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Extracurriculars: The Secret to College Admissions

I hope you and your students are having a wonderful summer! Many students - especially in the younger high school grades - often worry at this time of the summer if they didn't get that competitive internship or prestigious pre-college program. 

Please tell them not to sweat it too much. First of all, most of the "plum" competitive summer placements tend to go to rising seniors, so encourage your students to try again next year. 

Secondly, recognize that the most elite schools are looking for "pointy", rather than "well-rounded" students; that is, students who have developed ONE interest or talent over a longer period and to a greater depth. The good news about that is that THEY DON'T HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING and their application doesn't have to be perfect. 

And if they're not "world class" at one thing, well, most schools (except the very most elite) are just fine with well-rounded students. But again, have them do a couple things well and for a period of time that shows real commitment, rather than doing a whole bunch of things, just because they (or you parents) think they have to fill up every one of those 10 spaces for extracurriculars on the Common App. It's Just. Not. True!

Most of all, colleges want a real sense that what they do is done out of enjoyment, not out of duty. For example, kids that have played a musical instrument for 4-10 years generally do it because they truly care about music and their instruments. Contrary to popular belief, even the most dedicated "tiger mom" can't make a teenager do something they really, really don't want to do. 

Another sign that they have a real serious interest or - dare I use this word - passion  - is that they do a number of extracurriculars that are all related. For example, if they are musicians, they might play in an ensemble, take private lessons, enter competitions, AND raise money for a favorite charity by playing on a street corner with two or three other friends.  Or they might get a trio together and play at weddings and events....

If they are budding scientists, they might take an extra course or two on or AND work in a university lab over the summer OR enter an app-making competition. Or they might contribute to their school science journal or volunteer in a hospital or for a local blood drive. Or do some service program overseas. 

If they're an athlete, they can play club AND school sports AND mentor younger kids in their sport.....or organize a sports contest for charity....or write a sports article for their school newspaper, TV station, or magazine. If they are a tech warrior or gamer, they can do basically the same thing! 

If they're interested in the law, they could become active in a social justice cause that appeals to them (Immigration? Climate Action? LGBTQ or women's rights? Homelessness?) and intern at a law firm or judge's chamber. OR they could engage in lobbying activities with Common Cause or work on a political campaign (local, state, or national). 

Colleges are interested in the IMPACT of what they do and the degree of INITIATIVE and LEADERSHIP they show in pursuing their interests or causes. So if they start a club, do they grow its membership? Do they have concrete club plans and are they able to disc

uss concrete actions they took to help others? If they are interested in a specific subject like anatomy, mechanical engineering, sociology, or finance that they cannot take in high school, have they made the effort to take an online course or sign up for a pre-college summer program?   A number of my science students this year didn't get into the highly sought-after UCSD programs they wanted (like LSSI or REHS), but instead made the effort to email every biology or chemistry professor at UCSD, SDSU, SIO, and USD. And guess what? Every last one of those kids got at least one invitation from one professor to come and work in their lab or office this summer!

And what if they just have a paid summer job? Fantastic!! I think I've told all of you about the conversation with the admissions director at one prestigious university recently who said he was sick and tired of reading about spoiled kids who had never worked a day in their life. If they're working, have them keep a journal about the customers they meet, the challenges of the job (including boredom), the things they would do better if they were the boss, etc. These reflections are the kinds of things that make GREAT fodder for college admissions essays! 

And let's say they are practically a latch-key kid this summer. Fortunately, they live in a time when they can do practically ANYTHING from their laptop, sitting in their bedroom! Budding architects or product designers can learn software to put together really fantastic portfolios of their ideas. Budding entrepreneurs can start an online business. Creative writers can start a blog or publish poetry or enter a writing competition. They can even volunteer their time online!

Many of these things are relatively easy to do, especially in the summer. What college admissions officers understand is that MOST KIDS WILL NOT GO OUT OF THEIR WAY TO DO ANYTHING THAT IS OPTIONAL! Therefore, this is what separates the wheat from the chaff in competitive college admissions. 

It's not too late; they have 45 days to get going!


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