Easy. Grades. Hands down.
Why is that? Well, the answer is pretty simple, really. Schools like to admit people who are good at school. Certainly it’s nice to be a great left fielder or to strive to become the Mother Theresa of Cincinnati or to play the Minute Waltz in 47 seconds. And colleges will be happy if you want to bring those talents with you to their school. But not unless you have the academic chops to do well in the classroom.
The number one most important element of your college application is your transcript. The transcript is the record of your academic performance. It gives information about the rigor of your courses (e.g., honors, college prep, remedial, Advanced Placement, etc.), as well as your performance (your grades in those classes). You have a GPA that is a mathematical representation of your performance through high school. And this GPA is used to compare your performance with other students at your school.
[Contrary to what most people believe, your GPA is not really used to compare your performance with students at other schools—at least not in a strict sense. To learn more about comparing GPAs, see this post.]
Other academic factors also enter the mix at most colleges. The first are your teacher recommendations. Not all colleges require them, but certainly the more selective ones generally do. These recommendations do not focus on all your extracurricular achievements—but on your curricular ones. Your teacher knows very well how you do in the classroom, whether your assignments show sophistication and your tests indicate mastery of the material. Top colleges clearly want students who know how to rock it at school.
The other academic factor is your test score on the ACT or SAT. While these scores are not really a measure of your intelligence or your classroom abilities, they are measures of how well you understand English and basic mathematical computation. These fundamental academic skills are important if you are to succeed in college, and the colleges that require these scores are giving you a chance to show off those skills.
Once they have considered these academic factors, then will they turn to your extracurricular achievements. These activities can show dedication, perseverance, distinctive talents, and often provide a platform for developing leadership abilities. So extracurricular accomplishments are definitely important. Every admissions office wants to populate their campus with hard-driving, creative, and interesting people who are willing to make their college a better place.
But they won’t just skip over your poor academic performance and let you in because you can run fast while playing the accordion and singing “Yankee Doodle.” They may admire your creativity, but if you can’t demonstrate that you can hack the algebra and the five-paragraph essay, you won’t get in.