This series of posts opened with an exercise aimed at parents, so this post bookends the series with another section directed at parents.

All parents want what is best for their children.

Thinking about colleges and extracurricular activities is obviously stressful, but I want to encourage parents to view this process as an opportunity to help their children discover their true interests and abilities.

Extracurriculars should reflect passion.

At the end of the day, extracurricular activities should simply reflect a student’s passions.

As a professional résumé reader, I find it very easy to identify students who genuinely love what they do and students who are just looking for something to put on their applications.


First of all, students who truly enjoy what they’re doing make time—even amidst incredibly demanding schedules—to do that very thing.

Another thing: students who love what they do see it through to the end. They don’t start things and then quit just when school gets difficult or finals roll around. Students who quit a project reveal that they weren’t all that passionate about it to begin with. The student who really loves to play water polo will wake up every morning to practice water polo. The student who loves to write will stay up all night putting the finishing touches on a poem or short story. In other words, extracurricular activities should not be a chore—and correctly chosen, they won’t be a chore.

Colleges make a big deal out of extracurricular activities because they genuinely want to see the true colors and individuality of each applicant.

How do I help my child find their passion?

Helping a student find his or her true passion is one of the greatest gifts parents can give …and one of the best ways they can help the student get into a great college.

When I offer this counsel to families, many parents says that their student hasn’t really demonstrated any particular interest or passion. Now I believe that it’s the parents’ job to put students in various environments where they can identify their passions. 


Parents should start by using their student’s school as a resource. They could get a comprehensive list of all the clubs and activities offered at school. Chances are, there are lots of opportunities parents have never even heard about.


Parents can also seek out professional counseling services, such as those offered at FLEX. Counselors have access to a lot of information that isn’t so readily available. But more importantly, counselors have a lot of experience: they’ve seen lots of students who get in…and lots of students who don’t. This broad picture is crucial to putting a particular student’s achievements in perspective.

Travel might be necessary

Parents should also be willing to send children out of their comfort zone.

If a student qualifies for a gifted program such as the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) or Stanford Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), the student should go!

Many very selective universities (including, for example, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell and the University of Chicago) also run their own summer programs for high school students. Admission into these programs, which usually run from three to six weeks, is not nearly as competitive as admission to the university. Participation in such programs is meant to demonstrate intellectual curiosity, rather than academic prowess. After all, colleges love students who love to learn. 


A quick side note for parents reluctant to send their children away from home: some colleges are less likely to accept students applying from far off regions because they recognize that families often turn out to be unwilling to send their children so far away.


West Coast parents thinking about sending their children to an East Coast school might want to demonstrate the seriousness of their intent by sending students to distant summer programs or taking students on campus visits before the application process. 


This brings me to travel: another invaluable experience, whether a student heads to Spain with his or her Spanish class or simply takes part in a field trip to Washington D.C.

Travel is a cultural education in and of itself. It expands a student’s worldview and provides some of that broader perspective that colleges value.

As I mentioned above, colleges like students to have some sense of the world beyond their familiar hometowns. They want students who are going to bring an awareness of what’s going on both locally and globally, as well as a willingness to act on that knowledge.

Extracurriculars aren’t all about achievements.

In closing, I want to emphasize that the value of extracurricular activities doesn’t just lie in the achievement itself.

What do I mean?

First of all, admissions officers know that participating in extracurricular activities develops social and intellectual abilities, regardless of whether students win awards or take high profile leadership positions.

  • Participating in Speech and Debate, for example, fosters the ability to think analytically and critically, skills necessary for success in college. Participating in Model U.N. trains students to partake in a dialogue and reach for a broader perspective. Both clubs develop a student’s ability to do research.

Second of all, college admissions officers recognize that consistent participation in extracurricular activities takes—and develops—character. Ongoing commitment displays maturity, dependability and the ability to juggle many competing demands: skills that are necessary if students are going to succeed at the more selective universities.

Finally, I emphasize again that exceptional extracurricular records don’t depend on exceptional talents or skills. Of course, the academic, athletic and musical superstars will always have a place at the most selective universities, and students with rare talents should by all means be given every opportunity to develop their gifts. But the vast majority of students who get accepted do not possess some rarified talent. They are just those who are able to maximize the abilities they have for some greater good.

A pianist can be exceptional not because of his exceptional talent, but because his huge heart motivated lots of other musicians to join him in providing free weekly lessons to underprivileged students.
An aspiring biologist can be a stand-out applicant not because of her participation in cutting edge research, but because her environmental passion drove her to organize a community recycling program.

There is no one right course of action for everyone.

Parents who really want to help their students develop their extracurricular profiles should think about this task as an opportunity for students to get to know themselves better and discover their real talents and passions.

Many students will take some missteps; some students will need a gentle shove; every student will need encouragement.

But the experience in and of itself can end up being invaluable.

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