2007-02-09 / Columnists

Focus On Getting Into College

Extracurricular Activities: An Important Factor In The College Entrance Process

Steve Schwartz is a professional college counselor and tutor for SAT, Regents and Advanced Placement Exams. He can be reached at collegecounselingservices@gmail.com .

Everyone knows that top grades are necessary for admission to first-tier colleges, but grades alone no longer guarantee admission. In fact, many students believe that their grade point average is given more emphasis in the college admissions process than it actually is. In today's society, most applicants to selective universities are academically qualified, but there are simply not enough spots available. Students looking for an edge seek to distinguish themselves through their extracurricular activities. These activities provide another set of criteria by which admissions committees make their decisions. An ability to demonstrate lasting dedication to a few meaningful extracurriculars, rather than mere membership in many, can make a significant difference. Students should aim to show a meaningful contribution to their school or community and how their participation or leadership has influenced them.

While being elected to an important-sounding club position is a goal of many ambitious high school students, it is a misguided one. An explanation of why the student was involved in a club, and the contributions that he or she made, will impress admissions committees more than simply obtaining a fancy title. At top high schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, it can be difficult to gain the leadership positions in school clubs when there are so many other qualified candidates.

When I encounter students in this situation, I recommend that they pursue their extracurricular passions outside of the school environment and think about ways that they can engage with the "adult world." Opportunities exist through community organizations, nonprofits, internships, and even the Internet. A student who wants to make a substantial impact on his or her community should think about a problem or need and how it can be addressed. Some common methods are to launch innovative fundraising campaigns for worthy causes or to mobilize a group of peers to tackle it head-on. Teachers, parents, friends, and college counselors can help to plan these types of endeavors.

Founding a community organization, a nonprofit, or a school club can demonstrate leadership and organizational skills that indicate ambition and future success. These are traits that admissions committees seek in applicants. Of course, taking on any of these challenges is not easy, but neither is getting into a top college. Through adequate planning and efficient use of summer and winter vacations, high school students have the ability to accomplish a great deal without detracting from classwork or grades. The Internet is not just for MySpace and YouTube; researching a topic and finding communities of students around the world with similar interests can lead to collaboration and skill-sharing on any topic.

One way to start early in the college application process is to maintain a "brag sheet" - a list of all the student's activities and hobbies. It is vital for the student to keep track of any recognition that was received for performing them. Freshman year of high school is not too early to begin compiling this list and thinking about how the student's academic interests and extracurriculars will turn into a full picture of the student as an individual. This is especially important with regard to schools that do not require or offer alumni interviews. The brag sheet and essay will be admissions committees' main criteria for understanding the applicant.

It is a good idea to join many clubs at the beginning of high school; doing so is a great way to learn about where one's interests lie and ascertain which groups will allow the student to accept meaningful responsibility. However, this does not mean that one should list every club on the college application. If the student wants to write about extracurriculars (which I often recommend doing), pick one that was meaningful and explain its impact. In the college admissions essay, discuss a specific experience or activity, and concentrate on the details that draw a picture of the experience - they make an essay memorable. The college essay is a precious opportunity to promote oneself to the college's admissions committee. Make it count.

Ideally, the college application should profile the student to the admissions committee. A college essay about the student's most fulfilling extracurricular activity will provide the admissions committee with a snapshot of his or her personality and the lasting impression that the student is a focused, responsible, and well-rounded individual who will be a valuable part of their community.

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