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Here’s the bad news for current juniors: it is not the best time to start thinking about extracurricular activities.
One of the main things that colleges look for in a student is consistency and commitment.

A sudden passion developed late junior year, say, for the welfare of baby seals, will probably not ring true. Admissions officers specifically look for – and down upon – resume padding through activities.

The Yale admissions website advises applicants’ activities “to demonstrate a deep commitment to and genuine appreciation for what you spend your time doing. The joy you take in the pursuits that really matter to you – rather than a resume padded with a long list of activities – will strengthen your candidacy.”

What does this mean for the junior who hasn’t really rolled up her sleeves yet? The junior without any real activities, let alone an outstanding activity?

Such students shouldn’t throw in the towel yet! Those who use their summer wisely can still make a material difference to their admissions chances. They can still do things now to maximize their chances of getting accepted at their dream college.

But a lot depends on exactly when a junior decides to get serious.

Case Study #1: Charles

Let’s look at the case of Charles.

Charles came to us at the end of his junior year.

He had all the right numbers: straight As in his school’s IB program; 4s and 5s on all his APs; and a solid SAT score of 1470. With numbers like these, he was a strong candidate for the upper level UCs.

But Charles was interested in attending a private college. In particular, he really wanted to study pre-med at Johns Hopkins University.

Unfortunately, he had prioritized studying at the expense of everything else over the last few years. He had spent all his time studying, and so far he had nothing else to show.

The only extracurricular activity he’d participated in was the school tennis team. Although he had played since freshman year, he wasn’t even a standout tennis player.

What should Charles have done?

Well, here’s one thing Charles should not have done: quit tennis.

Senior year is not the time to be cutting back on commitments. But in addition, it was important for Charles to think of activities linked to tennis—his sole constant extracurricular—that could serve to highlight other aspects of his personality. 

For example, I suggested that Charles might recruit some teammates to create a group that teaches tennis to underprivileged children in the neighboring vicinities.

What else could Charles do?

I urged Charles to think very hard about how he was going to spend the one precious summer he still had available to him.

He had to search for a distinguishing activity that could generate a compelling college essay…and maybe even a recommendation letter. Given Charles’s aspirations, I suggested he try to secure a medical mission trip to a foreign country. This would surely supply him with some great stories to turn into a college essay; it could also have garnered him a recommendation from a doctor.

Alternatively, I suggested that Charles seek out a research opportunity or an internship. There are lots of prestigious summer internships with competitive application processes, but students who have missed deadlines or who, like Charles, could benefit from going the extra mile might try and procure an internship opportunity that isn’t widely available to any high school student.

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Contacting professors or medical doctors—though only after doing due diligence and getting to know what the professors are researching or what the doctors are specializing in—can result in a one-of-a-kind opportunity and display initiative.

Case Study #2: Claire, University of Pennsylvania

One student I counseled was able to get herself a spot at a UC Irvine research program that is usually reserved for college students; she later enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania.

Now let’s compare Claire to Charles. Claire came to us early in her junior year with an academic profile much like Charles.

But where Charles’s main activity was tennis, Claire’s was band.

Band, in and of itself, took up a whole lot of Claire’s first two years of high school. But after learning about the college admissions process, Claire realized—still early in her junior year—that she had to differentiate herself from her bandmates. Claire figured out how to do this with a lot of imagination and dedication.

In one year of hard work, Claire mobilized a team of her bandmates to go to a local community outreach organization and teach kids how to play instruments. She raised money to procure instruments for these children, and she got them practicing and excited about music. Then she organized a community concert to let the kids showcase their newfound abilities.

Over the summer, Claire generated more buzz about the program; she even got the city mayor to attend one of the children’s concerts! What was so impressive about Claire was that she found a way to take an interest she already had—a passion for music—and use it as a springboard for other activities. Her extracurricular profile ended up having breadth, depth, and narrative continuity. It certainly impressed Penn.

It’s never too late.

The most important thing I want to emphasize to juniors is that it’s not yet too late…but it’s almost too late. Students who accomplish a lot the crucial summer before senior year will make themselves more competitive applicants, regardless of how much they’ve accomplished so far.

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