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Quality Extracurricular Activities Can Be Crucial to College Admission

If your teen applies for admission to a selective college, how important are activities like student government, band and sports? They could make a critical difference, say admissions officials.

Some 85-90 percent of students who apply to colleges are academically qualified, says Rodney Morrison, associate chancellor for enrollment management at Rutgers University-Camden. So schools must make admissions decisions based on more than just academics. “Activities are the tipping factor,” says Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid, at Swarthmore College. Depth of involvement in extra-curricular activities can be particularly important.

There’s No Formula

So what activities will get you into college? “There’s no perfect formula. You can’t just plug it in,” says Bock. “We love students that are busy, especially if they are doing something they’re passionate about,” says Amy Greenwald Foley, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Delaware. But busy doesn’t mean more is better. Many college admissions officers insist it’s about quality, not quantity.

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“We would rather see three activities than 23,” says Jim Miller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Foley concurs. “We would much rather see fewer activities listed, and have all activities representative of the student’s passion,” she says. Admissions officers like to see sustained commitment in two or three activities. “Activities that they’ve engaged in for years have more weight than a one-off activity-hopper,” says Foley.

Jess Vermillion, a recent Downingtown West High School graduate, was apprehensive about leaving activity spaces blank on her college applications. Though the Common Application used by many colleges allows a dozen spaces for activities, it’s okay to leave white space, say admissions officers. The 12 spaces allow for any activity, relevant hobby, work experience or volunteer work.

According to Bock, it’s more interesting, especially to liberal arts colleges, to show multiple and diverse interests. It doesn’t have to be an odd combination of activities, “like the varsity lacrosse player who keeps a poetry journal,” says Bock, but it helps to show that a student is open to different ideas and isn’t just interested in one thing. “They love to see a diversity of activities,” says Vermillion.

Grades, then Accomplishments

A student’s high school grades and test scores count more than activities. With the possible exception of Division 1 athletes or rare talents, extra-curricular activities do not trump academics. “All the extra-curriculars in the world won’t make up for a poor academic record,” says Foley.

However, activities illustrate who a student is amd how he will fit in on campus. Academics can predict success in college classes. But activities can convince colleges that a student will interact and get involved.

Admissions officials say they like to see more than a title such as editor, captain or president; it’s important to illustrate accomplishments in that role. Being elected president of an organization can be a popularity contest and is not in itself that impressive, says Miller. Colleges recognize that a student can be very skilled at an activity without leading the organization, says Bock. Students are advised to seek a recommendation from someone who can expand on their accomplishments and to elaborate on their leadership skills in their essays, rather than rely on titles to impress colleges.

It’s okay to list hobbies, or non-school-affiliated personal activities. “List everything you do because it tells your story,” advises Bock. Activities without organizations, such as journaling (for poetry or prose), knitting, skateboarding or Ultimate Frisbee can appeal to colleges. “Those are the really interesting kids,” says Foley. Explain what you do and more importantly, what it means to you, says Bock.

Work and Service

Many college applicants are hesitant to list employment on their activities resume, but that may be a mistake. “We value work,” says Bock. “There are a lot of great skills that come from working.” Foley notes that “a job of any kind shows time management and dependability.” Work experience is especially relevant to colleges if it relates to an area of study.

“Community Service is a hot, hot issue,” says Foley. Nevertheless, it’s a myth that colleges require community service, she says. “It’s not distinctive that you’ve done service. It’s why you’ve done it,” says Bock. So students should explain what motivated them to perform community service, rather than simply listing a service activity.

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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