How to Plan Extracurricular Activities That Really Count

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“What extracurricular activities look good on a college application?” We hear this question a lot — often from students who have come to view the college application process as an exercise in spin, rather than an opportunity to exhibit passion.

While the temptation to amass activities is strong, especially given the overwhelmingly competitive nature of college admissions, it’s important to realize that superficiality will not get your student far in life, and it certainly won’t help your child get into the college of his or her choice. Admission officers are interested in meaningful engagement, not perfunctory participation. And they are smart enough — and experienced enough — to distinguish between the two.

That being said, here are a few rules your student should abide by when planning his or her extracurricular involvement strategy.

Keep it real. Every admissions season, colleges strive to admit a diverse community of students with a wide range of talents and interests. If your student is not interested in sports or student council, don’t worry about it. Colleges are just as intrigued by the student filmmaker or poetry club founder as they are by the power basketball forward or student body president. Provided that your student demonstrates a deep and consistent commitment, admissions officers will take notice — whatever the activity.

Focus on depth, not breadth. Students who assume leadership roles and participate extensively in one or two pursuits (for about 10-12 hours per week) will always outshine comparable applicants who merely dabble in numerous activities. If your student wants to make a meaningful impact, encourage him or her to find a niche and improve his or her college admissions prospects in the process.

Take advantage of summer. Your student should use summer to secure an internship, take a class, or enroll in a camp that will allow him or her to further explore interests outside the classroom. Summer involvement is a great way to impress admissions officers.

Get a job. Perhaps more than anything else, a job demonstrates to an admissions committee that your student is mature, practical and ready to take on the responsibilities associated with adulthood. If he or she can get a job in an area of interest, great; if not, advise him or her to get one anyway. Most of us, at one time or another, have had to find alternative, less attractive ways to fund the pursuit of our passions.

Be Honest About Extracurriculars. When it comes time for your student to fill out college applications, advise him or her not to exaggerate his or her level of community service work or extracurricular experience. The notion that your child somehow volunteered at a nursing home 20 hours per week while playing three varsity sports, taking four AP classes, and editing the school newspaper seems logistically impossible and, if it somehow was true, still sounds more unhealthy than impressive.

There is no reason for your student to be less than 100 percent honest about what he or she has done in his or her spare time during high school. Some students, short on activities, panic at the sight of so much blank space on their activities section that they resort to grossly embellishing or inventing clubs, sports, jobs and the like. This phenomenon is seen way too often in admissions offices around the country. If you need proof that this way of operating always ends in disaster, see George Constanza’s antics in just about any “Seinfeld” rerun.

All in all, extracurricular life is not about building a resume (your student will have plenty of time to do that later). It’s about finding a true calling. If your child follows his or her heart and strives for authenticity, college will take care of itself.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at