We’ve all heard horror stories about brilliant kids—straight As, perfect test scores—who were rejected from nearly every school on their college list.
I recently started working on transfer applications with a student who’d been waitlisted, and then rejected at a number of top-20 universities, including Harvard and Yale. She’d only been accepted to one college—her safety school. She had a near-perfect high school GPA (ranked second in a giant class), had taken the most challenging courses offered by her school, and was only a few points shy of 1600 on the SAT. And she had a long list of extracurricular activities—sports (she was even a team captain one semester), community service, science fairs, and on and on.
So how is this possible? How does a star student like this end up only getting into her safety school?
Students like this are proof that grades and test scores aren’t enough. They’re also proof that lots of extracurriculars won't necessarily get you into a top-20 school.
But before you give up all hope and stop reading: extracurriculars can make all the difference in the college application process.
In extracurriculars, just as in academics, the common mistake is to begin by asking “what do admissions officers want to see?” Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to know what those folks are looking for—that’s part of the reason I decided to write this blog post. But the truth is that they are looking for self-directed, trailblazing, passionate kids—kids who aren’t letting someone else’s expectations guide their actions. In both extracurriculars and in academics, you want to let your own interests drive you.
The student who was waitlisted at Harvard and Yale had been told that sports, community service, and science fairs were important for the college admissions process. They can be. But these activities make the most difference when they are authentic and exceptional, and when the activities list tells a clear story about who a student is, and where he or she is going.
Whether it’s in the classroom, or in your extracurriculars, colleges are looking for proof that you have a genuine love of challenge. I won’t say it’s impossible to fool admissions committees into believing you are passionate about your extracurriculars even if you’re not. But passion is hard (and no fun) to fake over the long term, and if admissions officers suspect that your success is the result of diligence rather than drive they will not be happy. (I know, diligence is a great quality to have, but colleges have decided that it isn’t as impressive—or as sustainable—as passion.) It’s always easier (and more enjoyable) to follow authentic interests than it is to fake interest for something you think will be impressive on the college application. And it almost always produces better results.
If you’re trying to do it all (sports, community service, science fairs, school newspaper, debate team…) you’re going to have a tough time putting in the time and energy that are necessary when it comes to accomplishing something truly exceptional. After you add up all the time you spend in class and doing your homework every week (plus any necessary test prep and tutoring, and of course spending time with friends and family, and don’t forget eating and sleeping), you only have so many hours each week to devote to your extracurriculars. Plan out your time. If you’ve only got ten hours a week you think you can dedicate to activities, don’t join five different clubs at school. Again, it’s hard to make a splash in anything with just a couple hours per week at your disposal for each activity. The first thing we do with every new student who comes to work with us is help with brainstorming and planning an extracurricular project (that’s right, one activity) that will be stimulating, impactful, and scalable. These activities develop and grow over time, and allow students to demonstrate their ability to accomplish uncommon things, and set themselves apart. Don’t spread yourself thin.
You want your accomplishments in high school, and ultimately your college applications, to tell a clear, compelling, and memorable story about who you are. You know an applicant has made an impression when admissions officers begin referring to him or her with a flattering epithet that sums up his or her academic and extracurricular achievements: “the tightrope-walking journalist from Milwaukee,” for example. While it’s not easy to accomplish great things as a journalist in high school, and it isn’t easy to become a tightrope walker period, it’s easier to be those things than to be memorable for sixteen different extracurricular activities. When admissions folks look at a long list of unrelated activities (ten hours of community service one summer, a two-week internship as an investment bank the next, three different spring sports over three years…) it's difficult for them to tell who that student is. The tightrope-walking journalist has spent years developing an extracurricular passion and an academic/professional interest. We don’t know if she’ll head to the New York Times after college, or to the circus, but we know she has focus and drive. Whether you are into biology and scuba diving, economics and activism, or computer science and chess, go deep rather than broad. For added points, think about how your academic and extracurricular interests are related. There is probably a great project waiting to happen at that intersection.