For admissions officers, a strong folder tells a candidate’s story, which essentially means that the many pieces of the application come together and help define the student and what he brings to the table. Let me give you an example in which extracurricular activities played a key role in letting admissions officers know who an applicant was. One of my favorite client applications came from a young man from a working class family who attended parochial school. This student listed Ryu Kyu Kempo (Okinawan karate) — in which he had attained a black belt — as his primary activity. He designated his weekend job at a local delicatessen as the next most important activity on his list.
Right away, this young man jumped out at me as somebody who understood and appreciated his own neighborhood and community but who also wanted to extend himself beyond it. His two essays, the longer one about karate and the shorter one about his job at the deli, underscored my initial perception and made clear that his parents encouraged his curiosity about the world. I felt confident that this student would drink in everything that a major university had to offer and would give back as well, based on his own experiences and identity.
It can be difficult to look at our own children through this critical lens. Try to do so in the following context. Ask your child to list his activities and interests, including length of commitment to date, weekly time commitment, and leadership roles or honors attained. Look for focus, consistency, and, most of all, passion, a quality that always catches the attention of Carleton College Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Paul Thiboutot, as he shared with me for my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions: “Something that began as volunteer work for the homeless and expanded from there into the organizing of a soup kitchen — there’s a passion that comes through. This work has clearly become a significant part of the student’s life.” If you do not see these characteristics in your child’s activities and interests profile, ask yourself why not. Your child may be devoting too little time to too many activities and cluttering his application. Alternatively, he may be engaging in few or no extracurricular activities and making his life outside of school look like a large, blank slate. Never push your child to get involved in activities just for the college application, but help him by letting him know the ramifications of his choices while he still has time to make changes if he so desires. If he has already entered senior year and has begun the college application process, look for colleges and universities that suit him based on the choices he has made, rather than on wishful thinking or Monday morning quarterbacking.
Those students who miss the chance to get involved in organized extracurricular activities because of family responsibilities that they must shoulder also have a story to tell. I have taught young people who had to miss school because they were acting as translators for adult family members whom they accompanied to every appointment. Others had to work 20 hours a week to help pay the family bills. Carleton College, for example, sees several farm kids in its applicant pool each year. These students spend hours each day performing chores on the family farm. “We need to know that!” Thiboutot emphasized when I interviewed him for my book. “Make sure you tell it as part of your story,” through the application essays, letters of recommendation, or even as details that appear in the extracurricular activities section of the application.
Next up: Types of activities and how to select them