The video we made a few weeks ago, 5 Activities that Don’t Help Your College Application elicited a maelstrom of comments and controversy.
This video is a response to that conversation– including the criticism– that’s arisen over that video.
First, realize that our YouTube channel is a super abbreviated, click friendly version of college admissions advice. It’s not tailored to you personally, it’s not in depth — it’s what we can get through in about 10 minutes or less a pop. Of course, I still hope these insights are helpful, but I also hope that you realize what I’m discussing are general trends and not black and white statements. My point with this list is to guide you away from activities that won’t HELP (i.e. SIGNIFICANTLYADD TO) your college application if you’re applying to top schools. Every human being is different and has a different story and situation — you’ve got to take what I’m generally saying and see how it works for you. I don’t need you to agree with me, either– if there’s another theme to my video it’s DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. So, yes, I’m giving advice, but I’m also telling you to find the balance — i.e. what works for you. Some of you have critiqued that I’m contradicting myself– saying “don’t do something because someone tells you to do it” and then telling you certain activities are unlikely to help your application. I actually see it more as speaking to a gray area than contradiction. This is a nuanced process and so is my point of view (even if it’s not always coming across that way).
Now, some points of clarification:
1. It’s not black and white
The admissions game isn’t black and white– nor is my advice on activities or what works and what doesn’t. What I’m sharing is general tips and advice based on my experience schlepping through hundreds of students’ essays over the last decade and trying to help them make those essays as insightful and compelling as possible.
I’ve been working with students for about 15 years in this process– I work with about 20-30 per year in some capacity (whether meeting weekly or only once). I see where these students get in based on what they have to offer — and that is what this video is based on. Yes, it’s a small sample set. Yes, it’s mostly students applying to top ten or top 20 schools. And yes, those schools have very different expectations than less competitive schools. If you’re not applying to any top 20 schools, this advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, my advice is trying to point you in the direction of what will give you the greatest advantage and what definitely won’t be a magic cure all for your bad grades or test scores.
2. For Top Schools: Be the Best at Something
Many of my points are informed by the idea that colleges want you to distinguish yourself– whether as a leader or a person of excellent performance. Doing volunteer work that everyone else is doing to isn’t distinguishing. Being on a team when you’re not that great and don’t feel like a leader of any sort generally isn’t too distinguishing. I’m attempting to tell you this idea — but that doesn’t mean quit every activity you’re not the best at. I did tons of activities in high school– I wasn’t the best at all but I was the best at one or two– those are the two I believe got me into Stanford. That’s not to say the rest didn’t count at all– but certainly not as much.
3. Essays Matter
Many of my tips are the result of hearing many students try to tell stories about activities that make for lame sounding essays. The number one activity I see shoddy essays coming out of are volunteer work essays — generally a certain type of volunteer work that is low commitment or low on the scale of challenging your point of view. Of course there are exceptions! In fact, I am an exception — I wrote one short admissions essay on volunteering in a juvenile prison– but that was not like the other typical volunteer work I did in high school (singing to people at the senior home or dropping off care packages one Saturday for a single day). Ask yourself if your volunteer work will make for an awesome essay — are you gaining perspective on your life and in your world — if yes than do it — that’s the bottom line.
4. Time Commitment Matters
If you listened to my 2nd point and found it confusing or offensive — my point on low commitment activities is that you will do better if you do at least ONE activity that is a major time commitment. Low commitment activities aren’t bad– but they’re like sprinkles on a cupcake — cool, yes — substantive — no. Colleges are going to go for students who have activities that are meatier, higher calorie– the cupcake– before they give any credit for “sprinkles.” I’m not saying quit NHS or Pep Club! I’m just saying make sure you have something you spend serious time on to bulk up your application.
5. Competitive Activities
No, I’m not telling you to quit the swim team. And no, I’m not going to get into an argument with you as to whether you can be a “bench warmer” on the swim team. That pedantic argumentation misses the point.
This tip really is reserved for top 5-10 programs— for all the Penn, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton applicants. These schools at the top want to see you stand out (see point above) — again that doesn’t mean quit EVERYTHING you’re not the best at– but rather that you must find some activity you are the best at to make your application shine at these schools. Sports tend to take up a huge amount of time, which is a reason why I generally recommend not spending so much time on something unless you really shine because there is so much of an opportunity cost– unless you can squeeze another high value activity in, too. Now if you’re not good at any sports or music or anything else– then just do what you enjoy — that’s fine. But again to get into a very top school you need, typically, some sort of activities edge.
Second point on this — if you’re not feeling like a wholly contributing member of your team, your essays on that activity will likely suck. I have read them many times, and that’s why I am encouraging you to find another activity you like and can shine in or be proud of– even if you can’t be the best — find something you can at least take pride in.
So there you go– I hope this was helpful in coloring in some of the gray area.