It is widely acknowledged that demonstrating interests through extracurricular activities is a critical element of a robust college application, but students and parents are often unsure which process to follow. I encourage students to identify an interest and use it to build an extracurricular project plan. Projects should be selected based on fit, have a mix of milestones ranging from easy to difficult, show a clear link to each other, and incrementally increase in independence & difficulty.
Consider a STEM student we worked with, who started a biomedical device company going into her senior year in high-school. This is an impressive accomplishment, but how did she get there? Her interest in biomedical engineering can be traced back to her middle school coursework and activities in science & programming.
In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, she took a college-level course in bioengineering and enrolled in a tech camp. During her freshman, sophomore, and junior academic years, she participated in her school’s robotics club and took biology, computer science and engineering classes. Over the next two summers, she completed research internships at university research labs. Finally, she used the knowledge gained from these experiences to start a venture. It might sound remarkable that a senior in high school was able to start a company, but when we review her background and experience, we see it was the culmination of incremental steps, implemented over multiple years
This example student illustrates several guiding principles I follow to help craft extracurricular plans, for both STEM and non-STEM students, with projects that are based on individual passions.
1. Develop interests and select one to focus on. Start in middle school, if possible
There are many ways to identify and explore one’s interests. One student started by taking introductory engineering classes and participating in after-school programs utilizing maker technology like Arduino or Raspberry PI, for example.
Students can enroll in courses & programs both in and out of school, complete online tutorials and classes on sites like Udemy or Code Academy, attend local meetups or symposia like Digital NYC, and subscribe to online subject aggregators & publications like Y Combinator, for example.
Once students have identified an area of interest, they should determine if they find the day-to-day responsibilities compelling. Students may find a domain interesting, but not know what it is like in professional practice. Some students might be surprised to learn that cancer biology research, for example, is similar to investigating the molecular biology of other diseases and often has little to no clinic or patient interaction. To engage passionately in a profession, students need to be excited about its daily responsibilities.
2. Select projects for your extracurricular plan by prioritizing fit.
When selecting projects, students should prioritize fit: alignment to previous coursework & experience, environment, and milestones. At each stage, this student engaged with a project that: was commensurate with her current education and skill set, provided the proper support given her age & maturity level, and would likely result in achievable goals (e.g. submission to Intel Science and Engineering Fair).
It’s important to work with established professionals who have a successful track record in their field, but organizational clout should be a secondary concern to those outlined above.
3. Ensure each project has a “milestone mix”.
For each project in an extracurricular plan, there should be a milestone mix, with goals ranging from easily attainable to challenging. Consider the company started by our student: a reach goal was to have 20 customers within the first 3 months, while an easily attainable goal was to organize a symposium. With a milestone mix, students have a greater chance of achieving at least some demonstrable progress. Projects, whether they are research, starting a company, or an independent initiative, can often run into unpredictable circumstances, so it’s best not to count on a single goal.
4. Link the activities in your extracurricular plan.
Colleges want students who can identify and nurture interests. With our student, her coursework, hands-on activities, clubs, research and company were all related to her interest in biotechnology. Of course, it would also be fine to focus on one activity type and vary the domains; for example a student could learn about business & entrepreneurship and start multiple companies. The key is to maintain a constant thread.
After executing the plan, students should be able to explain the rationale behind each step. This is similar to explaining one’s education and career trajectory in a job interview: it needs to sound cohesive. Of course, pivots happen (students interests change!), but they shouldn’t be executed lightly and one should be able to justify them. Students who execute projects in a broad range of disciplines and activity types appear scattered and unfocused.
5. As your plan advances, increasingly focus on unique and independent work.
Our student started with general coursework, progressed to hands-on programs and clubs, completed research internships where she was assigned projects, and then started a company to commercialize her own technology. In other words, with each step, she challenged herself by taking on greater responsibility, technical difficulty, and independence.
Her trajectory started broadly and progressed towards increasingly specific and unique tasks. She learned foundational concepts and knowledge through coursework. Programs, clubs, and research provided hands-on experiences with assistance to varying degrees. Finally, she gained enough experience to found her own company and serve as the CEO & technical lead.
When students continue to focus principally on academic courses and programs going into their junior and senior years, instead of expanding into independent projects, they are provided little opportunity to stand out in the college admission process.
When planning extracurricular activities or projects, it’s important for students to take time to research their options, develop a plan, and consider how these endeavors fit into their personal and academic goals. Students should choose projects that show their strengths and tell their unique story. By demonstrating interest in a certain area of study and producing evidence of impact and growth, students can best position themselves to gain admission to their top-choice colleges. In addition, tailoring an extracurricular project plan is a skill students will continue to use throughout their lives; it is similar to crafting a professional career narrative.