How to stand out on college applications

“What’s the best extracurricular to get into a good college?” That's a question I hear a lot. Is there a secret, universal list of activities that colleges most love? 

Short answer, no. There’s no magic list of activities that will get a student into college. Instead, it's what they do with their activities that matters.

What are colleges looking for? Typically, a diverse group of students, with each one adding a unique piece of the freshman class puzzle and, ultimately, graduate. You’re an individual … make your extracurriculars reflect your interests.

1. Do what you do for fun.

Think about what the things you like, and ask yourself, "What can I do besides the obvious?"  For example, if you love to ride bicycles, there are lots of ways to be involved: join a nonprofit that repairs and distributes bikes to underserved populations, volunteer at a bike race, join a riding team, take pictures of races and publish them on a local website, or start a blog that details the best mountain biking trails in town. The activity doesn’t matter to admissions officers as much as your commitment to it. 

2. Don't ask, "Would [insert activity here] look good?"

Just stop. Really. Do what you enjoy. Ask yourself, “Do I like it? Can I commit to it for the long haul?” If the answers are both “yes,” then jump in. 

However, if you’re just doing something because you think it’ll give you a leg up on admissions, think again. If you get into Yale because of your rowing, then you’re committing to more years of rowing. You’d better enjoy it!

3. Do something different.

Are you involved in something on your own? Great. Do something that a typical high schooler wouldn’t be able to, maybe something that is usually thought of as in the adult arena. Get a pilot’s license, get certified in teaching English as a second language, create a short film, become a Master Gardener, or get a certification in a vocation. 

4. Pick a few things and do them in depth … don’t join everything.

Don't sign up for every club you can find to show colleges that you’re a super achiever. Showing a real commitment to a few things goes a lot farther than being a member of a long list of activities. Pick the things you enjoy, because you’ll be dreading the time you spend if you’re simply joining for the sake of padding your resume.

5. Go for the long term over the short term.

Colleges want to invest in students who will graduate. They want to see some stick-to-itiveness in an applicant, because that student is a better bet than one who tries a dozen different activities and either drops them after a few months or does them only superficially.

6. Take initiative.

President spot already taken? Don’t want to be the secretary? That’s cool. Find a different need and fill it. 

If you’re in a club and all the “good spots” are filled, find something else: offer to create a web presence, create a social media strategy, arrange to get funding, network for mentors, write a theme song, or come up with something entirely new that no one has done before. Use your unique abilities and talents.

7. Make an impact.

Colleges want to know that you made a difference, even if that difference is small. Sure, some students start successful nonprofits and invent devices that will change the world … but most don’t and colleges know that. But you can make a difference. Maybe it’s something small, like volunteering at chess tournaments for your old middle-school team, or maybe it’s big, like raising $10,000 for your favorite charity.

Find a way to make contributions with your own personal flair. Colleges like the students who make an impact wherever they are.

8. Don’t quit. (Unless …)

You're not going to be great at everything you do - you’re human, after all. It’s harder to stick with something that’s difficult than it is to continue with something in which everybody is always telling you how great you are, and colleges like to see fortitude. So don’t quit, even if you’re not succeeding, as long as you’re still enjoying it.

If you love Scottish dancing, but you know you're forever going to be forgetting the steps and smashing into people, keep dancing and keep enjoying yourself (but for the love of pizza, try to improve!). And if you love fencing, but you know you’ll never win a state, let alone a regional, match, keep stabbing. Your commitment and enjoyment are more important than your awards (or lack of awards). 

It’s not that you should never quit an activity; if you’re miserable and you hate every second of playing the sax, then stop. Find something else that you enjoy; maybe it’s another instrument or maybe it’s something completely unrelated to music.