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How Any Extracurricular Activity Can Get You Into A Top College

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There’s a particular piece of bad advice when it comes to college admissions that ought to be debunked because it keeps many students out of their dream schools each year. It comes in many forms, including:

  • “Join as many clubs and teams as you can, and try to be president or captain.”

  • “Be as well-rounded as possible.”

  • “Admissions committees want to see students who did X/Y/Z activity.”

Students who take this advice very seriously end up disappointed when college application decisions roll in and they find more unexpected rejections than surprising acceptances, regardless of their high grades and ACT/SAT scores.

Why? Here are the two major reasons:

  • The student looked like every other applicant.

  • The student didn’t make a deep community impact.

Let’s compare two high school students’ extracurricular activities to demonstrate this point:

James from Chicago, IL

  • Trombone player, 10 years.

  • Secretary in student government, 2 years.

  • Member of academic decathlon team, 2 medals.

  • Hospital volunteer, 50 hours.

Anna from Houston, TX

  • Trombone player, 10 years.

  • Trombone instructor, 3 years.

  • Leader of youth jazz ensemble that has performed all over Texas at major festivals and venues.

  • Organizer of an annual music fundraiser that raises funds to support aspiring yet financially disadvantaged musicians in her hometown.

Between James and Anna, who seems more impressive?

James is certainly a “well-rounded” student in the traditional sense, but does anything about him jump out to you?

On the other hand, Anna, who exclusively pursued music-related extracurricular activities, stands out. Without knowing anything else about her, we can tell that she’s dedicated to her craft (played trombone for 10 years) and to her community (leads a youth jazz ensemble), takes initiative (organized a fundraiser), and is accomplished (played at major festivals and venues in Texas).

Which brings up an incredibly important point: A student’s actions and experiences should speak for themselves. Don’t just tell the admissions committee how dedicated you are, show them.

In addition, students who develop this type of “community-impact project” (otherwise known as a “passion project”) will have a much easier time writing outstanding college essays.

So, if it’s plain to see the value of focusing on fewer activities and going deeper with them rather than trying to do a little bit of everything, why do parents, teachers, and counselors struggle to implement this advice? Here are some of the most common reasons I see and hear:

  • It’s counterintuitive to everything they’ve previously heard.

  • They see certain activities – playing trombone, blogging, cooking, etc. – as “hobbies” or “passions,” not serious extracurricular or academic endeavors.

The latter reason is especially pervasive. I often see parents discouraging their children from pursuing activities of genuine interest, like computer coding, even though most newly minted millionaires and billionaires are involved with tech. Clearly, coding (or visual arts, music, sports) can be more than “just a hobby” or something “on the side.”

I assure you that the real high school superstars aren’t the well-rounded ones who achieve great grades and ACT/SAT scores. Rather, the stars are the ones who, in addition to their academic achievements, become specialists in one, maybe two extracurricular pursuits, regardless of their intended college major or career aspirations.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this. In fact, a report published in early 2016 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Turning the Tide, aims to promote exactly what I’ve described in college admissions:

  • Meaningful, consistent community service

  • Authentic experiences with diversity

  • Service that develops a sense of responsibility for the future

Many other top American colleges (e.g., MIT, Cornell, Emory, Yale) have officially endorsed this report as well.

By using this specialist approach, we’ve helped over 90 percent of our clients get into at least one of their top three colleges. And, our students enjoy the opportunity to dive deeply into something they actually care about, not just for the sake of college admissions.

How can your child achieve this level of college admissions success and sanity?

To get the juices flowing, the best question to ask your child is not “What do you want to do/create/pursue?” but rather, “What problem do you want to solve?”

The problem doesn’t have to be something on the scale of world hunger. It could be something like helping to preserve American jazz music for future generations. The more meaningful the issue is to your child, the more effort they will give to make a big impact.

By making a big impact, college admissions committees will be impressed. More importantly, however, your child will be fulfilled.

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Written by Shirag Shemmassian

Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a nationally-recognized college admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into America's top colleges through Shemmassian Academic Consulting. A debt-free graduate of Cornell University and UCLA, he systematically helps students develop unique extracurricular profiles, write standout college essays, and everything in between to get into their dream schools.

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