Depth over breadth: How to make your extracurricular activities count for college admissions
By now you already know that it’s not just about academics. Having a 4.0 GPA doesn’t guarantee you admission to any college, nor do perfect SATs. While you are onto something, you need to rethink your approach in answering the question, “What do selective colleges look for in extracurricular activities?”
Stop looking for checklists
A simple Google search will yield results providing you with checklists of ‘The Best Extracurricular Activities for Your College App’, and so on. While these can be general guides, don’t look to them as a surefire way to gain admission into selective colleges.
It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you do with the opportunities you choose to pursue.
Look through the eyes of the admissions committee. If you come across an applicant who, say, had a leadership position in her student government, volunteered at a local shelter, ran track, and interned at a start-up, might that strike you as a little staged? Also, this checklist approach doesn’t differentiate you, nor does it say enough about you as a person, or what you’re capable of.
The Spike Approach
Work on establishing yourself in a specific area of interest. In other words, specialize. This might seem counter-intuitive, but being well-rounded could actually hurt you. Ever heard of a jack of all trades, master of none? Selective colleges are not looking for individuals who merely dabble in different areas. They are looking for individuals who will someday be leaders capable of making an impact within their field. By employing the spike approach, you prove to them that you have strong potential to achieve exactly that.
Specialization is something that will set you apart from other applicants in an authentic way. It is something that showcases effort, focus, discipline, and a passion to grow in YOUR area of interest. The greater the depth you develop in your area of interest, the greater your ability will be to demonstrate it through essays, interviews and letters of recommendation. Keep in mind that area of interest does not have to mean your chosen area of study. The goal is to demonstrate that you are a person of potential, regardless of where you focus your efforts. For that reason, it will look different for every individual.
Figuring out your spike
No, we’re not being cheesy. The whole point of a spike is to feature what YOU are passionate about. Don’t think about which activities you think the admissions committee wants to see on your application. They don’t care! Think about it this way. If you didn’t need to worry about homework, studying for tests, or any other current commitments, what would you do with that free time? (If the answer is watch Netflix and play video games all day, then you might need to think harder). Here are a few examples:
Academic: Let’s say you’re a sucker for the sciences. Don’t just limit yourself to good grades. Perhaps reach out to a professor to support them in their research or to mentor you in conducting your own research project, and work on getting it showcased or published. You could also look out for selective competitions that are recognized within that field.
Sports: Even if you are not looking to land a sports scholarship, don’t discredit your interest in your sport. In addition to being committed to your practices and tournaments, think about how to approach developing your skills (ie your process) or create a deeper impact through this interest. You could organize charity sports events to raise funding for a cause you believe in, or establish a mentorship program through your club. Or, you could spearhead a local health and fitness campaign. The possibilities are endless.
Non-traditional: Just because your interest doesn’t fit into a traditional category, does not mean you can’t use it to showcase your potential. For instance, if you’re passionate about fashion and beauty, consider creating content that people will care about on the web. Start a blog or YouTube channel and find a unique angle to cut through the noise, proving that you know how to think outside of the box. Maybe start a pop-up makeover booth to raise money. Or research how to integrate sustainability into the fashion industry. Regardless of what you choose to do, make the most of the experience.
“Ugh, who has time for that?”
While your current extracurricular activities may not be hurting your application, per se, they also may not be helping either. They’re taking up time that could have been used more productively. So, in that sense, they are hurting you.
Think back to the interest that you decided to focus on and reevaluate whether or not each of your current activities fit into the picture. If they don’t, and if you were simply doing it to check a box, then stop. Or hey, cut back on those social media and Netflix binge-watching hours, and you’re all set to focus on building that spike. Keep in mind that there are only 24 hours in a day and any time you are spending on extracurricular activities at a superficial level are taking away time from your ability to drill down more deeply into other activities. Here is a great rubric for making decisions about how to manage your time.
The key takeaway here is to go deep, not wide. Selective colleges are less interested in students who can do a little bit of everything. They want students who are going to make waves in their future careers, whatever they may be. Focus on what you’re passionate about, and go be great at it.
If you're looking for help planning your mix of extracurriculars (or implementing a longer-term admissions strategy with clear goals and objectives), talk to one of our team members about customizing a strategy that’s right for you.
Second, if you’re ready to dive deeper into your college application, check out the guide that our college admissions experts put together to help you navigate all the criteria admissions committees look at.