The Big 3 of College Admissions, Part 3 of 3

If you read Part 1 and Part 2 of our series on the most important components of the college admissions formula, you likely noticed that 2 of the Big 3 are attempts at measuring a student’s academic potential. While it seems reasonable that admissions officers want to be sure prospective students are equipped for success in the classroom, they also know there is much more to life than simply passing tests and making sufficient grades. That is why the other top factor is not only a relief to most students, but it’s also the most enjoyable to achieve. Today, let’s focus on extracurricular activities.

As admissions officers read through hundreds of student files and attempt to distinguish those applicants from one another, their primary goal is to gain a quick understanding of each student’s unique story and identify those who would be a great fit for that particular college; and a cumulative list of activities is usually the most efficient way to tell that story. This is no surprise because it’s exactly how we get to know each other on a personal level. What are the questions we always ask when trying to know someone better? Don’t they usually revolve around the common themes of “What do you do, where do you go, what are you involved in, and with whom do you spend your time?” From just a few basic questions like these, we can begin to understand a person’s story based on the priorities, values, commitments, and habits revealed by their answers. Your list of extracurricular activities is essentially jumpstarting that conversation with the admissions committee and sharing your unique story.

I want to clarify that we use the term “extracurricular” in its most generic sense, meaning anything outside the traditional classroom. It includes all school-related activities, as well as any meaningful or notable involvement away from school. Some refer to these activities or involvement simply as a student’s resume, but that term can sometimes limit a student’s creativity or create misunderstanding between students and professionals. We think activities is the appropriate word because it captures the idea that a student’s involvement in any activity (for fun, work, or service) should be included in this list. At school, for example, students may participate in athletics, fine arts, clubs, organizations, or service groups. Away from school, the list could include church activities, community organizations, part-time jobs, volunteer service, hobbies, summer camps, mission trips, or any number of possibilities. One simple way to think about it is to ask the question, “Besides attending class, how else have you spent your time in high school?” Once you’ve answered that question thoroughly, your activities list will be nearly complete.

It is important to track any and all activities throughout high school, but it is more important to understand not all activities have equal value. I tend to think of activities as good, better, and best. As an example, it is good for a student to play sports or participate in fine arts. Those co-curricular activities are vital to the educational process because they create opportunities to learn life skills and help bring balance to life; therefore, they should be listed on a college resume or application. Better than simply participating, though, is for a student to commit to their chosen sport or fine art over a long period of time, especially if they stick with it all the way through school. And to improve on that experience even more, it would be best for the student who is committed to sports or fine arts to invest through service or leadership in that specific activity. Think about the story this tells. If participation is good, commitment and perseverance is better, and targeted service is best; then we can know something about a student’s character and values just from his or her choice of activity level.

A common mistake many families make is to believe the myth of “well-roundedness” and take it to the extreme. Yes, it’s certainly good to be involved in more than one activity; but when students take on too many unrelated activities in the name of being well-rounded, they are left with superficial involvement and a broad resume that obviously lacks depth in anything particular. Rather than spreading too thin, students are much wiser to find the activities or organizations where they are passionate and successful, and make deeper investments there. A similar mistake would be to predict or imagine which types of activities are more important to the college and make extracurricular decisions based on those predictions, rather than allowing students to grow and thrive in the areas of their own interest. If you are looking for ideas on what activities may stand out, though, I do have a few suggestions. From my experience, it seems that meaningful community service outweighs competitive or performance activity, and students with experience in leadership and part-time employment usually get more attention. Feel free to talk with any of the guidance staff if you have questions or want to discuss it further.

So, here is the practical part that every family can use. To help tell their stories and build strong college applications, students should get involved in school, church, and the community, and they should do so in ways that are interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding. No two students are created the same, and they shouldn’t feel obligated to pursue the same activities. And while they’re busy making the most of those extracurricular opportunities, don’t forget to keep a file or make a list of everything beginning with the summer before 9th grade. We’ll have to create an actual resume with all those activities before senior year starts, and your notes from home will make that job much easier!

Now that you know what factors are most important for college admission, I hope each student will feel free to pursue his or her passions, experience less anxiety, and enjoy the journey. We certainly look forward to walking through it with you.

For your family and God’s glory,

Joshua Webb
Director of College Guidance
Grace Community School