I'm a HS senior and I'm starting to think about filling out the Common App, so I have two questions. First, do I need to fill out all of the extracurricular slots? I only did four extracurriculars (ECs) but there are 10 available. I am applying to some top-20 schools so I don't want to hurt my chances by not doing enough ECs. Second, I don't have anything interesting to write about for the essays. Most other students I know have traveled or had surgery or something interesting and I'm just sitting home doing nothing. Is a boring life ok to write about in essays?
"The Dean" knows that it can be daunting for students in your shoes to hear about classmates who are deciding which of their 27 extracurricular activities they can squeeze onto the Common App or how many of their exciting travels — or tragedies — are essay-worthy. However, you're actually in good shape — perhaps even in better shape than they are.
Let's begin with the activities: Admission officials — even at the most hyper-competitive colleges — are far more interested in the depth of a student's commitment than they are in the number of entries on a list. So whenever they see that all 10 slots are full, they are apt to wonder if the candidate really gave quality time to each of these ventures. Four activities, on the other hand, might suggest that you've chosen undertakings that you care about. If the "Activities" section doesn't provide adequate space to explain an atypical endeavor or to describe an unusual role, then you can provide details under "Additional Information" later on.
Also keep in mind (and most seniors don't) that college folks don't just want to learn about organized school or community clubs, sports and so on. By the second week of application-evaluation, most of them are up to their eyeballs in Mock Trial, Model UN and marching band! So they're likely to sit up straighter when they stumble on a passion or hobby that a student pursues independently — collecting vinyl jazz recordings, reading to a sight-impaired grandparent, composing ballads for accordion, etc. In fact, most teenagers have at least a couple personal pursuits that they don't feel are application fodder, yet which would indeed intrigue admission committees. And, of course, paying jobs certainly count as "activities" as well. But don't feel that you must fill up all of those extracurricular slots — or even half of them — because you don't get extra points for a long list!
As for the essay, "The Dean" always includes "Travel" on my hit-parade of topics NOT to write about! Sure, a winning essay can really be about anything, if it's well done. But a "My Special Summer on the Kibbutz" or "What I Learned from Digging Ditches in Costa Rica" submission is not going to stand out in a crowd. As for surgeries or other "hardships," I endorse these as essay subjects only if they were truly hard. A torn meniscus during soccer season can certainly be a trial for a teen, but isn't going to help to push an application file toward the "In" pile, especially when competitor candidates may be writing about living in a homeless shelter or fighting leukemia.
Instead, I've found the best essays often come from students like you — who can't write about adventures abroad or in a hospital bed — and thus must dig deeper to ask themselves "What makes me tick?" In fact, the best essays I've read over many eons have included one about a laundry mishap, one about a summer job picking potatoes and one called "Why I Shop at Walmart." An essay that reveals how you think and feel — and your sense of humor (if humor come naturally to you) — can be an asset at admissions time, even if it's not (or especially if it's not??) about a pricey vacation or a routine medical event.
But as you decide which aspect of your "boring life" will best lend itself to an essay, there is one idea I will caution you to avoid. DON'T write a "This is my room and what it says about me" essay. ("My sketchbook on the shelf shows how much I like to draw. The sweaty socks on the floor are a reminder that I will go for my daily run this afternoon ..."). Although this information can be revealing, the topic is overdone, and so you'll have two strikes against you before you start, if you choose it. BUT ... even if the look-around-my-room approach won't help you with your essay, it might allow you to come up with a couple more "Activities" for your list, if you're still convinced it's too skimpy!
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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