying to college emphasize the knowledge you gained and the accomplishments you achieved. Your volunteer work should tie in somehow to what you want to do in college. Today admission boards are looking for students with a spike in one area of knowledge rather than the general well-rounded students of the past.

Work for the Grades

Probably the most important thing you can do to get into the college of your choice is to get good grades in tough classes. With today’s weighted scores, many students will have GPAs greater than 4.0. The average GPA for admitted students at Harvard is 4.15. Applying to the top of the Ivy League with less than the average grade means you will likely be rejected at worst and waitlisted at best.

Even state schools can have high requirements. For example, UCLA has an average GPA of 3.9 and UConn is 3.76. Taking AP classes that will weight your GPA even if you don’t get an A is one way to work the system in your favor. AP is valuable for another reason; admissions look at the classes you take. A 4.0 with basic math and English classes is unlikely to impress top-tier universities. If your grades started off rough but you’ve improved over time, make a point of telling the school that on your application, emphasizing your ability to overcome adversity.

Of course, most applications will also include an essay. This is one area where you can’t plan ahead but you can certainly make an important impact on your chances by taking it seriously. Your essay shouldn’t be an afterthought. Take the time to write several drafts, focusing on specifics about your experiences and thoughts. Make sure your personality shines through. Strong letters of reference are also important, but if you’ve done your job with extracurriculars, you should be able to get those without a problem. So you can see that for the most part planning for college starts as soon as you begin high school. Even if you aren’t sure what you want to do yet, start feeling out different opportunities and you’re likely to fall into a passion that will make your life something you love.