Academic Honors and Awards

Like your GPA and test scores, your honors and awards have a place in the Common App and Coalition App, which means that it’s important for college admissions officers to see them.

They can range anywhere from an IB diploma or a membership to the National Honor Society to a high-class rank to a GPA award.

Especially if you are planning on enrolling in an Ivy League school like Harvard University or an institution with a similar status like Johns Hopkins University, your distinctions can impact your admissions chances.

What Do Academic Honors and Awards Mean?

Academic honors and awards are major achievements of high school students, particularly intracurricular ones, recognized by the institutions they are attending or organizations or societies.

Academic distinctions demonstrate the excellence of students in certain areas as well as commendation of their talents and skills.

Any formal recognition you receive in high school can be:

  • Academic or scholastic
  • Non-academic or non-scholastic

Either way, the ones you earn can be advantageous in the college admissions process.

That’s because they allow your application to stand out, especially if they specify some of the most significant, prestigious and competitive awards.

College admissions officers love applicants who push themselves and are not afraid to take on challenging pursuits on and off campus.

Of course, they value honors and awards bestowed upon them by the high schools they are attending as well as those that are awarded by certain groups and societies, particularly exclusive ones.

While all types of accolades can make a student’s application more marketable in the realm of college admissions, academic ones usually impact the admissions chances of a college-bound teenager.

How Do You Tell If Your Award is Academic?

An award is considered academic if it’s directly related to one’s education — high school, in the case of secondary school teens.

It can come from completing an advanced or college-level course, participating in an academic competition, or receiving a school-based, national, or honor society award.

Just about any honor or award that has something to do with your high school education can be considered academic or scholastic and can help make your college application even more valuable.

Be warned, though: some distinctions may sound academic but they’re not!

Preparation, hard work and passion — these are just some of the elements vital for the bestowal of an academic award.

Well, a lot of non-academic honors and awards require them, too, although they have nothing to do with your education.

So, in short, if it’s something that you earned extracurricularly, chances are it’s not academic in nature.

Some academic awards are given alongside the receipt of passing or high grades. Similarly, some academic awards are conferred as a result of you getting good grades, and they usually come in the form of certificates or diplomas.

Of course, they also usually wind up on your high school transcripts as high markings that can boost your GPA.

Academic awards can come in many different forms, each one falling under a particular category.

Some high schools may give students the opportunity to win a wide range of distinctions, while others may offer only a few kinds.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common forms of a scholastic award:


In most instances, an honor or honorable mention only comes in the form of a title — it may not come with a certificate, medal, trophy, cash prize or any other physical entity.

Needless to say, it comes in the form of praise for an academic-related job done excellently.

Certificate or diploma

Participation in an extracurricular program or activity may sometimes end in the student receiving some form of certificate or diploma, which signals the successful completion thereof.

Such can include course programs, lectures, seminars, and even internships related to one’s intended major.


Whether it comes in the form of a medal or trophy or a certificate or cash award, a prize is often won by a high schooler for acing a contest or landing near the top or being one of the finalists.

In any case, it’s important to note that not all honors and awards that come in the form of a prize are academic in nature.


Some inclusive groups or societies accept only high school students who meet certain criteria, commonly rigorous ones, depending on the organization’s prestige and selectivity level. So, in other words, only the best get in.

College admissions officers are more impressed with memberships with academic and professional societies.


It goes without saying that the kind of scholarship that is considered academic in nature is the merit kind, including those that also take into account other benchmarks such as talents and leadership skills.

Need-based scholarship won, of course, is based on one’s financial need and not academic achievements.


Academic awards and honors can come from different sources as well as take on an assortment of forms.

Academic competitions

  • Academic Decathlon
  • Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge
  • Davidson Fellows Scholarship
  • National Science Bowl
  • Physics Bowl

College course programs

  • AP International Diploma
  • AP National Scholar
  • AP State Scholar
  • IB Diploma

High school-based awards

  • Academic excellence
  • Academic star
  • Dean’s List
  • Foreign language award
  • GPA award
  • High class rank

Honor societies

  • Cum Laude Society
  • International Thespian Society
  • National Honor Society
  • National Society of High School Scholars
  • Sociedad Honoraria Hispanica

International awards

  • International Mathematical Olympiad
  • International Physics Olympiad
  • International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Award
  • Model UN

National awards

  • Governor’s Volunteer Award
  • President’s Award for Educational Achievement
  • President’s National Service Award

Note: Some academic awards may fall under multiple categories, such as one that’s both a school-based and national award.

Non-Academic Honors and Awards

At its core, a non-academic honor or award has nothing to do with academics.

It can be given as a result of pursuing or excelling in an activity or field such as sports or community service or volunteer work as well as various extracurriculars.

A non-academic distinction may also come from one’s employer.

First, various honors and awards can add value to your college application.

This is especially true, as you would expect, for those who emphasize certain talents or skills of yours as well as those who commemorate certain achievements or milestones of yours.

However, different accolades, whether in the form of a title or a physical token such as a certificate, medal or trophy, have different weights in the college admissions process.

And when it comes to applying to selective institutions where the high school GPA is the single most important criterion, scholastic honors and awards are more important than non-scholastic ones.

But don’t get me wrong — non-academic awards round out a college applicant.

Earlier, we talked about the different categories under which various academic honors and awards may fall. Well, non-academic ones may also fall under some of the said groups, only that they are not considered intracurricular.

Like their academic counterparts, non-academic distinctions also deserve a place in your Common App or Coalition App or whatever platform your chosen postsecondary institution uses.

However, they go to an entirely different section in the college application form, and it’s of utmost importance to place each right where it should belong.


  • 21st Century Leadership Award
  • Above and Beyond Award
  • Aspiring Author
  • Bank of America Student Leaders
  • Diversity Award
  • Gatorade National Basketball Player of the Year
  • Google Lime Scholarship
  • Helping Hand Award
  • Outstanding Service Project Awards
  • President’s Volunteer Service Award
  • Remarkable Reader Award
  • Ronald Reagan Leadership Medal
  • Shining Star Award
  • Tall Clubs International Scholarship Program

What Should Go Into the Common App Honors Section

Honors and awards that should go into the Honors section of the Common App or a similar section of any other college application portal must include academic ones only.

Non-academic distinctions, on the other hand, should go to the Activities section where extracurriculars are enumerated.

There’s only one place in the Common App where your academic distinctions can go: the Honors section.

Put simply, the Honors section is a space where you can parade your awards and let college officers know that you are an achiever and therefore would fit perfectly into the campus culture and contribute something to it, too.

Keep in mind, though, that just because an honor or award is important to you doesn’t mean right away that it’s important to let the college of your choosing also know about it via the Common App’s Honors section.

As mentioned earlier, this particular section of the popular centralized college application platform is reserved for academic merits only.

Needless to say, you should leave out non-academic ones.

By leave out, I mean talk about them somewhere else in your Common App, and it’s none other than the Activities section, which is dedicated to a high schooler’s extracurricular activities.

Received an award that has contributed something to your skills and interests but has nothing to do with anything included in your high school curriculum?

Then it must be an EA that’s non-scholastic in nature — specify it in the Activities section of the Common App where you can enumerate up to 10 different ones (only 8 when using the Coalition App).

How To Choose Which Awards to Include

It’s important for any high schooler preparing for their postsecondary career to carefully choose which academic honors and awards to include in the college application.

Not unexpectedly, the ones with the most impact and thus can have the most influence on admissions decisions are the best to add to the application.

You can only indicate as many distinctions you earned in high school in your college application.

As a matter of fact, both the Common App and Coalition App allow you to list only up to 5 of the honors and awards you have earned through your hard work, effort and dedication throughout your high school career.

Whether the school of your choosing uses the Common App or Coalition App or both, it doesn’t matter when it comes to impressing college admissions officers — the number of academic distinctions you can brag about is greatly limited, which means that being smart when it comes to choosing which ones to indicate is very important.

This should not be a big problem if you’re attending a high school that gives away only a few academic awards.

It’s an entirely different thing if your high school offers plenty of opportunities for its attendees to get their hands on all kinds of accolades and you are one of the most high-performing students around.

You will have to weed out your recognitions, therefore making the most of what limited space the Common App or Coalition App has for a high schooler’s achievements.

Of course, given the space constraints all college applicants will have to put up with, you should indicate only honors and awards that can impress the most. Obviously, you must cast aside less impressive ones.

It’s a great idea for teeners who are looking forward to attending highly competitive colleges to know about the fact that they will be able to only talk about 5 honors and awards as soon as they enter their high school years.

This way, they can explore opportunities and ventures that will allow them to have stand out college applications.

Generally speaking, you should remember to stick to this order when listing honors and awards based on type:

  • National or international
  • State or regional
  • Local
  • High school-wide

Because you have to make a positive impact using not more than 5 academic honors and awards, you should maximize the opportunity the Common App or Coalition App (or the college’s own proprietary application portal) offers to give those admissions officers an idea of what you are capable of achieving and contributing to the campus community.

To make the most of the Honors section, remember the following strategies:

Enumerate distinctions in the right order

The importance of listing first the most prestigious and competitive honors and awards when applying to college cannot be stated enough — make sure that you follow the recommended order given above.

Maximize the available space

It’s not just the number of accolades that you can include when filling out your college application but also the number of words you can use to specify them. Surely, you should do your best to pack everything within the 100-character limit.

While trying to be as detailed as possible can be extremely challenging, it’s not impossible.

For instance, you should use short phrases instead of complete sentences and write numbers in figures instead of spelling them out.

While it’s highly recommended to use abbreviations to save precious space, you should not abbreviate honors and awards that are not well recognized, the kinds that college admissions officers may not be familiar with.

On the flip side, you should do your best to fill all of the available spaces even if you feel that you have nothing to include — a quick trip down memory lane might help you remember some that are worthy of including in your college application.

However, it’s not a requirement to put something in each of the 5 boxes.

Take advantage of the Additional Info section

Unhappy that listing just 5 of your academic laurels is not enough to paint a good picture of your achievements and potentials? Use the Additional Info section at the bottom part of the application to talk about a few more of them.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should enumerate all your 15 or 20 awards.

Stick to mentioning those that you feel college admissions officers must know, such as those that have something to do with your intended major.

Refrain from wasting their time by talking about honors with very little to no significance on your chances of getting in — there are lots and lots of applications colleges need to review.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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