Parents should take a moment to answer the following questions honestly:

Remember that when admissions officers evaluate student applications, they are looking for answers to these questions:

  • Who is this student?
  • What makes him or her different from everyone else?

Getting detailed answers to these questions is greatly important to colleges for lots of reasons.

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First of all, colleges need to select students who are minimally capable of succeeding at the college.

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Second of all, colleges want to find students who will mesh with the campus culture and philosophy—students who can come together in a cohesive community.

But lastly, colleges don’t want a class of clones. They want a community that embraces diversity, a community made up of unique individuals who have things to learn from each other.

College admissions officers look at academics and extracurricular activities.

Now the academic parts of the application—GPA and SAT or ACT scores—go a long way to answering the two questions above. They tell colleges a good deal about a student’s academic aptitude and intellectual interests; they also, as we’ve seen, provide more than a few hints about a student’s academic character.

So what does a student’s extracurricular activities add to this picture?

Extracurricular records give admissions officers a sense of students’ idiosyncratic and unique interests. Although there are only so many variations to the high school curriculum, and although students can only choose from so many testing options, extracurricular records can be utterly original.

What makes an extracurricular record stand out?

The truly impressive extracurricular record, however, stands out not because there’s something there that nobody else has ever done.

After all, as the saying goes, there’s nothing truly new under the sun!

The truly impressive extracurricular record stands out because it’s a record of a student’s passions, rather than a list of hobbies. Genuine passion can’t be faked.

It can be attested to by the amount of time and energy that a student dedicates to pursuing an activity, or the imagination and creativity with which the student engages in a project, or by the student’s incessant commitment to finding ways to share certain experiences with others.

Our case studies below will help students understand how passion comes through in an extracurricular résumé. But first, here are four additional things that admissions officers like to see in a student’s extracurricular record:

  1. Breadth and depth
  2. Volunteerism
  3. Leadership and initiative
  4. Local participation and action
  5. A global perspective

Breadth and depth

Broadly speaking, there are two types of extracurricular profiles I see: the student who only does a few things but does them “deeply” and the student who does a lot of things but does all of them “superficially.” The first student has depth; the second breadth.

What do colleges prefer?

Martha Allman, Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University claims,

“In general, colleges seek depth of involvement rather than breadth; therefore, we advise students to focus time and attention on a few activities in which they excel.”

Furthermore, Stanford’s Admissions website explains their approach to extracurricular activities:

“Students often assume our primary concern is the number of activities in which a student participates. In fact, an exceptional depth of experience in one or two activities may demonstrate your passion more than minimal participation in five or six clubs. You may also hold down a job or have family responsibilities. These are as important as any other extracurricular activity. In general, we want to understand the impact you have had at your job, in your family, in a club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you.”

What this means is that, with the exception of students with truly outstanding talents (the nationally-ranked golfer, for example), colleges typically want to see students falling somewhere in between the two types we introduced above. Students should have some defining passion, but they should also be three-dimensional, well-rounded individuals.

There is no need for students to load up on activities that they don’t care about: students shouldn’t feel that they need to participate in a sport and play an instrument and paint on the side and have a pet “cause.” The important thing is for students to have something they really enjoy and something they really care about. As Jeffrey Brenzel, former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale explains,

“Do things that you truly enjoy in high school, rather than trying to outguess an admissions committee. Why? Because what you truly enjoy, you’re probably going to be good at, and you’re probably going to get better at—whether it’s one activity, two activities, three activities. The important thing is: are you getting something out of it? Are you enjoying it? Are you learning how to do it better? Has it taken you some places that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone?”

It is also important for students to display two specific character traits in their extracurricular activities: persistence and integrity. People often say, “Finish what you start.” That’s true of extracurricular activities.

While students don’t have to pursue everything for four straight years, they do want to demonstrate that they see things through, whether it’s a menial summer job or a commitment to tutoring for a year.

Community service and volunteerism

Colleges like to see students engage with their communities and try to make a difference.

This means that students should strive to take each of their major activities and add some community service dimension to it, and sustain their service over time. This will have the added benefit of drawing close connections between a student’s different activities and adding cohesion to a student’s extracurricular record as a whole.

For example, many students who play musical instruments participate in fundraising concerts. Others might teach music to underprivileged children in the community. These are great ways of using talents to give back to the community.

They also serve to link together a student’s community service and artistic activities, portraying a student who brings everything learned in one area of life to bear on all the other parts of life.

Leadership and initiative

In the past few years, we have seen the word “initiative” replace the word “leadership” as the big buzz word in admissions. But that’s because leadership is often misunderstood. It’s often confused with titles; therefore, many students seek positions with titles that don’t seem to mean very much and don’t lead to noticeable results.

Real leadership, on the other hand, involves initiative. It’s displayed when students actually take action and drive change. At its best, it is creative, courageous and risk-taking. There are obvious reasons why colleges are impressed by students who display genuine leadership. Students who possess this elusive trait in high school will be sure to be leaders on and off campus.

Here’s an example of poor leadership. Bill is president of the Spanish club. The Spanish club meets once a week in the Spanish teacher’s room for lunch. This activity is relatively valueless on the college application. Now if Bill were to develop this into a lunch-time exchange program, for example, with another school that has a lot of native Spanish-speaking ESL students, then this activity would suddenly have “impact” and Bill would be acting as a real leader.

Taking action and participating locally…

Stanford University’s Admissions writes, 

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“As we review each application, we pay careful attention to unique circumstances. We take into account family background, educational differences, employment and life experiences. By focusing on your achievements within context, we evaluate how you have excelled within your unique school environment and how you have taken advantage of what was available to you in your school and community.” 

The qualifier “within context” is very important. Let me explain.

Students are always encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities available to them in their own schools and communities. Whether seeking leadership opportunities or honors and awards, the first place a student should start is his or her own school. Why? Because colleges want students who will actively and eagerly contribute to the life of the college community.

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For example, lots of students participate in speech and debate. But I get some students who, rather than joining their school speech and debate teams, go to expensive tutoring centers and private enrichment programs. Now the only person who benefits from this is the student, who could just as easily develop his or her skills on the school team, helping out teammates and bringing credit to the school at the same time. On the same note, I see lots of students who say that writing is their passion but don’t contribute to the school literary magazine or newspaper. Where’s the evidence of the passion?

Participating in opportunities made available at school and locally can also lend credibility to a student’s achievements and attest to the student’s talents. For example, accruing honors in privately-organized speech and debate programs can’t compare to winning awards at school speech and debate tournaments, which are held up to nationally established standards.

…but seeking a global perspective

The world really is getting smaller and smaller every day. It is important for students to remain informed world citizens with a basic understanding of what’s going on around the world and how most of the world lives.

They may be surprised to know how much this matters. I’ve read lots of well-meaning admissions essays in which the student’s lack of perspective is painfully obvious. Martha Blevins Allman, Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University, gives this advice:

Concentrate not on being the best candidate, but on being the best person. Pay attention to what is going on in the world around you. If you do those things, not only will the world be a better place because you’re in it, your greatest admissions worry will be choosing which college to pick from.

Students must proceed with caution when seeking to write about their volunteer activities and service overseas, not only because it’s an increasingly common, even cliche topic, but because it can express entitlement, rather than exhibiting the true reflection and growth that could show from the experience.

Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Admissions at Duke University, elaborates on this:

The idea of other people who are less advantaged being used as the vehicle for someone’s increased self-awareness is how [writing about volunteering or a trip overseas] can come across sometimes, and I think that can be difficult to pull off.

Whether by taking courses, or by traveling, or by participating in a service activity with a global reach (fundraising for worldwide disaster relief, for example), students should seek to broaden their horizons and in a continued, sustained fashion.

Sara Harberson, former admissions officer at U Penn and a former Dean of Admissions herself, admitted that “colleges are more impressed by long-term commitments to volunteerism or causes than by a one-off trip that a student’s parents paid for, which looks more like a resumé builder than a demonstrated, long-term commitment to a cause.”

Students should balance continued activism within their local communities with an honest attempt to educate themselves about the greater world around them.

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