Students and parents stress out about the extracurricular activities and leadership section of the college application. It is, after all, one of the few pieces of the application that students are in control of throughout their high school years. Students decide how to spend their free time and, in the senior year, how to present this in the application. Extracurricular involvement will generally help students in the admissions process. Occasionally extraordinary involvement and achievement can override weaker test scores or academics. On the flip side, a student with excellent grades and test scores but no outside interests may be viewed as dull, someone who may spend all of his/her time in college at the library or in a dorm room.
There are numerous articles, checklists and apps out there telling students what they need to do to get into college these days. Students must demonstrate leadership, show commitment to their communities, be well-rounded but simultaneous highly-specialized. Colleges want students who have shown long-term commitments to a small number of clubs, activities and causes over students who occasionally sign the attendance sheet for lots of activities. Students are lead to think that there is a magic formula of involvement that colleges are looking for in the review process. Far too often students are given false information, misleading them into highlighting and overvaluing certain types of involvement and leaving out important details for activities they think are less valuable in the admissions process.
Below are some common misconceptions and myths about activity resumes, coming directly from conversations with students and parents over the years.
-To be admitted to a university, I have to have a lot of community service hours.
This is, for the most part, false. And this is probably the biggest myth out there. Colleges recognize that not all students have the luxury of spending their free time volunteering with a local organization. Despite what students have been told, they don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to teach English in a far-off land to get into college these days. Admissions officers recognize that high schoolers may have to help support the family after school, or that not everyone enjoys hands-on community service work.
However, there may be some cases where volunteer work is at the top of the list. If a student is applying to Jesuit colleges (which generally have strong service and social justice missions), they will likely look for community involvement. Community service work shows alignment with the Jesuit mission of improving the community through actions. Additionally, if a student is applying for direct admission to a nursing or other health professions program which requires patient interaction, admissions officers might look for related experience working as a hospital volunteer or with a community health organization.
If a student has truly has been committed to an organization or cause throughout his/her high school years, this isn’t to say that they should leave this out of the application. Include any activities done over a longer period of time. Students should not waste a spot on the activity log describing small project they did for a few hours one Saturday afternoon two years ago. The quality of the experience and length of commitment are key to helping students stand out here.
-Independent interests or hobbies are not really extracurricular activities.
Is your student a voracious reader of a certain genre of literature? Does she spend her free time learning how to code by watching YouTube tutorials? Just because these aren’t formal activities doesn’t mean students should leave them off of the activities section. Colleges are looking for students who are curious about the world around them. Exploring interests independently shows a student can take initiative and is a researcher. These are excellent qualities that show that a student is ready to take on the challenges of the independent learning structure of college classes. If possible, students should share a concrete accomplishment from this independent exploration. Some examples: Active Instagram photography account with 1000+ followers. Has read more than 30 books on a specific topic and considered “expert” among friends and family. Plans to continue studying this topic in college.
-Paid work does not count as an activity and should be left out of a college application.
False, false, false. In fact, just the opposite. This is actually one of the rarest activities to see in an application these days! Even though a student may be slightly embarrassed about that job at Trader Joe’s, a part-time job is an extremely valuable learning experience. Students should highlight their achievements on the job, including praise from a manager or any formal promotions they’ve received. Students might even consider writing a full-length essay about the lessons they learned during a summer job if they care to elaborate further or have interesting stories to share. And often if a student has a part-time job throughout the school year, it explains more limited involvement in other types of activities. Don’t devalue this!
-Colleges don’t want to admit religious students, and writing about religion is too controversial.
If a student is active in church or a religious group, he should definitely include this in the application. Colleges are looking for students with a variety of beliefs that they will share on campus and in classroom discussions. However, if the student goes to church once a year or vaguely recalls having a bat mitzvah a few years ago, this might not merit a spot on the activity resume. Stay away from controversial or polarizing topics (gay marriage, abortion, capital punishment, etc.) when writing about involvement in religious activities to avoid alienating the reader.
So, what’s the point?
Admissions officers will only spend a few short minutes reviewing the activity log and/or resume, so students must make sure they clearly outline the activity, commitment level and role. Admissions officers are truly looking for students who show deep involvement in a few things as opposed to students with a huge range of narrow involvement. They are seeking students who have developed into leaders through an activity – increasing responsibility is key! What they want to know after reading this section is how the student will contribute to the social and extracurricular life on their campus. They want to find students who will continue their involvement in college and make the university community even stronger.