This article appears in College Prep 2019.

Everyone knows that grades are key in college admissions, and at most schools, scores on the SAT or ACT play an important role as well. But beyond these basics — and if you’re not an athletic star or the child of an alumnus or big-time donor — what is it that sets some students apart? Here are five factors admissions officers consider:

1. Extracurriculars

It would be a mistake to stuff your resume with as many extracurricular activities as you can jam into your schedule, says Bonnie Rabin, college admissions adviser and founder of College Career Consulting in Florida.

“Only do what you’re interested in,” she said. “Look for connections to your academics or intended areas of study.”

Extracurricular activities might connect to your interests in obvious ways — maybe you’re a future environmental sciences major leading a campaign to reduce reliance on single-use plastic. But don’t be afraid to look at activities that might bring unexpected depth to your story. Rabin recalls a future pre-med student who wrote a successful essay about how his work as a supermarket clerk would help him be a better doctor because he had learned how to deal kindly with difficult customers.

2. Course selection

It’s well-known that students should show they’re not afraid of taking the most challenging courses at their schools. But be selective, Rabin counsels, taking the more difficult classes that are either of interest to you or that will help make your case. Future engineering majors won’t get a major boost by taking AP U.S. History, she said; colleges care more about whether they take calculus.

3. Essays

When admissions officers are looking at a slew of equally qualified candidates, it’s often the essay that will make the difference, Rabin says. Remember that the college wants to get a sense of you and what kind of contribution you will make to the campus community.

Write about things that sincerely matter to you, not what you think will matter to an admissions officer. Go deep: Be prepared to reflect on your experiences or the book you love most. Tell about what you learned and how you changed from that experience.

4. Teacher recommendations

Try for a letter that will mark you as special. How? College consulting company Ivy Coach recommends writing the letter yourself, or at least sections of it, detailing some of the special things you accomplished and what stood out about you. Teachers who have more than 100 students a year are unlikely to remember many specifics, so you can offer your version as notes that you hope will be useful to them.

In many cases, teachers will pick up the ideas, or even adopt sections verbatim, if they feel it is an accurate reflection of your work.

5. Competitions

Entering competitions can set you apart from other applicants, Rabin says. It shows you’re willing to bring your interests into the outside world and test your accomplishments — whether they’re in rocketry, writing, art or inventing — against those of others.

Rabin has curated a list of competitions to consider entering on her website, collegecareerconsulting.com.