Extracurricular Excellence

Extracurricular activities are a great way to give an application depth and character. They are the “intangibles” that really separate one academically qualified applicant from another. While a students should not pursue one activity or another for the sole reason of resume padding, they should most definitely have some kind of rough plan as to how they will structure their extracurricular time and what activities they will invest themselves in in order to maximize the effectiveness of their college application.

One common misconception by some students is that they need to be “well-rounded.” However, it is often much better to have a few activities that show strong engagement, passion, and excellence than ten or twelve that show minimal participation. As productivity expert Cal Newport emphasizes, admissions officers want to see depth, not breadth. Citing a 2002 economics study, Newport comes to the following conclusions regarding activities:

  1. Don’t send mediocre signals. An easy way to represent yourself as a medium ability candidate (be it for college, grad school, or a job) is to present a laundry list of activities none of which are all that difficult to achieve; e.g., club memberships, a summer program, a two-week mission trip. None of these signals convey a particular impressive trait, and the list as a whole makes you seem like someone desperate to differentiate yourself from the low ability candidates. The top people don’t have this worry.
  2. Send a small number of strong signals. The real world is messier than what math predicts. Help the reviewer follow a high ability story line by having one or two activities that are really impressive — that is, required an desirable trait, like creativity or deep values, and not just persistence. Seeing a small number of excellent things, and no low-value bragging, will convey a strong sense of confident ability.
  3. Prime the side channel. In the formal model, you have no control over the side channel. In the real world, you do. Be interesting. Make people like you. Actually convey the traits that you want the channel to communicate. If you’re a high school student, for example, this means you should actually be a curious, nice, energetic person that engages the class material. Teachers notice this, and admissions officers admit that such traits easily come through in the recommendations.

In lay man’s terms, Newport is saying two things 1) admissions officers want to see excellence and 2) excellence cannot be faked.

Excellence in and of itself is not necessarily related to the number of activities one pursues, but the number of activities has an effect on the amount of time and energy devoted to each one. It is much more likely that a student will end up having significant achievements with a few activities than with many, because fewer activities mean more time and energy devoted to each one.

Secondly, admissions officers are shrewd and intelligent people. They are aware of the psychology and mindsets of students who are gearing towards the best universities. Therefore, when they see a student who has frantically listed any and all imaginable activities on an application, they are less likely to be impressed by the volume and more likely to be aware of the glaring absence of significant achievements.

A Primer on College Application Essays

The college application essay is invariably one of the more challenging aspects of the application process. With no solid rules or criteria for the ‘perfect essay’, students are often left with a bevy of questions. What do I write about? What if I don’t have anything interesting to say? What if I haven’t done anything exciting or groundbreaking?

Because such ambiguity can be distressing, here are some simple guidelines for writing the essay.

1. Keep in mind the purpose of the essay: to show admissions officers a side of the applicant that their GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activities cannot by themselves reveal. If you have any special talents, hobbies, or passions, this would be a good place to mention them.

2. Don’t get hung up on the plot of your story. If you are having trouble coming up with that “life-changing” experience, remember that what makes an essay great is not the story itself but the way the story is told. An exciting event will certainly help, but it is more important that you offer meaningful reflection on the event, demonstrating qualities such as introspection and a willingness to learn.

3. Focus on identifying yourself. If you can’t think of a topic to write about, brainstorm by focusing on who you feel you are as a person. Identify your qualities, values, and beliefs – once this is done, the essay topic should come more naturally.

4. Keep the writing short and concise. It is much better to be succinct than longwinded. When reviewing your drafts, ask yourself the following question: Does this sentence add value to my essay? Does it help me make my main point? Cut out writing that does not fulfill such criteria.

5. Paint a picture with your words. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but since photographic submissions are not accepted, the second best thing to do is employ descriptive language and vivid imagery. Admissions officers read a lot of essays, so when they come across writing that engages their senses and makes the reading experience more enjoyable, they invariably get a better impression of the applicant.

For a better idea of the points above, here are some sample essays:

College Board Essay #1, with invaluable built in critiques.
College Board Essay #2, with invaluable built in critiques.
Sample College Admissions essays with critiques for various schools.
Main essay # 1
Main essay # 2
Sample Common App Short Answer
Why “X” Short Answer

Finally, if you would like a head start on writing your essays, here are essay questions and topics from some of the most selective universities.