Having a well-rounded college application starts long before senior year. As soon as freshman year of high school starts, you should consider building a strong GPA, figuring out your SAT or ACT test prep strategies, and – maybe the most exciting part! – participating in school and community activities.
But among the wide range of extracurricular activities and hobbies that you can pursue, are there any in particular that would boost your college application?
Sara Harberson says it depends on how competitive your target schools are. Harberson, founder of AdmissionRevolution.com and SaraHarberson.com, is the former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College. She says that for students applying to highly selective colleges, "an extracurricular activity cannot make up for weaker grades and test scores. Recruited athletes used to be able to get admitted with weaker grades and scores to highly selective colleges, but that has become harder and harder since the admissions scandal broke. For a less selective college, exceptional achievement in an extracurricular activity can increase a student's chances."
While it's true that your high school transcript and test scores will always carry more weight in the admissions process than your extracurricular activities (regardless of how competitive the school is), showing your dedication to school and community organizations can only help your application. Below, Harberson offers her tips and strategies for getting the most benefit out of your extracurricular activities.
Quality Over Quantity
No need to try and join every club or sport that fits into your schedule – in fact, it's the quality of the commitment that matters more. "Students need to be engaged community members to have a shot of admission at a highly selective college. In fact, the more engaged the student is, the better," says Harberson.
Make It Relevant
Harberson recommends that at least one of the extracurricular activities that you list on your application should support and reflect your intended major choice. But choose wisely – "the more common it is, the less impact it will have," she says. If you plan to major in business, and you simply sign up for a popular business club at your high school, it will likely be less valued by admission officers than "doing something more unusual to explore and develop your business interest." Perhaps you can shadow a local entrepreneur or get a summer internship with a local business.
The more consistent you are with an activity, the more impact that will have on your application. "It is better to stick with a handful of activities over time to gain leadership roles or have more of an impact than to join new clubs every year," Harberson says.
It's important to be aware of your extracurricular interests well before your senior year in high school – freshman year is ideal. You will notice that colleges want to know the years in high school when you participated in the activity, how many hours per week, how many weeks per year, your leadership role in the activity, what you achieved, and more. What this means is that the more years, hours and weeks you are committed to an activity, the more opportunity there is to make a difference in your school or community – and make your application stand out from the rest.
Do What You Love
While you may see your fellow students following the crowd when it comes to extracurricular activities, Harberson encourages students to think outside the box and do their own thing. "It shows initiative, independence and distinctiveness. And that's ultimately what colleges want. Although colleges are looking for students who will join their clubs and sports teams, they are also looking for students who will bring something unusual to their community, too. Every year is different, and every admissions officer has different preferences or biases. So instead of trying to predict what a college or admission officer wants, go after what is meaningful to you and pursue it with gusto," says Harberson.
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