Rethinking extracurricular activities

College prep: internshipsWhen it comes to extracurricular activities, most high school students and parents think they know what’s required. To get into a good college, you need more than good grades and test scores. You must fill your schedule with extracurricular activities—the more, the better. If you can afford it, your summers should involve taking advanced academic classes on college campuses and “community service” trips to help poor people in remote corners of the globe. Right?

Actually, half right. But also half wrong. As so often happens, popular stereotypes based on just part of the picture are misleading. You really need to understand the whole picture to get it straight. But what is the whole picture?

There’s no doubt that top colleges emphasize high GPAs and test scores when making their admissions decisions. They also want to see that students have challenged themselves by taking honors or AP classes, if they were offered at their schools. Students and parents have that piece of college admissions race right. At selective colleges, these sorts of achievements are good. In fact, if you want to be in the running, they’re pretty much required.

It’s the other piece of the package that so many people don’t quite get. That’s the piece involving how you spend your time outside of class. Today most students talk about this in terms of “extracurricular activities.” It’s a convenient phrase but not always the best one. It encourages us to narrow our thinking, just when we should be expanding it.

Going beyond school-based extracurricular activities

Mention extracurricular activities and most people think about school-based options: track & field, basketball, football, cheerleading, high school debating teams, student council, robotics clubs, honor societies, math leagues and science Olympiads. They also think about peer tutoring, UNICEF, Red Cross clubs and various fund raising and charity projects.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these activities. They are all good things to do and to have on your resume. But the problem is that tens of thousands of other high school students are doing the same things. Simply saying you ran track or did peer tutoring isn’t going to make you stand out from the crowd.

In an effort to distinguish themselves from that crowd, many students now pack their schedules ever more densely with conventional extracurriculars, like too many outfits squeezed into a carry-on suitcase. They think they’ll beat the competition by simply doing more of the same. But that game’s very hard to win.

Let’s take Zoe, a fictional example, but one that represents many students. Not only does Zoe play lacrosse and soccer, but she’s also got a full agenda of extracurricular activities: she’s on the student council, the debating team and the school newspaper. She’s in the math and investment clubs and helps organize the blood drive and refugee aid at her school. On Saturday mornings, after running five miles, she tutors sixth graders, and on Sunday she helps out with the children at her church. That’s on top of all the extra homework she’s got, for three AP classes each semester. Somehow she manages to keep her GPA around 3.87.

Think galloping stallion, not trained pony

Nobody would doubt Zoe is a smart, nice, hardworking and conscientious kid. But is she a shoo-in for Princeton, Brown, Swarthmore or the other super-selective schools on her list? Probably not, unless she’s a legacy applicant and is being recruited by a coach. The problem is there are just too many high-achieving students who are jumping through all the hoops.

Often the kids without special connections who do get into these colleges haven’t spent high school following the standard extracurricular activities track. They’re teenagers who’ve cultivated a passion or deep interest, outside of school structures. Rather than choosing from a menu of options offered them, they’ve forged their own direction, based on what they love to do most. This may involve anything, from song writing or video game design to political activism or scientific research.

How have you proven your commitment?

From an admissions perspective, the field a teenager chooses for their extracurricular activities is sometimes less important than the commitment with which they delve into it. And it’s important to demonstrate real commitment. It’s one thing to say you long to be an engineer, but much more persuasive when you spent your summer at a lab, testing hydraulic equipment.

Sometimes the secret ingredient is independent research. College admissions officers may give an applicant points for taking physics honors classes, but they’re likely to be more wowed by someone who’s spent the summer in a library, devouring books about string theory and writing a blog about it. It’s the difference between duty and passion, a follower and a leader, a scribe and a poet.

Teens who choose their own paths can face special challenges. Often they must structure their own activities and set their own goals—not easy for many kids. When it’s time to apply to college, they must convince admissions officers their achievements are real. That might involve winning awards, submitting portfolios, writing essays or getting recommendations from knowledgeable experts. But the results can pay off with a profile that makes the student unique.

It’s really life you’re preparing for

Beyond the benefits for college admissions, students who strike out on their own in their extracurricular activities are likely to reap benefits throughout their lives from the confidence and sense of independence developed during their teenage years. That’s in addition to the wealth of skills and specialized knowledge they often develop as a result.

Long before the college admissions game became so intense, exceptional kids were spending their time in a wide variety of interesting ways. In those days, students didn’t talk about “extracurricular activities”–they talked about about “free time.”

And that’s a concept we need to get back to. It’s important to remember that your time really does belong to you. The way you spend it is a result of choices you make. You don’t have to check off the boxes on somebody else’s menu; you can create your own. If you do that with discipline and focus, many of the top colleges will be impressed. More importantly, you’ll feel the life you’re living is your own.

For more information contact The College Strategist

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About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.