Preparing for College

How Political Activism is Viewed by Admission Committees

Question: I am heavily involved in political activities such as gay rights, feminism, and being against the death penalty. Is it risky to do these as a student?

When you ask if pursuits such as yours are "risky," we assume you are wondering if college admission officials may see you as a rabble-rouser on campus and thus a high-risk student to omit.

While we can't say that this is never true, it's likely only to be the case at certain very conservative (and probably religious) institutions--in other words, at schools that you'd never consider a good match for yourself in the first place.

When it comes to the elite colleges, your extracurricular endeavors will not be a negative. On left-leaning campuses (e.g., Wesleyan, Brown, Haverford, Swarthmore, Reed, Smith, Vassar) you'll no doubt be viewed as someone who would fit right into the college community, which is a plus. On the other hand, your list of "EC's" will be pretty much the same ol' stuff for admission committees, who are certainly quite accustomed to seeing the endeavors you've cited over and over again. Thus, at application time, it's important for you to not only list the activities you've been involved in but also to highlight leadership positions you've held and any significant contributions that you've made. For instance, if in advocating gay rights you spearheaded a city-wide student committee or brought renowned speakers to your high school assemblies, be sure to say so.

If you plan to apply to colleges with a more conservative or at least middle-of-the-road reputation (e.g., Princeton, Colgate, Colby, Duke, Washington and Lee), then your activism will probably even work in your favor since admission officials may be eager to attract more students with decidedly liberal views.

Most admission folks will concede that they bring their own interests--and prejudices--to the table at decision time, as much as they may try to leave them at home under the bed. Thus, some students simply get lucky and have their applications read by like-minded individuals while others get stuck with less sympathetic evaluators. However, the most important thing to do is to present your activities clearly (e.g., don't use abbreviations unless you're sure they're internationally known) and explain your level of commitment and unique contributions to each.