The Inside Story of How Colleges Evaluate Extra-Curriculars

May 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Admission Tips

As college admissions have become drastically more competitive, the focus on extra-curricular activities has increased as well. Students today are getting involved in their high schools, communities, and on the playing field and in performance much more than ever before. Parents are programming their children from very early on to “get involved.” High School counselors preach everyday, “more clubs, more activities, more service.” Some of my clients have given me resumes that are 5 pages in length! And they haven’t even graduated high school yet!

At the same time, many students get overwhelmed by the wide variety of extra-curricular options and fail to get involved with anything in depth. Other students will ignore extra-curriculars entirely until they finally tune in to the message from their parents and counselors in their junior or senior years.

Many students believe that the more activities they are involved in, the better off they are in the eyes of college admission personnel. They’re wrong. Top colleges are very aware of resume overload and in fact discourage students from spreading themselves too thin. When a student is involved in 10 clubs, plays 2 sports, and is in the orchestra, school play, and a rock band, the admissions people have one of several reactions. Either they think the student is exaggerating and being dishonest or they think the student is participating just to fill a resume.

Worse still is that an admissions officer thinks that a student has not made smart choices about how they allocate their time and that the student is a compulsive join-er. If, in addition to this overly robust resume, a student has top grades, then admissions staff know that there’s a fly in the ointment. Either the student is not really spending as much time on extra-curriculars as advertised or the school’s academics don’t measure up. After all, if a student is spending 30 hours per week in extra-curriculars, how could he or she have any time or energy to study?

So, how does a student go about crafting a resume that stands out?

As you’ve heard in many other arenas, quality trumps quantity.  A student who shows leadership and consistency in 3 or 4 areas is in position to impress an admission committee. In addition, if a student can find one or two capstone projects or experiences from those 3 or 4 areas, then he or she has a really impressive resume.

I tell client families everyday, get started early. If you wait until your junior year to get serious about extra-curriculars, then you’re late to the game. Plan your extra-curricular outline before you make your first step on a high school campus. A good extra-curricular plan contains the following:

  • Significant community service time in each of the 4 years, 40 hours per year is a good starting number. If the student can have a capstone experience or leadership role in a project, even better.
  • Four years of participation in either athletic or performing arts activities. Again, note that consistency is important. One doesn’t have to choose the same activity each year, but one is better served by having at least 2 years participation in one of the activities. Note, this doesn’t have to be a school-sanctioned activity like a school team or a production from the school’s theater department. Private tennis lessons, participation in a community arts group, or tae kwon doe classes are definitely options too.
  • Two years of participation in an activity related a student’s area of future study. One doesn’t have to nail down the activity exactly nor the area of future study either. What one should do at minimum is to choose the rough area of study (arts, humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, math, business, etc.) and participate in a related activity. For example, if one thought he or she would study the hard sciences in the future, then one could intern at a chemistry lab, or take a summer course in biology, or start a school geology club. Again, exact matches are not crucial, but rather a broad example of the serious pursuit of an intellectual interest.
  • A capstone experience related to a student’s passion. What this means is a significant project, activity, or commitment to an area that the student is passionate about. College admission personnel are wowed by students who pursue an interest to its maximum. Examples of this are: recording a demo song or 2 if a student is interested in music, creating a local project to collect and donate food to the homeless, pursuing a project to send 1,000 letters of protest over human rights to the Iranian embassy, leading a project to rebuild a local playground, teaching an art class for developmentally delayed children, self-publilshing a book of poetry, starting and administering a local teen rugby tournament, writing a 30 page research paper on the economics of micro-credit. What is key here is that a student goes above and beyond the norm and pursues an interest outside of the school, completely of his or her own doing.

In today’s hyper-competitive college admission landscape, a good resume can make or break your chances of admission. You’ve got the inside info, now go out and make it happen.


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