Parents should take a moment to answer the following questions honestly:
  • Are you seeing the same parents when you go to your kid’s speech and debate tournaments as when you pick up your kid from orchestra rehearsal?
  • Did you sign your son up for that particular Boy Scout troop because Mrs. Kim’s son got his Eagle Scout badge there…right before heading off to the University of Pennsylvania?
  • Are you worried that your daughter should stop concentrating so much on studio art because all the other kids you know are working on the school newspaper?
  • Are your kids more excited to go on that mission trip to Mexico because they think they can make a real difference…or because all of their friends are going, too?
Now stop and visualize all those familiar faces following your kid to band camp, church, even SAT class. These kids are the competition.

What do you think will happen if your kid looks just like the competition?

Which extracurricular activity will get my kid into such-and-such college?

One of the top questions I hear from parents is: which extracurricular activity will get my kid into such-and-such college?

This is in many ways exactly the wrong question to ask. There is no such thing as the ideal extracurricular activity, because there is no such thing as the ideal college applicant.

College admissions officers admit individuals, not ideals, and they treat extracurricular activities as reflections of an individual’s unique interests and passions. They look to admit students who will be able to come together to form a cohesive community but diverse community.

However, although there’s no such thing as the ideal extracurricular activity, there is such a thing as the wrong activity. The wrong activity, as the above exercise shows, is the activity chosen because everyone else is doing it or because it got so-and-so into Cornell.

Blend your extracurricular activities with your passion.

This doesn’t mean that a student should not participate in, say, speech and debate just because it’s a trendy activity, or that a student should pick the bassoon over the violin just because it’s a less popular instrument.

The key to building a successful extracurricular record is to identify a student’s genuine interests.

If a student’s passion is in fact speech and debate, then, by all means, the student should excel at speech and debate! However, parents should avoid molding their kids’ activities to fit some preconceived ideal they believe colleges are looking for. This does a real disservice to the student.

Be yourself. Always.

In all my years of counseling, I haven’t encountered a single student who isn’t a true individual. However, all that uniqueness gets lost as soon as I look at that student on paper.

Unfortunately, for many admissions officers, their only chance to “meet” the student is on the written page. They have to go by what they’re given—and what they’re given are too many carbon copies of the same high-achieving but ultimately undistinguishable student.

This post is dedicated to giving students and their parents—especially those who caught a glimpse of themselves in the exercise above—the information they need to develop their extracurricular profiles.

In the next post, I’ll explain what admissions officers are looking for. What do extracurricular activities tell them? And what do colleges really like to see?

Then I’ll offer concrete tips for developing an extracurricular profile at various stages of the college preparation process, from freshman year—or even middle school—through senior year. My advice will be illustrated with case studies.

To conclude, a word of encouragement. I urge students and their parents not to look upon this part of the college admission process with undue trepidation. This is where things get fun! It’s not too much of an oversimplification to say that students just need to discover where their passions lie…and then do what they love.

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