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Extracurricular Activities: So, What’s Impressive?

Amber Gilsdorf August 23, 2018

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“But…what counts?”

A common question vocalized by many high school students as they consider their extracurricular choices. Decoding their question, what they mean to ask is:

"What will impress college admission officers?"

The answer is both strangely simple and deep...YOU. You will impress college admission representatives. Or, at least, that’s the goal. Your choices in extracurricular activities should be an extension of you. A reflection of your passions, interests, and personality. Not a carefully curated list of activities chosen to make you look good. All too often students who pick activities only for the sake of padding their résumé end up missing out on the most important aspect of extracurricular involvement: JOY.

So…how do you do this?

First, start by turning your focus inward and think about you. What do you love to do? What makes you tick? Do you love teamwork? Individual improvement? Serving others? Music? Acting? Technology? Politics? Trivia? Debate? Knitting? Movies? Yoga? Writing? Walking?

The secret is finding joy and curating a list that demonstrates the following:

Follow Your Passion

The secret sauce! When you are driven by passion the activity, time commitment, and involvement rarely feels like work. Or, if it does, the challenge and hard work are rewarding to you. It feels worth it. Your sense of Zen/flow/or “being in the zone” during said involvement is most evident when passion is present. 

Demonstrate That Passion

Show commitment and depth to the activities about which you are most passionate. Specifically, focus on a few areas and go to the deepest levels of involvement you can. 

EXAMPLE: If you love astronomy, purchase a telescope (or ask for it as a gift). Get a used one. Join your school’s Astronomy Club. Don’t have one? Start one. Become a leader in the club. Make stargazing a serious hobby. Organize student activities around space. Follow NASA on social media. Troll websites. Read up on your topic. Find people through online forums or area connections/observatories with whom you can connect. Work with an area college professor doing research. Volunteer at an observatory or planetarium. Take Physics. Create an independent research project for yourself overseen by a teacher. Join a Physics Club. Work with the school to purchase telescopes/other astronomy supplies. Write grants. Apply for scholarships. Take a college class in Astronomy. Apply to summer programs in your area of focus.

Get the idea?!

Show Leadership & Initiative

This usually comes on the coattails of passion. If you’ve identified an area you love, take a wide-angle view of how you can advance it to others with similar interests. All too often we denote leadership as the President of _______ Club or the Captain of ______ team. In reality, leadership takes many forms. Positions below the title of President or Captain definitely count (e.g. VP, Secretary, Treasurer, etc.). Outside of elected positions, consider taking the initiative to set up a summer or holiday internship for yourself and/or friends in areas of career focus. Volunteer or shadow with organizations at which you could see yourself working one day. Get a part-time job if you have time for it (preferably related to a one-day field of study). Other leadership initiatives could be a matter of identifying a need in your school or community or church or friend group or family as it relates to your area of passion and doing something about it.

Demonstrate Leadership

EXAMPLE: Perhaps you are passionate about sustainability. Would your neighborhood, town, street, building benefit from a community garden? Are there kids programs to teach the importance of sustainability? Are there recycling programs at your religious organizations? Athletic events? School? Other places you frequent? What are grocery stores doing with food about to go bad? Could you initiate and take the lead on an area project?

ANOTHER EXAMPLE: Perhaps you babysit and you love it. Take it deeper. Could you do something to benefit your town or neighborhood with babysitting? Make a roster of trusted sitters? List references? Create an app? A website? A social media page? Put together bags for all sitters to take to their jobs that contain educational/fun projects for their charges rather than allowing the TV to entertain?

Get the idea?!

Make an Impact

Make a difference. Create impact. No, this does not have to be an earth-shattering impact. Rather, think manageable and measurable. But, above all, showing your impact will matter greatly on your college applications. 

Demonstrate the Impact

Consider quantity. You can show impact by the number of people who benefit in some way from your passion project. For instance, did you raise money for an organization? If so, how much? For what cause? How many people did it benefit?
If we consider our earlier examples:

#1: How many students joined the Astronomy club? What were the results of the research study you conducted? Did your results get presented or published? Where?
#2: How many tress did you plant? What was the outcome of your recycling initiative (e.g. pounds of recyclables collected?)? How many people will benefit from a community/neighborhood garden? How many will benefit from the aging produce at your area grocery store?
#3: How many families/kids benefitted from your babysitting idea? How many bags were created? Crafts completed?

Get the idea?!

On all of your college applications, your two primary goals are to show who you are and what kind of student/contributor you will be to your future campus.

So, what counts? 

The passions you harbor.
The initiative you take.
The leadership opportunities you find.
The impact you make.

And, best of all…the JOY you derive from your experiences.

Secret of life? Maybe!

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Tagged: college admission, college applications, common app, college search, extracurricular activities

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