Are you looking to go to college and wondering what you can do to impress on your college application? Too often I see students spending precious free time in high school, believing their time spent is the ticket to college, only to be wasting their time on “activities” that really won’t matter much on their applications.
In general, these five types of activities don’t help your college application much. Avoid believing that they will, and focus your attention on activities (and studying) that will improve your admissions chances.
1. Volunteer Work
98% of the volunteer work that my students do helps their college applications very little. Why?
Everybody does it. First of all, the majority of it does little to distinguish students from peers. As many high schools require community service for graduation, many of these “hours” completed don’t necessarily appear to be actions borne of any particular passion or interest.
It makes for mediocre, insincere sounding essays. When you choose activities, often the greatest value they offer you is as fodder for admissions essays. The best essays will have perspective and insights on life in some way. But I find that the majority of essays students write on volunteer work often seems superficial and lacks a sense of integration with the student’s day to day world and personhood.
It’s probably not actually your passion, and your role lacks leadership potential. Generic, obligatory volunteer work does not make your application stand out. Just because you’re doing community service doesn’t show that you’re seriously involved in volunteer work. Often, volunteer work is not about developing a passion or vision, but instead is your own participation in a passive role of the service vision of someone else. Similarly, much of this involvement is a “one off” type of situation– you work on one book drive for two weeks, you volunteer at the “Race for the Cure” another weekend. Your commitment to each “Activity” is so minimal that it really doesn’t amount to serious dedication. Such activities will not have the same impact as an activity that you are seriously committed to and made a real difference in. Not only that, even if you are very passionate about the service, or are a leader in that kind of an organization, I find it’s a tougher “sell” on your college application. If you’re the best cellist in the region, that is easier for admissions committees to understand than whether your school outreach program made a difference in the lives of some elementary school students or not. When colleges are looking at your activities they want two see that you’re passionate about, and have achieved excellence in. By nature, volunteer work isn’t competitive– so it’s tough to gain “excellence” points from it.
That is not to say that volunteer work won’t add anything to your application. It’s better than nothing, and if you’ve done significant volunteer work, do include it on your application. Similarly, if you do have a leadership role in a volunteer or service organization, than this could be more advantageous. Again, hour per hour, though, I find that students with other types of activities have an easier time gaining admission to colleges.
2. Mediocre Activities
Did you join some clubs that meet 2 hours a week every other week? Are you on the swim team but a bench warmer?
People sometimes choose low commitment activities, or ones they don’t excel at, but these activities often end up acting as application fluff. If you’re signing up for something because it only requires you to go to a meeting or two, it’s probably not going to make your application.
I was part of the Pep Club in high school. The expectations of the club were to sign up, go to a couple of meetings, and stand in the pep club section at school assemblies and sporting events . This club is not the reason that I got into college and activities like this do little to add to your application.
The other type is activities that are mediocre are essentially competitive ones in which you are not a competitor. If you’re not a standout, either in terms of talent or leadership, an activity may not be the best ticket to getting you into college. When you’re good at what you’re doing or it’s your passion, then you can write essays about it and use it as proof to colleges of your ability to excel. If you’re bad at swimming, don’t join the swim team. Instead, get involved in an activity in which you can show leadership or excellence.
3. Something you do because someone told you it would look good on a college application.
Insincere involvement won’t help you craft essays that speak to admissions committees. All too many students sign up for an activity because someone told them it would look good on a college application. Unfortunately, involvement for “application’s” sake looks desperate and superficial — if you’re not into an activity, then it is tough to write about–colleges will catch whiff of your insincerity.
What could be an entirely legitimate activity on one person’s application could do very little for you– if your sole motivation is “it looks good…” You must actually have interest in and care about the activities you involve yourself in in order for them to help you get into college. Once again schools are looking for something that you are passionate about. If you’re not interested in it, you’re not going to get enough out of it for it to add to your application.
Apathy is easy to spot—you don’t just need to do something because you think it will look good. Don’t take on activities because other people told you to. Engage in what interests you.
4. Summer Camps, Mission Trips, and Leadership Seminars
The problem with these activities: they’re simply too little time spent, and they’re not a part of your everyday experience. Colleges are not going to let you in based on the fact that for two days of your life you went to a leadership seminar. They care about your dedication to a particular activity and vision– and they care about who you are in real life–i.e. day in day out what do you make time for? It’s easy to make time for an activity for two weeks when you’re not staring down three upcoming AP tests and a serious Stats problem set. It’s much more of a statement to stay involved while keeping on top of the rest of your life.
Colleges want people who are going to change the world, who have a vision, and are going to take advantage of every opportunity they are given. If you’re committed to an activity, they’re more likely to see you continuing that activity and getting involved on their own campus, day to day in your typical life. One week of your life isn’t serious dedication. Colleges want people who follow through, not who go on vacations their parents can afford but other students may not be able to.
5. Expensive Summer Programs
Another myth of college admissions is that expensive academic summer programs are a sure way into a school—particularly if you go to one associated with the school you want to attend. These programs are expensive and in no way a guarantee into the university. Don’t think that you have to put your parents into debt in order to get into college, and don’t think admission to Brown’s summer program is a ticket to Brown undergrad– it’s not.
Universities care less about you attending these program and a lot more about the quality of your application. They want to see if you’re intellectually curious, and if you have found a way to express that intellectual curiosity. I have had students get into the school where they attended a summer program. However, this was because they were actively curious and passionate about the ideas that were being taught at that particular program. The program aligned with their interests– but more importantly– the experience was one of many in that area of interest. The interest was well established– even without the summer program (certainly in this case it did not hurt). The program supplemented their application but was not a stand alone element that made all the difference.
You don’t need an expensive program to improve your application over the summer– but you do need to find some way to spend your time that enriches your passions and shapes your personal perspective.
You can find a similar level of enrichment academically without the high price if you get creative. I’ve seen people express interest by emailing professors at local universities and ended up volunteering as an intern. Another student contacted 20 different researchers across Los Angeles in order to find one that would let him sit in on his lab for the summer and do some lab research. Activities like these allowed students to explore their interests and express what they’re passionate about– in a way that didn’t cost $14,000.
What matters is that you’re developing your mind and your passions—not where you do that or how much you pay to do so. In choosing the activities you get involved in, the goal is developing your intellectual potential and fostering your academic interests. That’s what will make your application stand out.