You are what you do!

For those who believe college applications are processed by some magic formula in which GPA’s and test scores are added up, you are (mostly) right. Seventy-five percent of an admissions decision is based on straight data (this is an average from a study by the NACAC, the actual importance varies from university to university). Candidates are reduced to mere numbers – how many APs? What’s the GPA? What’s the critical writing score?

But GPAs and test scores aren’t the whole picture, and the last 25% of that admissions decision is made up of some very important pieces that can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.

So what’s left? There’s the essay (try this if you are looking for help with your essays), the letters of recommendation, the resume, and your extracurricular activities. Extracurriculars (as they are known around the office) are anything and everything you are doing outside of your academic life, and they go a long way in helping decide what you are really all about in ways the numbers simply cannot. Extracurriculars help the admissions officer figure out how you might contribute to her campus, and how you will spend your time while in college, presumably in similar ways to that which you did in high school.

So what should your student be doing and when should they be doing it? Let me answer those questions in reverse order: students should have started, like, yesterday (i.e. get moving now). College applicants can include any extracurriculars students have participated in from ninth grade on, so starting right away is best. Beginning early is essential for two reasons: it enriches the student’s life in important ways, helping them to cultivate maturity, and it allows ample time to acquire leadership experience.

Leadership is a glaring weakness on many applications, and here’s why: if you wait until senior year (or junior year even) to join the Robotics club, you aren’t going to waltz in and be crowned president. You are (probably) just going to be member. Those leadership roles that are worth the time and effort require you to be invested years before assuming them. So start early. Like now.

Now, as to which extracurriculars are best, the answer is the ones that the student is most interested in. Really, truly, I mean that. Never do (or force your child to do) something just because it looks good (or you think it will look good) on a college application. Students don’t flourish in those environments; they don’t learn, they don’t grow. Instead, have the courage to let them pursue their passion (I know, terrifying)—but by all means, make sure they choose a passion. And Call of Duty is not a passion (in most cases, at least). That’s the compromise: they get to choose, but it has to be something meaningful, significant, stimulating, challenging—something where they can contribute to have a positive effect on others and themselves.

So what exactly can they do? There are way more options out there than you might think. I work with many students who aren’t jazzed about sports, aren’t inspired by theater, or aren’t breathlessly excited about slam poetry. So what’s a kid to do? Create his own opportunity.

I love when students do this. It shows initiative, gumption, and passion—huge plusses in life (and the college admissions game). Here are a couple rock star examples from kids I’m working with this year.

One stellar young lady wants to pursue a degree in computer science. She’s doing cool things like teaching herself to code using apps on her phone, but she is lacking in extracurriculars and leadership. After a little brainstorming and planning, she came up with the idea to use her passion to teacher seniors in assisted living centers about technology that will allow them to connect with their families across the country. Ever try to Face Time with grandma? That’s the problem she’s trying to solve. This project is in its beginning stages but has so much potential, and I am seriously excited to see what she does with it.

Another student was struck by the hunger statistics she learned about in school that show one in five children are living in food-insecure households. Her response? Start an organization to collect unused food from restaurants like Panera that would otherwise be thrown away and deliver it to local food pantries and homeless shelters. Lots of work cut out for her here, but it’s so awesome on so many levels.

Help your child find an area of interest and figure out how he can use it to make the world a little brighter. He will learn so much in the process and end up with a heck of a line item for his extracurricular resume (or better yet, something to write about in his personal statement).

Questions? Want help? Email me