For more than a decade, I have been an admissions representative for my undergraduate college. This means that I interview 5-10 high school seniors each fall and winter who have applied to my alma mater, and I rate them.
While my college is not one of the most elite in the nation, it’s elite enough that every applicant gets interviewed by the admissions staff or an alumnus volunteer like me. And I can assure you that extracurricular activities are a tiny part of our decision-making process.
In fact, grades and test scores account for probably 80% of the decision on whether to accept a student. The numbers also include performance in honors courses and the reputation that your child’s high school has built through the achievements of previous graduates who attended the same college. Everything else covers that final 20%, including: a wonderfully original and enlightened essay; a sparkling interview; a special talent; and extracurricular activities.
So, my primary advice is that your child participates in extracurricular activities for sheer enjoyment and personal growth. Don’t do them to pad the high school resume. It’s simply not worth the stress and bother, if the activity isn’t worthwhile in the first place.
However, here are a few thoughts about how to maximize the appeal to college admissions folks of the activities that a student is doing (and enjoying)….
1. Get a leadership position. It’s a lot more impressive to be the president of the Environmental Club than to be a mere member. As president, you can talk about something you achieved – both in an essay and in an interview. Colleges love to see kids who are leaders.
2. Do the activity for more than a year. Therefore, if your child has been doing something for a few years, encourage him or her to stick with it through the college admissions process. Seeing a kid who’s added a bunch of activities as a high school junior is unimpressive. It’s obvious padding. Seeing a kid who has been in plays since the 7th grade is much more impressive – even if the kid is now burned out on acting and won’t pursue it in college.
3. If the extracurricular has an academic angle, indicate how this will be pursued in college. A student who is in the Math Club, but who says she is going to be a poet is giving off a contradictory set of signals. It demeans the caliber of the Math Club in the interviewer’s eyes (unless the kid is also Editor of the literary magazine, too).
4. Do a little advance research to find out how the college or university will enable you to continue to do your activity. Be prepared to ask an interviewer a couple of questions about it. In other words, if you did a summer job at a local radio station, ask about the college radio and TV stations. If you like volunteering for the homeless, ask about the school’s social services volunteer and academic programs.
5. Be honest about your limitations. Interviewers (and adults, in general) recognize that few high schoolers can do something of huge significance. There just isn’t much time, given all the other pressures you face. So don’t feel you have to exaggerate the impact of your volunteer work at the Humane Society; and be able to laugh about the failure of your Student Council to get the principal to change the stupid rules about lunch hours. Just talk about what you tried to do, and why you are excited about trying even more things in college.
6. Don’t hide an activity that you think isn’t academic enough. Be honest, be yourself. Let’s say that your major extracurricular activity is playing in a band with your buddies. You really work hard at it, practicing several times a week, writing songs, and even having a few gigs. Don’t hide this, in the mistaken belief that you will be seen as not academic material. Actually, your commitment will be applauded, and you will be seen as a well-rounded person. You are the person who brings life to a college campus. You are desirable.
I recognize that the college admissions process is stressful, and that the pressures to get into elite and near-elite universities are at an all-time peak. But the fact is you must be true to yourself, and your extracurriculars really represent what you are, and what you care about. So do them for the right reasons, not just to create an impression. And be honest with college admissions officers – because the college that likes what you have to offer is likely to be a college where you will be happy and successful.