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By Elizabeth LaScala

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About this blog: I post articles to offer timely and substantive college admission guidance on important topics and issues. Originally from New York, I have a B.S. from Hunter College in NYC and advanced professional degrees from the University of...  (More)

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What Activiites Really Count on College Applications?

Uploaded: Nov 14, 2011
Dear Dr. LaScala,

Our son has just started high school and we are wondering about extracurricular activities. How much do they really count on the college application and what tips can you share with us? We are parents who are trying to plan ahead.

Dear Plan Ahead Parents,

Congratulations on thinking ahead about college and extracurricular activities! Extracurricular activities are activities the student engages in that are outside the scope of the student's high school coursework. Some broad categories include sports, music, clubs, volunteerism, hobbies/interests, and employment. Often students are involved in more of these activities than they recognize or can keep track of. So I suggest they keep a record of their activities and the time involvement for each semester of high school as well as for summer months. When it comes time to fill out college applications the student will have this information at his or her fingertips instead of relying on memory or incomplete records. Along with extracurricular activities, it helps if a record is kept of honors and awards, both academic and extracurricular, that the student has been given. You would be very surprised how often these are forgotten.

There is a section on the Common Application, the University of California application, and most other college applications to list and describe accomplishments and extracurricular activities. So it is safe to assume that these are important in the admissions process. Colleges look seriously at what students do with their time. Extracurricular activities demonstrate that the student is balanced (has interests besides academics), and can manage multiple and sometimes competing priorities. A record of these activities can also help students when it comes time to write college essays. They can discuss what kind of impact a particular activity had on them and how it may have changed them or their world view. These kinds of observations can provide focus and lend credibility to their personal essays.

Since your son is a freshman, it is important to point out that younger students are still forming their interests and parents should give wide breadth to wholesome activities they choose to pursue. For example, a student may want to volunteer for an animal rescue foundation, but show little or no interest in becoming a veterinarian. And that should be encouraged. Everything a younger student does should not be judged as good or bad based upon an adult's idea of 'career focused,' 'meaningful' or 'it will look good on your college application.' On the other hand, older students do need to pay more attention to the link between their activities and how colleges evaluate applicants. For example, if an 11th grade student believes she wants to study veterinarian medicine, it would be wise to demonstrate an active interest in animal medicine by volunteering, shadowing a vet and/or seeking part-time or summer employment at an animal clinic.

It is important to understand that you do not have to travel or spend a ton of money for extracurricular activities to have an impact. In fact, a new study released by Do Something, a non-profit organization that promotes youth volunteerism, showed that college admissions committees distinguished between the type and duration of activities seen on applications. This organization surveyed U.S. News & World Report's Top 50 Colleges. The results revealed that, in general, colleges were more impressed with long-term and thoughtfully selected activities than a single summer of travel abroad or sporaidic involvement in many diverse pursuits. In addition, the fit between a student's academic interests and the extracurricular activity is important. For example, a student who is interested in law or political science and demonstrates consistent involvement in political activities, like volunteering for a political campaign, running for student government or heading up a petition drive presents a highly convincing profile to a college. If the same student chooses to challenge himself by taking AP US History and AP Comparative Government, all the better. But a student who clocks occasionally at a nonprofit in the community or takes one summer trip abroad and does not back up the activities with context is not likely to as many score points in the admissions review process.

Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She develops best match college lists, offers personalized interview and essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds to maximize merit and financial aid awards. Visit www.doingcollege.com; Call (925) 891-4491 or email at elizabeth@doingcollege.com

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