FAQ: How does prioritizing family and friends over extracurriculars look to admissions officers?

FAQOur daughter, in 12th grade, has an outstanding academic record and accompanying letters of recommendation; however, she has not participated in a single extracurricular activity in high school.  She made this decision consciously, as she said that she wanted to spend quality time with her family and friends before she left for college.  How will this decision affect her chances of admission at a Top 20 college or university?

Your daughter has set up a potentially challenging situation for herself, depending on context (a word that I repeatedly use in my blog posts).  My first question centers on the level of her academic performance.  What do you mean when you describe it as “outstanding”?  That characterization could mean straight A’s.  It could signify that she stands out as one of the best students that her recommenders have taught over the course of their careers.  It could also mean that she has designed new Dynamic Geometry Software (DGS) on the teaching and learning of proofs in geometry.  Top 20 colleges and universities will de-emphasize the importance of extracurricular activities for truly brilliant academic minds, meaning the next generation of cutting edge scholars, inventors, et al.  Answering your original question with accuracy means determining whether your daughter falls into one this category.

Your daughter should also make sure to include in her application activities that may not fall into an obvious category, but that still take up her time and define who she is.  One of my past clients, for example, wrote a moving essay on the significance to her of watching a movie with her mother every evening.  She categorized this nightly ritual as the most important extracurricular activity in her life and put it in the context of her parents’ divorce and her desire to bond with each of them in a special way.  The essay brought tears to my eyes and made me laugh, all within a few short paragraphs.  Your daughter may spend part of every evening sitting on the couch with you as you both read a good book.  She may accompany her siblings to their athletic competitions or school science fairs.  She may spend quality time with her aging grandparents.  Make sure she includes these details as part of her story, as they matter to admissions officers.

Whether or not your daughter has put herself at a disadvantage relative to her peers applying to Top 20 colleges and universities depends in part on the story she recounts about her choices and how she decides to tell that story.  Encourage your daughter to embrace those choices and talk about them with passion in her application, instead of just leaving the extracurricular activities section of the application blank.  Taking these proactive steps will make a positive difference in how admissions officers view her.

Next up:  A tool to help you open up the conversation with your child about what he wants in a college