Admissions officers at selective colleges and universities want to see commitment to activities over time, rather than a series of single-year affiliations with various clubs and committees. The most selective institutions value leadership positions — captaining a team, editing a school publication, holding student government office — although, once again, no single formula guarantees admission. Commitment and leadership can signify your child’s interest in a particular area, his work ethic, his ability to command peer and faculty respect, and, in certain instances, his ability to stretch himself beyond normal expectations. From an admissions perspective, all of these qualities could benefit any college campus and also bode well for future success.
Your child will fare better in the college admissions process if he focuses on activities that matter to him and sticks with them over time, as opposed to getting involved with many but for only a short duration. Freshman and sophomore years give your child a chance to experiment with and experience the options that his high school offers. Jumping around from club to club through all four years of high school, however, can suggest that your child is trying to bolster his college application (albeit misguidedly) rather than participating in activities because they interest him. That pattern can also lead admissions officers to question his ability to make a commitment and stick to it.
If your child has made a commitment, underscore to him the importance of fulfilling it. Signing up for the school play means seeing it through until the curtain falls on the final performance and the set has been taken down. Competing on a team calls for attending every practice and meet in a season. Grades nine and 10 give you the opportunity to observe how your child handles competing responsibilities and new experiences and allow your child to learn the importance of following through on what he has said he will do. Stumbling and even falling a few times in those first two years will not harm his prospects for college, as long as he learns from his mistakes. Quitting the school play in the middle of rehearsals or dropping a sport midseason as a freshman looks very different from doing the same thing as a junior or senior.
One young man from my admissions territory at Yale who had outstanding grades and standardized test scores and an impressive extracurricular profile still stands out in my memory and illustrates the importance of following through on commitments. His letters of recommendation looked puzzlingly lukewarm given his outstanding record. I called his high school to get additional information. His guidance counselor explained in our conversation that this young man had a history of signing up for activities, taking on leadership positions because he thought they looked good for college, and then repeatedly shirking his commitments and leaving other students to pick up the pieces. This pattern of behavior had caused both teachers and students to see him in a negative light and made it difficult for his recommenders to write about him with the enthusiasm that one would have expected based on the rest of his profile. Sure enough, when I presented my slate, one of my colleagues on the committee stopped me to ask why we were not discussing this young man. I recounted the conversation with the guidance counselor, the committee agreed that we did not need to review his candidacy further, and we moved on.
Leadership positions in the extracurricular realm, although attractive to admissions officers, do not suit all personalities. Consistent participation in high school, even without evidence of leadership, provides a platform for solid citizenship in college, a trait that could develop into leadership as a student matures. The right college or university for the “solid participant” will recognize and value that type of extracurricular profile. Admissions officers also understand that not all students have access to formally designated leadership roles. A young person working 20 hours a week to help support his family has clearly taken on a leadership role at home but will not be able to stay after school for team practices or club meetings. A child’s personality, interests, and circumstances factor into whether or not a leadership role suits him; it makes no sense, from a college admissions perspective, to try to push a round peg into a square hole.
Those students seeking spots at Top 20 colleges and universities also need to understand the broad context in which admissions officers view extracurricular leaders. Tens of thousands of team captains, editors, and student body presidents apply to these institutions each year. Your child will do little to differentiate himself from his peers in this highly competitive pool simply because he holds a title or two. Admissions officers at these institutions want to know how your child used his opportunity to lead and, ideally, that he stretched himself beyond the existing or expected parameters of his world. Assume, for example, that two high school sailing team captains demonstrate equal levels of skill: The first had never set foot on a boat before the age of 15, while the second grew up spending weekends at his parents’ yacht club. Sailing captain number one has a greater likelihood of catching a reader’s attention than sailing captain number two.
Next up: Determining your child’s level of talent and how it can help in the college admissions process.