Dec. 15, 2020
I was just denied from my first choice and I'm trying to piece together what happened. One thing that sticks out to me is that I listed my extracurriculars with Eagle Scout near the bottom of my Activities List and my jobs/NHS/academic honors near the top. A friend of mine who put Eagle Scout at the top of his Activities List got into his first choice and his grades were not as good as mine. I'm applying in a Regular Decision round soon and wanted to see how much importance colleges put on the order of Activities List, and which extracurriculars are the most appealing to them. Does Eagle Scout stand out more than other things? What's the most impressive activity in an admission officer's mind?
Sorry that you got bad news from your top-choice college, but — without a lot more information, it's impossible for "The Dean" to speculate on why you weren't accepted. What I can tell you however, is that — unless you put Call of Duty in the #1 spot (and maybe Madden 2020 in #2), then it's unlikely that the order of your activities played any sort of role in this outcome (but more on that in a minute). In fact, if your Early Decision/Early Action school admits fewer than, say, 30 percent of its applicants, then you probably did nothing wrong at all. These colleges simply don't have room for all of the qualified candidates who apply and they may be seeking specific interests (e.g., future math or German majors), accomplishments (oboists, robotics whizzes), or other factors that are beyond your control (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background, geographic location) that would round out deficiencies in the college's enrollment patterns. The fact that your friend was accepted elsewhere with Eagle Scout at the head of his roster is an apples-versus-oranges comparison ... i.e., it means nothing.
Nonetheless, before you submit your Regular Decision applications, you're wise to take a close look at your activities section. Admission officers do tend to value Eagle Scouts and appreciate the dedication required to get there. However, no matter where this lands on your list, the college folks are going to see it. Thus, if the entries that come before it are clearly worthwhile endeavors and important to you, then no changes are needed. What you should avoid, however, is putting endeavors at or near the top simply because you feel that they "sound good," even if the number of hours, weeks or years that you've devoted to them aren't significant. For example, if you served meals in a soup kitchen every Saturday for three months of your junior year before COVID hit, you might believe that this is the sort of endeavor that admission committees want to see. However, they'll really be more impressed by the four full years that you devoted to the marching band — or, of course, to scouting. So make sure that the activities you mention first are generally the ones to which you've devoted the most time. Otherwise, admission officials may wonder why you gave less time to so-called "important" undertakings, and they'll figure that you're merely trying to impress them.
Putting a job — or jobs — near the top of an activities list is often a plus in admission offices. So if you did devote a big chunk of time to paid work, then that was a wise — and probably honest — move. As for your "NHS/academic" honors, The Dean can't weigh in on this without more details. However, that might fall under the suck-up-to-admission-committees rubric because many students devote only the mandatory hours to their NHS commitments and because "academic honors" don't really count as "activities" unless there are actual undertakings (e.g., science fair participation and prizes) that go along with them beyond studying.
In addition, the order of the activities on your list is not as critical as the brief descriptions you provide for each one. Although it can be a challenge to explain unusual activities (or atypical involvement in the usual ones) in just 150 characters, you should double-check the blurbs that you've created to make sure that they succinctly clarify what you do and highlight whatever is special about your contributions. If any undertaking — or your role in it — is truly uncommon, you can use the "Additional Information" section to elaborate.
Also survey your list to see if it includes any unique entries. Admission committees do get tired of reading over and over about the Key Club or the Model UN, and many teenagers don't realize that hobbies or interests that aren't part of an organized group or club can actually be more intriguing at decision time. So if you foster cats in your family room or stack wood for an elderly neighbor, this may be more eye-catching fodder for your list than the standard fare. You might also consider moving NHS and "Academic Honors" to the "Honors" section to free up space on the Activities List for such personal undertakings.
Bottom Line: When any college rejection rolls in, it can feel necessary to try to determine why this happened, especially when there are more applications just ahead. However, in today's crazy admissions climate, there is often no clear answer. Yet, while the placement of your Eagle Scout achievement is definitely not the reason behind your bad news, you're still smart to revisit your application before you hit the Submit button again. Best wishes for better news to come!
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.