THE ACTIVITY LIST I find it incredible that one of the most important components of the application is the one that many applicants donâ€™t bother with. Overall, colleges judge students roughly 60 to 80 percent on their academic record and 20 to 40 percent on their record of extracurricular accomplishments. Unfortunately, most school counselors donâ€™t know their students well enough to summarize a studentâ€™s on-campus leadership (not to mention any off-campus leadership that they would not know about at all) so it just doesnâ€™t get mentioned. Students usually content themselves with the bare bones activity list required on the common application. The problem is that many activities are unusual or require additional explanationâ€”it is simply impossible to fit any descriptive or explanatory notes into those tiny boxes on the provided grid. Granted, some activities and roles donâ€™t need much explanation, but what happens if you founded an organization to raise money for bone marrow transplants? Naturally the admissions office would want to know how you became interested in your activity and what your role was in it. What happens if your most important activities (say music, dance, art, or karate) are done completely out of school? How can you communicate your involvement to the admissions office? Enter, stage right, the activity list.
No matter what admissions officers tell you about the importance of leadership, keep in mind that academics are weighted more in the admissions process than extracurricular leadership. No matter how strong you are in leadership, you will still need at least a solid academic record for selective and highly selective schools. As a general rule, the less selective a college is, the more likely it is to give more weight to your extracurricular record. For the most selective schools, academics rule the day with extras a distant second. To put it another way, strong academics open the door while substantial talents may get you inside.
Given the bias toward academics, why is the activity list so important? Basically, it helps to differentiate between the thousands of generally strong students who apply to the top colleges. Between two solid students of roughly equal academic merit, doesnâ€™t it make sense that a master oboe player would be accepted over someone who has only participated in a few clubs or activities? For students who have become highly involved with their high school (or outside of their high school as we will discuss shortly), the activity list is the place to showcase how their free time is spent.
Colleges want high impact recruits. The college gets much more mileage out of a student who is either a sportâ€™s star, a great musician, a campus activist, or a published writer than it does out of someone who goes back to the dorm after class and channel surfs. You represent an investment for the college. Like any investor, colleges seek an aggressive return on their investment. Therefore, they look for students who are active, show leadership, have demonstrable skills in a specific area like sports or musicâ€”in short, those who will make a difference, those who will be remembered years later. Thatâ€™s why colleges also like a few celebrities if they can attract them since their mere presence brings positive press to the college. We all know that Chelsea Clinton chose Stanford and Amy Carter chose Brown and both schools have benefited tremendously from the association with presidents. Brooke Shieldsâ€™s tenure at Princeton probably did more for Princetonâ€™s endowment and academic ranking than all other efforts combined.
Initiative and Passion
Colleges look for students who show initiative and passion. These are the two mantras you should repeat to yourself over and over as you fill out your applications. Initiative in the context of the college application means going beyond basic requirements to achieve something of note. For example, letâ€™s take a student who loves studying languages. Unfortunately, his private school has very limited language courses, offering only Spanish, Latin, and French. After finishing the entire Latin curriculum, our student investigates his options at local schools and community colleges, finally finding a linguistics class and an advanced Latin class. In addition to his regular course work, this student drives himself to these classes five days a week. Heâ€™s so good at what he studies and so interested in foreign languages that he takes language classes on the side for three of the four years of high school, plus two summer immersion programs, both in intensive Japanese. By the end of high school, he scores 5 on both the Latin literature advanced placement tests (out of a possible 5), is quite good at Japanese, and garners incredible recommendations from his community college professors, who say heâ€™s one of the most natural linguists they have ever seen.
This is initiative. The student could have simply thrown up his hands in frustration that his high school didnâ€™t offer language courses that satisfied him, but instead, he went out and did something about it. Not only that, he showed such a passion for the subject that he carved a real niche for himself in the admissions process. Even if his grades arenâ€™t perfect, this student is more likely to be accepted to a competitive college than another student with stronger grades who didnâ€™t show this level of initiative. In general, if you can be summed up in one key phrase, you will be remembered in the admissions process and you will stand out. Our language student would be known to any admissions officer as the â€œlinguistic genius from Floridaâ€?â€”a great tag line that would practically guarantee him admission as long as he had a strong overall academic record to match.
Since roughly the late 1990s, the focus has shifted away from well-rounded students to the idea of a well-rounded freshman class. The truth was that the Eagle Scout tri-captains were a dime a dozenâ€”colleges needed more to make their class truly shine. Besides filling their sports teams, colleges need to fill their musical groups, dance groups, political groups, debate teams, fraternities, sororities, and dozens of other organizations. I knew one girl who got into Cornell even though she was only a solid student with one major activity. But that activity (Olympic-level gymnastics) was quite unusual. It took up so much of her high school time that she had to enroll in a special program in a different city from where she lived just to finish her high school courses and train at the same time. She held few leadership positions and did no other major school activities. It didnâ€™t matter because she was world-class in a specific area. Cornell was happy to have her in its freshman class.
The prevailing philosophy of college admissions for the past twenty years has been that well-rounded students are the most attractive: the student athlete, captain of a few sports, who is also class president and plays piano. Unfortunately, that student would be considered only average in the most selective college applicant pool today.
Though this example is a bit extreme, Iâ€™ve had clients who are exceptional in one particular areaâ€”maybe directing plays, music, Web development, or sportsâ€”who have chosen to focus on a few key areas of interest in their activity charts. Keep in mind that itâ€™s better to emphasize a few areas of major importance rather than a long list of insignificant activities. This will be the overriding philosophy of completing an activity chart.
1 Is Format Important?
In a word, yes. Colleges do not want rÃ©sumÃ©s. In fact they consider it somewhat presumptuous on the studentsâ€™ part to think they are important enough to have a rÃ©sumÃ© in the first place. RÃ©sumÃ©s are for the workplace, not for the college admissions process, so donâ€™t submit one.
The correct format to summarize all your extracurricular activitiesâ€”including leadership, work experience, summer programs, sports, musicâ€”is an activity chart that mimics the one provided on the common application form. Before we delve into the details of the chart, itâ€™s worth a small detour into what the common application is and is not.
The Common Application
Wouldnâ€™t it be nice, reasoned students and parents, if all colleges used the same admissions forms so that students didnâ€™t have to keep filling out the same information for every single college they applied to? Sure it would, but when the idea first was proposed about twenty-five years ago, only a handful of schools adopted the form. Even today, only about 220 colleges out of several thousand accept the common application. Hereâ€™s what the common application people have to say about their forms:
Amidst increasing competition for admission and pressure on students to search for and apply to colleges early, the common application institutions agree to simplify the admissions process by using one application form. Students complete the common application once and send copies to all colleges that accept the form. By adding selective public universities to its membership, the common application group helps more students reduce the number of forms they need to complete. For the 2001â€“2002 academic year, the common application will be accepted by 227 selective colleges and universities for admission to their undergraduate programs. Several of these institutions, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities, use the form exclusively. All members pledge to give equal consideration to the common application and the collegeâ€™s own form.
Excerpted from Acing the College Application by Michele A. Hernández, Ed.D.. Copyright © 2002 by Michele Hernandez. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.