Question: My son is a high school junior with strong grades and test scores. He volunteers over 40 hours a week but has not joined any school clubs. He is interested in colleges like Emory and Washington Univ/St. Louis. Will admissions officers consider his grades and standarized scores along with his extensive community service even though he has not been active in organizations at school?
In most cases, elite colleges such as Emory and Wash U. expect more than just top grades and test scores from their admitted applicants. Nonetheless, the role of clubs and other school-sponsored activities has become greatly overrated by parents and students. Admission officials are seeking candidates who have made a commitment to something outside of the classroom, but that something could include volunteer service (such as your son's), a hobby, a paid job, etc. Gone are the days when "well-roundedness" was the gold standard at prestigious colleges. Now, admission folks are also seeking students who may not be well-rounded at all but who have made a mark in one particular arena. However, the more selective the college, the greater that mark (or the more atypical the activity) the better.
Sadly, many high school students are engaged in some interesting and unusual pursuits which they don't feel are fodder for their applications. When College Confidential counselors work individually with our advisees, we perform what my colleague Dave Berry has dubbed "achievement dentistry." That is, we help to unearth a student's pastimes and passions--from reading every book by a certain author to building Victorian dollhouses in the basement. Too often, as well, students sell themselves short when they list their extracurricular accomplishments on applications. For instance, they will write merely "hospital volunteer" without noting that they've been asked to supervise a dozen other volunteers or perform special duties usually restricted to the professional staff. When your son completes his applications, make sure that he makes the most of what he has given to others through his volunteer endeavors.