The Truth About Extracurricular Activities: Going the Extra Mile

The Huffington Post

By Dr. Kat Cohen
April 20, 2012

As a college admissions counselor, one of the most popular questions I get asked is “What activities do colleges want to see on a resume?” The good news (or bad, depending on your perspective) is that there is no correct answer. There isn’t a specific ratio of community service, athletics, scholarship, or arts-related activities that admissions officers are seeking in prospective students.

Despite this, a student’s activities outside of the classroom are more important than ever. Because many students who apply to the most selective schools have stellar academic achievements (3,800 students who applied to Harvard this year were ranked first in their class, and the school only accepted 2,032 students overall), it is a candidate’s personal attributes that can make or break one’s chances of gaining admission. Admissions readers look to the likes and dislikes, passions and aversions of their candidates, which are expressed in several places, including the resume and application essays.

Contrary to popular belief, colleges are not looking for well-rounded students. Colleges are looking to construct a well-rounded student body, made up of angular students or specialists. I always tell my students it is better to be involved in a few activities wholeheartedly, for several hours a week over four years, than nine or ten activities superficially, changing from year to year (or what I call “a Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none”).

As with your courses and grades, colleges like to see consistency and commitment when it comes to your extracurricular activities. A less than one-hour per week activity (much like summer activities that last less than three weeks) will usually be considered insignificant. Similarly, if you have been doing something since 9th grade, don’t drop it in 11th grade. The quality and duration of your activities are important; do something you love and do it over a long period of time. You should always go beyond the minimum participation requirement, which should be an easy accomplishment if you’re doing something that makes you happy.

So how do you choose which few activities to commit yourself to?

First, think about your goals. Start compiling your resume in ninth grade and remain aware of how each activity fits into the bigger picture. Do you want to study journalism? Write for the school newspaper. Thinking about a major in engineering? Join the robotics club. You should also consider how you can get involved in the community while doing what you love. There are plenty of ways to serve others while developing your interests and talents. If your school or community doesn’t offer an activity that matches your interests, consider starting your own organization or teaming up with local groups to accomplish what you would like to see done — if you can’t find it, found it!

By starting an activity or organization, you are also leaving a legacy. I often say to students, “If I took you out of your school or community tomorrow, what would be missing? What lasting impact have you made?” Admissions officers want to see that you have used your activities to make an impact on others. This indicates to an admissions officer what lasting contribution you are going to make to collegiate life.

I counseled a student who came to me as a sophomore and was interested in education and immigration. Throughout high school she focused on deepening these interests: she created an independent reading curriculum on the juvenile justice system in her home state, conducted a research project with a state senator, interned with a judge, and volunteered at a program that served as an alternative to youth incarceration. She also served as editor-in-chief for her school newspaper, for which she was able to write about the issues that were important to her. She applied early action to Yale and is now studying in the school’s Ethics, Politics, and Economics department.

When it comes time to fill out your college applications, be proud of who you are and all that you have achieved. It is up to you to accurately express your involvement and impact to an admissions committee. Everything you do, especially outside the classroom, tells an admissions committee what kind of a person you are. From the quality and duration of your participation in certain activities, your reader will gain a more in-depth understanding of your personality and character. Don’t try to mold yourself into something you are not or spread yourself too thin among activities that neither interest nor benefit you. The truth is, what colleges want to see in your application is you!

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