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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Tami G., Pine Bluff, AR asks:

I’ve heard that spending a little time with many extracurricular activities is less attractive than a ton of time with one or a few. If I haven’t found an activity I’m passionate about, how can I still seem like a dedicated individual?

A winning extra-curricular essay for the Common Application

Pamela Ellis | Founder
The college admissions essay is the one place where students have the most control over their application. For those students applying through the Common Application, the shorter essay asks students to elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience. Students can shine in this short essay with these tips. 1) Focus on the extracurricular that you are most passionate about (regardless of what you think the admissions staff wants to hear). Use language that “shows” rather than “tells.” As much as possible, choose words that give the readers a front row seat to your activity.

Activities dilemma presents a personal growth opportunity

John Frahlich | Counseling Department Chair
You are who you are. But that doesn’t mean you can’t grow. If your list of activities does not paint a picture of being well-rounded, it would be disingenuous to portray yourself otherwise. This dilemma can be a personal wake up call for you to take a risk, leave your comfort area, and engage in a meaningful activity. Ask people who know you, your family, friends, teachers, and counselor for ideas. This might be a struggle for you, but I encourage you to embrace this problem, worry less about how things look, and focus on finding meaning in this dilemma. Then share your journey with colleges!

Balance activities with your passion and school work

Ruth Vedvik | Principal
1. Put in the time to keep up the grades in 5 GREAT (hard) classes – no amount of extracurriculars can make up for poor performance 2. Follow your passions. Like music? There you go. Into sports? Got it. Nose in your kindle or books? Start a book club – be like Oprah! And, yes – less is more without the balance and academic support to back it up!

Being well rounded isn't the key

Susan Marrs | Director of College Counseling
Colleges are more interested in building well-rounded classes than a collection of well-rounded students.  What that means for you is that you DON'T want to do a little of this and a little of that.  It's far better to invest yourself in a few things that really interest you.  How to find them?  Do some soul searching about what does interest you.  If it's film, for example, but there isn't a film club at your school, start one--you'll get points not only for the depth of your interest in that area but for your initiative too.

Build your portfolio with community and church activities or work

Suzanne Petrusch | Vice President for Enrollment Management
Over the years as I’ve asked students about their extracurricular activities, I’ve found that a number of them exclude activities that aren’t directly associated with their schools.  It’s not until I prompt them that they begin to reveal what they have contributed through church and community involvement or what experience they’ve gained through work.  You may not have found your passion yet, but I would encourage you to go outside your comfort zone.  Look beyond your school to organizations related to the arts, health, child development, elder care, neighborhood revitalization, and more.  Just don’t forget to keep up your grades once you get involved.

Co-Curriculars: another window into who you are

Bill Pruden | Head of Upper School, College Counselor
For most applicants, the value of co-curricular activities is less about the activities themselves than about what those activities reveal about who you are.  Joining countless clubs, but making little impact may say much about your inability to make a commitment.  An aspiring pre-med who has never volunteered in any medically related area is an applicant festooned with red flags.  If you are not sure of your passion, try something.  Demonstrating your willingness to venture into a new area is no small thing—and the search for the right activity could actually prove to be a great essay topic.   

Colleges are not impressed with students who are a mile wide and inch deep

Janet Rosier | Independent College Admissions Consultant
One way that colleges get to know you and what you are passionate about is by what you choose to do in your free time. They are not impressed with students who join many organizations but are only superficially involved. You may not love an activity immediately, but you should try to find something where you have the chance to grow as a person and the passion may follow. If you haven’t found a good fit with your school’s clubs, try your local community organizations or those affiliated with area religious institutions. Volunteering your time and helping others may reveal your talents and strengths.

Depth over breadth

Kiersten Murphy | Director
You first need to identify things that you enjoy doing, and then find a way to further develop that passion either through school-based activities or via activities in your community. Before selecting anything though, think about how you could grow in the organization over time.  Will your involvement be a one-time thing, or could it be something that you can continue to participate in, even in college?  On-going commitment is more sincere than a one-time event.  Colleges also want to build a well-rounded class of ‘pointy’ students, so show them your unique talents, passions and commitments.  It isn’t too late to get started now.

Dig more deeply into an interest you already have!

Joanna Schultz | Director of College Counseling
You can’t expect to reinvent yourself, but you can develop one or two of the interests you already have.  If you are interested in listening to music, for example, volunteer to work on the tech crew at your school.  Learn to work the sound board and research period music for stage productions.  Volunteer to do publicity for small music venues in your area.   Start taking music lessons.  In this way, you can dig a little deeper into an activity that you already know you like and you might actually discover a true passion.

Don’t be afraid to uncover your hidden talents and interests

Shelly Levine | Certified Educational Planner
To find those talents and interests, speak to your friends about their activities, attend an organization expo at your school, or search the database of community service opportunities in your area. Something will grab your attention and pretty soon you will have a new interest. Colleges are looking for students who will enrich the extracurricular community on campus so be sure you demonstrate your ability to be a contributor on campus by writing about your interests in an essay or describing your involvement in the activity on your resume or activity section of application.

Experiment, focus, and do what you like

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
It’s important to portray yourself as a diversified individual on your college applications. The essays and activity resume are great ways to show other sides of yourself not represented in your grades or test scores. It is good to try different activities in order to find what you like most. Once you do, focus on that activity so that by 11th or 12th grade, you can show some initiative and leadership. Simple daily occurrences and hobbies can make for great essay topics. I am reminded of a pre-med student who loved magic. He taught himself numerous tricks and eventually did fundraising shows for his favorite charity. He wrote a great college essay about it!

Exploring interests is a life’s journey and not just for college applications!

Jane Klemmer | Founder
Passion and involvement are good, though not for the reasons you believe.  Think beyond your college applications; interests and activities you develop today will hopefully enrich your life long after graduation. Finding a passion usually starts with a willingness to try new things, whether through participation in an after school club or activity, or taking a job as a camp counselor. Talk to friends, family and teachers about how they found their interests. There is no singular path; just approach your quest with an open mind.  Genuine interest and commitment are what matter, not the number of activities on your list. Trust me: colleges know the difference.

Finding your extra curricular or community service path...

Sandy Furth | College Advisor
Finding a passion or extracurricular activity in high school depends on the educational path you choose in high school. For example, if you decide on the International Baccalaureate, Community-Action-Service (CAS) Hours will be built into the program. Perhaps your school requires a certain amount of community service. If this is or is not the case, reflect on the things you like to do and your strengths; whether they be hobbies or sports, and think about how you would like to put those to good use. For example, if you are a chess player, maybe there is a community program that would benefit from a startup chess program and you can be the chess teacher/coach.

Focus on what YOU enjoy; forget being well rounded

John Carpenter | Founder
First off, forget about impressing colleges with activities.  That's entirely the wrong approach to take, and in most cases, admissions officers don't value a list of activities that kids have pursued just for the sake of trying to look well-rounded.  Be square.  Be yourself.  Make a list of the two or three things that you LIKE to do, and put your energy there.  For instance, one year a student came up with the idea of forming a club based on talking about deep ideas--something she loved to do.  So she formed the philosophy club; it was an instant hit.  She did what she wanted to do, and that left a positive impact on her school.  Admissions officers notice that kind of thing.

Follow your heart to your extracurricular activities

Stephanie Meade | Owner
How enthusiastically you engage with your extracurricular activities is more important than which or how many you have, so look for activities that sound genuinely fun and interesting. Do you love sports and get along well with younger kids? Then maybe assisting a coach at a camp or after-school program is a good place to start. You can do something similar with almost any interest. Many students discover an activity they love by volunteering, so take the interests you already have into your community, and you may end up discovering a passion! Try volunteermatch.org and dosomething.org to get started.

Follow your passion

Hamilton Gregg | Educational Consultant
Quality not quantity is something to remember when engaging in activities. Too often students think that they need to do everything and be great in school. If you are searching for an inspiring activity and nothing seems to match, take some time to evaluate what you have tried. What did you like and what did you not like and why? Even by not finding some activity that suits you is a learning experience as long as you take the time to determine why you did not like it. What is your passion? Take your passion and make it work for you?

High school is not a dress rehersal for college

Julia Surtshin | Founder
You do not need to be a well-rounded student to be attractive to colleges, but rather a curious, interested and passionate one. There are several ways to discover your passion. Use your time wisely by exposing yourself to activities that seem interesting. What do you love to do in your spare time, either alone or with your friends? Maybe you can volunteer to engage in this activity with some latchkey kids, or teach this skill to younger students. Think about the things that you either love or that bother you about your school, community, or the world. The most important things to remember are: follow your own path and do something meaningful with your time.

Isolating your passion is easier than you think

Amy Swords | Director of College Advising
A passion is just another word for expanded interest, and an interest is something that you have. So after trying different things, it is only natural that you migrate towards the things you enjoy doing and a pattern emerges. One of my students was involved with many different types of community outreach in high school where she was always helping others. She majored in anthropology and sociology in college, participated in several cross-cultural experiences abroad, coordinated programs and site visits in her college community for student volunteers and entered the Peace Corps after college. It all came together for her naturally. Don't try to create a passion; do what you love doing.

Make sure admissions essay sounds like YOU

Roby Blust | Dean of Admissions & Enrollment Planning
The admissions process is all about “fit” – finding a good college fit for you – and for us it is looking for students that will fit into our school.  The essay is a great place for us to get to know you better – just make sure it is authentically you.  The best way to ensure this is to write your essay – follow the directions – and then let it sit in a drawer for a few days.  If you pull it out of the drawer after a few days and reread it – and it sounds like you – then it is probably ready to go.

One activity or fifty?

Donnamarie Hehn | Director of College Guidance
Trying on activities is analogous to the buffet line in a restaurant.  The choices are tantalizing but sooner or later, you must pick a favorite, or two, or three.  It is great to be open to new experiences but you should also show commitment to specific activities.  Students, who successfully grab the attention of admissions directors, are passionate about their activities and have evoked change in their communities through their involvement.  Consider revitalizing a dying club or organization, starting a group to serve the needs of a specific community, or creating a link between two global communities.

Passion is overrated—start with interest and engagement will follow

Joan Casey | President
Most students don’t yet know what their passion is. High school should be a time of self-discovery and that means students should try new activities both in and out of school until they find something that interests them. I recall one young woman who knew she wanted to go into medicine, but she didn’t connect with the activities offered through the school science club. Together, we created a list of family and friends who worked in medical research, and she sent each a resume and followed up with a phone call until she landed an internship. This was her primary after-school and summer activity and helped her get into her preferred college.

Passions are not found…they grow

Jacqueline Murphy | Director of Admissions
Finding your “passion” does not happen overnight. If it has not hit you yet it is a good idea to spend quality time with an activity you enjoy rather than spread yourself all over the place and never really have a sense of why you are doing what you are doing. Think about going along with a friend on one of their activities to see what attracts them to the activity, or, break out of your current group of friends and try something totally new.  Stretch yourself and sign up for the next volunteer service program in your school…you’ll find a great new activity and help others at the same time.  Passions are not made-they are discovered…and they grow.

Scooping horse poop and other unexpected, yet significant activities

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
Colleges want kids who are active during high school and will contribute in significant ways to their campuses. They seek consistency, development, leadership, and initiative. Stick with one or two things and explore them. Take a risk and add a new twist to an existing activity. Sharon rode horses and noticed that the stables threw out the horse poop. So she convinced the stables to use the poop as fertilizer and to give the excess to local farmers and residents. Jackson volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and noticed the need for ESL classes for the residents so he developed a pilot program.

Think about your unique personality when looking for an activity

Jennifer Evans | Counseling Department Chair
A good place to start is with your high school counselor. He or she may have ideas about activities that will appeal to you. It is important to think about what types of activities you would enjoy. For example, if you enjoy helping others, you may find a service organization rewarding. Sometimes it is scary to try something new but students often end up discovering something they enjoy by trying something different. If you feel uncomfortable attending a club meeting on your own, consider bringing a friend. Remember, you won't really know if you enjoy something until you try it.

Think beyond the typical activities

Kristen Tabun | Director of College Guidance
While you may not have found an extracurricular activity of great interest, consider subjects that you might be interested in.  This year, I worked with a senior who had very limited extracurricular activities to speak of.  However, he was always interested in astronomy and hoped to have that as his college major.  He had done a great amount of investigation outside of school and was able to design an independent study course in astronomy during his senior year.  The independence and initiative he displayed did, I believe, somewhat compensate for his lack of structured extra-curricular activities. Happily, he was accepted to his first-choice college.

Try different things to find your passion

Jolyn Brand | Founder & Director
While some colleges want students who are passionate about that one great thing, some also understand that you need time to find that one great thing. Try a bunch of different activities. Explore! If you find one passion—great! If not, write your college essay about the journey, about what each of those activities and opportunities taught you.

Well rounded is out. Having a “hook” is in

Pam Proctor | Author
Without a hook -- one activity, interest, or passion that will leap off the pages of your college application and catch the eye of admissions officers—you won’t stand out from the pack. Your job is to dig deep within yourself to reflect on your true interests and pastimes, in and out of school. Perhaps you’re an auto aficionado who redesigns cars on the Internet and hopes to become an engineer. That’s a hook. Or maybe you’re the caregiver to your autistic sister. That’s also a hook. To find your hook, write down a list of your activities and pastimes. Ask your parents to share some anecdotes and observations about your personality and character. Now, you’ve finally found your hook!

Well-rounded classes not students

Jill Greenbaum | Founder
Many students are under the impression that colleges want well-rounded students, when in fact colleges are looking for well-rounded classes, made of many different students.  Discovering and following your passions, skills or hobbies, digging deeply into one or two areas, committing to them, and gaining experience with expertise is really of more interest to colleges.  It’s important to figure out who you are rather than trying to be something you are not.  Start with your interests, talk with friend,s and read to learn about the vast range of extracurricular activities-those in school, in the community, and abroad, then sample some. There are so many possibilities!

What are your interests?

Rachel Smith-Vaughan | College Guidance Counselor
It is important for you to identify what you like to do. If a club does not already exist, then form one. An extracurricular activity does not only revolve around your school, but look within your community, family, religious institution as well as your future interests. For example, shadowing a veterinarian for an extended period of time and volunteering at the local animal shelter demonstrates your passion, dedication, and future career goals.

When it comes to extracurricular activities, less can be more

Lora Lewis | Founder & Educational Consultant
Extracurricular activities should be genuine learning experiences. A single activity undertaken for an extended period is often more valuable than ten you do only once. It’s even better if the activity lets you develop a variety of skills. One student worked only at a youth radio station, but she produced radio shows, learned web design, led a public service campaign, and mentored new participants. She not only got into her first choice school but was accepted to all the schools she applied to. Choose extracurriculars that inspire you, and then commit to investing the time and energy to learning all you can.

With extracurricular activities, sometimes less is more

Monica Inzer | Vice President & Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
Yes, colleges want to enroll a well-rounded class.  But that doesn’t always mean that every individual is well-rounded in his or her interests or talents; rather, collectively, a class is made up of a mosaic, and each tile shines in different ways.  Your contributions should be sustained and meaningful.  Find things you care about and do them well. Perhaps you will lead, perhaps you will support; but make sure you contribute.  Your significant activity might even be a job where you learn a lot.  Commitment and depth is far more important (for your application and for your life!)  than joining a bunch of clubs to make your list longer. 

You're on a voyage of self-discovery--pursue what interests you

Diana Hanson | Independent College Consultant
Do you play a sport, write for the student newspaper, volunteer at your place of worship or in the community, and belong to the debate club? That makes you a well-rounded student with a wide range of interests.  Colleges are looking for curious students who have a zest for life—in addition to having academic credentials—so make your diverse interests an asset by including them in your applications, both in the essay(s) and volunteer/activity listings.  While colleges do like to see some consistency in your extracurriculars, there are also benefits to trying a variety of clubs/sports/activities throughout high school. It shows you're doing your job--finding out who you are and what you enjoy!

Your unique interests should be illustrated through your extracurricular activities 

Craig Meister | President
The key to college admissions success is to parlay preexisting interests into extracurricular pursuits. There is no magic number of activities an applicant should undertake before applying to colleges; however, colleges do want to see that a student has pursued his or her interests deeply outside of the classroom. So, if you have any interests whatsoever, figure out a way to pursue them in the extracurricular realm as opposed to simply pursuing them as hobbies. For example, don’t just play your guitar in your bedroom; share your talent as a guitar tutor, talent show entrant, or local performer.


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