Determining your child’s level of extracurricular accomplishment and how it can help in the college admissions process

Colleges and universities have diverse needs that people with accomplishments in multiple areas help them meet.  The symphony orchestra may need a first violin, for example, and the football team may be losing defensive linemen to graduation.  Getting flagged as a recruit can give your child an edge — known in admissions as a “hook” — in the selection process, although it does not guarantee anything.  Understanding where your child’s performance falls relative to her peers and then knowing how to bring your child’s achievements to the attention of an admissions committee in an appropriate way could help your child put her best foot forward in the application process.

Before going any further, I want to draw attention explicitly to the words I have chosen in this post:  accomplishment, performance, achievement.  What word have I deliberately omitted?  Talent.  We can all point to people we have known who seemed to have a knack for something, a gift for it even.  Talent alone, however, will only get somebody so far.  The real secret sauce for standout performance in any field comes from consistent, deliberate practice over time.  Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” research (that you can apply to any domain) has documented that praising process — strategies, practice, perseverance — rather than talent can benefit your child.  For that reason, I focus here on the language of practice, commitment, and strategies rather than on the lexicon of talent or giftedness.

If you think that your child’s performance stands out in a particular area but you do not know for sure, seek additional opinions.  Take my past client, a committed volleyball player who came to me in her junior year of high school.  Her junior national team had a losing record, which meant that her parents did not know how attractive she would look to college coaches.  By talking to her junior national coach and seeking out scouts at her tournaments, they learned that the coach had been receiving letters of interest about her from primarily Division III schools.  They then enlisted a scout to help their daughter put together a game tape and an athletic resumé.  This young woman’s first-choice college admitted her early decision, in large part because the women’s varsity volleyball coach there had designated her as a top recruit.  (You can learn more on the NCAA website about college athletic recruiting and the different divisions in which colleges and universities compete.)

Student athletes who are approaching the college application period and do not have access to private coaches or national scouts can use a little elbow grease to determine where they stand relative to their athletic peers.  A javelin thrower with whom I was working had a good sense of the schools that might want him because he had visited dozens of college websites, looked for javelin throwers of similar height and weight, and compared his stats to theirs.  He concluded that he measured up favorably to javelin throwers at middle to lower ranked Division III schools, where he then focused his applications (rank in this case refers to athletic standing).

Many college websites provide detailed information on how a candidate can contact coaches to bring herself to their attention.  Swarthmore College, for example, gives prospective students a gateway to the coaching staff for each individual sport, from men’s soccer to women’s swimming and more.  Look for similar areas on the websites of the colleges and universities on your child’s list.  Consider also sending her to attend a summer sports clinic at the top colleges that interest her, as these summer sessions give her direct exposure to coaches and allow them to see her play.  Remember that the NCAA regulates when college coaches may initiate discussions with prospective recruits.

College and university websites can also provide invaluable guidance for students with accomplishments in other areas, outside of athletics (art, dance, music, theater, film).  Admissions officers generally want students to prepare samples of their work according to specific guidelines and to submit those samples to the relevant department (fine arts, music, etc.).  Each institution has its own procedures and protocols for these submissions.  Duke University offers a helpful example of what a school might ask for.  If a college or university website or application does not provide detailed instructions, have your child call the admissions office to find out where and how to submit materials for evaluation.

In the same way that my volleyball client’s parents sought guidance from a scout, your student artist or performer can seek input about the caliber of her work from her orchestra leader, choral director, fine arts instructor, or other person under whom she is studying — a step that I would recommend prior to a formal submission.  Keep in mind the size of the universe to which this person is referring.  Saying that your child compares favorably with previous students who went on to study at top conservatories or fine arts institutes differs substantially from identifying your child as a top performer in a class of 30 students.  As with athletics, recognition of your child’s particular musical or artistic accomplishments rises in value as the pool of students with whom she is being compared increases in scope and level of performance.

Next up:  Frequently asked questions about activities and interests