So, you’re the president of three clubs, captain of the swim team, did a semester abroad, intern at a tech startup and volunteer every other weekend.
Sorry to break it to you, but top colleges don’t care.
By now you already know that it’s not just about grades. Having a 4.0 GPA doesn’t guarantee you admissions to any college, hence your involvement or hunt for extracurricular activities. While you are onto something, you need to rethink your approach in answering the question, “What do top colleges look for in extracurricular activities?”
Stop looking for checklists
A simple Google search will yield results providing you with checklists of ‘The Best Extracurricular Activities for Your College App’, and so on. While these can be general guides, don’t look to them as a surefire way to gain admissions into selective colleges.
Look through the eyes of the admissions committee. If you come across an applicant who say, had a leadership position in her student government, volunteered at a local shelter, ran track, and interned at a start-up, wouldn’t that strike you as a little staged? Also, this checklist approach doesn’t differentiate you, nor does it say enough about you as a person, or what you’re capable of.
The Spike Approach
Work on establishing yourself in a specific area of interest. In other words, develop a spike. This might seem counter-intuitive, but being well-rounded could actually hurt you. Ever heard of a jack of all trades, master of none? Top colleges are not looking for individuals who merely dabble in different areas. They are looking for individuals who will someday be specialized leaders capable of making a deep impact within their field. By employing the spike approach, you prove to them that you have strong potential to achieve exactly that.
A spike is something that will set you apart from other applicants in an authentic way. It is something that showcases effort, focus, discipline, and a passion to grow in YOUR area of interest. For that reason, a spike will look different for every individual.
Figuring out your spike
No, we’re not being cheesy. The whole point of a spike is to feature what YOU are passionate about. Don’t think about what you think the admissions committee wants to see on your application. Think about it this way, if you didn’t need to worry about homework, studying for tests, or any other current commitments, what would you do with that free time? (If the answer is watch Netflix and play video games all day, then you might need to think harder). Here are a few examples:
Academic: Let’s say you’re a sucker for the sciences. Don’t just limit yourself to good grades. Perhaps reach out to a professor to mentor you in conducting your own research project, and work on getting it showcased or published. You could also look out for selective competitions that are recognized within that field.
Sports: Even if you are not looking to land a sports scholarship, don’t discredit your interest in your sport. In addition to being committed to your practices and tournaments, think about how to create a deeper impact through this interest. You could organize charity sports events to raise funding for a cause you believe in, or establish a mentorship program through your club. Or, you could spearhead a local health and fitness campaign. The possibilities are endless.
Non-traditional: Just because your interest doesn’t fit into a traditional category, does not mean you can’t use it to showcase your potential. For instance, if you’re passionate about fashion and beauty, consider creating content that people will care about on the web. Start a blog or YouTube channel and find a unique angle to cut through the noise, proving that you know how to think outside of the box. Maybe start a pop-up makeover booth to raise money. Or research how to integrate sustainability into the fashion industry.
“Ugh, who has time for that?”
While your current extracurricular activities may not be hurting your application, per se, they’re not helping either. They’re taking up time that could have been used more productively. So, in that sense, they are hurting you.
Think back to the interest that you decided to focus on and reevaluate whether or not each of your current activities fit into the picture. If they don’t, and if you were simply doing it to tick a box, then stop. Or hey, cut back on those social media and Netflix binge-watching hours, and you’re all set to focus on building that spike.
The key takeaway here is to go deep, not wide. Top colleges are not interested in students who can do a little bit of everything. Top colleges want students who are going to make waves in their industry. Focus on what you’re passionate about, and go be great at it.