With college acceptance letters arriving for high school seniors this month, sophomores and juniors are thinking about the extracurricular activities they’ll be putting down on their own college applications. Spring is a good time to make plans for summer and beyond, and to enjoy the activities they love — with an eye toward the future.
College entrance is more competitive than ever, with record numbers of students applying. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, most colleges (73 percent) reported an increase in applicants for fall 2010, compared to fall 2009. And three-fourths of colleges reported that there have been increases each year for the past decade.
Besides good grades, a challenging course load and strong SAT or ACT scores, high school students are hoping to use their extracurricular activities to help them stand out from the crowd.
On many weekends, Henry Ackerman, a high school junior who lives in Lake Forest Park, can be found working alongside zookeepers as part of the Woodland Park Zoo’s program for teens called Zoo Corps. Henry is learning about biology, conservation and even communication as he talks with zoo visitors. He wants to be a doctor and says, “Spending my free time hands-on in the field of science shows my interest to colleges.”
Colleges are excited by kids with outside interests and passions, says Bob Dannenhold, a private college counselor in Seattle. They want a vibrant campus community with intramural sports, musical groups, student government and other diverse activities. An exciting campus can attract more students and provide them with rich experiences.
College counselors know that extracurricular activities can help students paint a picture of themselves for colleges. A student who works weekly with the elderly or tutors disadvantaged children is demonstrating compassion and dedication. A physically challenging outdoor trip or a service project away from home can show that a student is adventurous. Others may highlight a special interest, competing in math, science or robotics contests.
Some students stick with one organization they love for multiple years and through their dedication, can take a leadership position, recruit others to join or improve the ways things are done.
“Use your extracurricular activities to show your leadership, your creativity, your commitment,” Dannenhold advises. “If you’ve done a wide variety of activities but none very deeply, explain in your essay about the importance you’ve found in trying different things.”
Talk about extracurricular activities
Patricia Egwuatu read and critiqued essays for the University of Washington for three years, as part of its minority outreach program. She advises students to go beyond the one-sentence description of their out-of-school activities. “Tell the college why you chose to do it, what you learned from it, and how you can use the experience to give back to your community,” she says.
For example, students who play sports can talk about learning to become a team player, being a role model for younger kids or how participating in sports helped to develop time management skills, which transfer to college life, Egwuatu says.
Egwuatu also points out that part-time jobs and child-care at home are valid activities, too. “Not all students have the opportunity to participate in sports and clubs, due to family obligations,” she says. “Jobs and home responsibilities also teach great lessons in hard work, perseverance, creativity and other attributes colleges are looking for, so students shouldn’t feel shy about writing about them.”
Today, Egwuatu is a Youth Health Service Corps coordinator at the Western Washington Area Health Education Center, where she helps high school students who want to pursue careers in health services find information and volunteer opportunities. She recommends extracurricular programs like UDOC at the University of Washington, which teaches high schoolers from underrepresented communities about the health care and medical research fields.
Academics count most
While extracurricular activities can be tipping factors in a college application, Michele Hernandez, who worked in the admissions office for Dartmouth College and wrote the book A Is for Admission, cautions students to keep their focus on academics first. “Admissions is 80 percent academics and 20 percent other,” she says. “Unless you are a star athlete who is being recruited, you need a certain level of grades to be considered by a college, no matter what your extracurriculars are.”
Hernandez says students should keep working on their grades and standardized test scores. “Then colleges will look at your robotics contests, oboe playing or other outside talents.”
Above all, extracurricular activities need to come from authentic interests, explains Dannenhold. Don’t stick with one high school sport for four years, just to show continuity, if you really want to try a number of sports in high school. Don’t keep renewing a volunteer commitment if it isn’t interesting and meaningful to you.
“High school is a time to explore and find exciting interests that spark your passion,” says Dannenhold, “Don’t fall into the college résumé trap. It won’t serve you well in the end.”
Julie Weed is a Seattle-based freelance writer for The New York Times, The Seattle Times and other publications.