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Articles / Applying to College / "The Dean's" Top 5 Extracurricular Activities

Sept. 29, 2015

"The Dean's" Top 5 Extracurricular Activities

Question: I'm guessing you might have seen lots of impressive extracurriculars on this forum.

May I ask you to list your top 5 extracurricular activities ? I'm curious about it. I have few good extracurriculars and I kinda want to compare them with other good ones.


“The Dean" is nearly 64-years-old. So my current “top 5 extracurricular activities" would probably include:

  1. Taking a walk with my husband
  2. Listening to audio-books in bed with the hope that they will have me sleeping by midnight
  3. Observing my two cats who are already sleeping
  4. Chatting with friends in the supermarket (where most of my social life these days occurs)
  5. Taking another walk with my husband (this is what old people do).

But perhaps you're not actually asking about my extracurricular activities. Instead you want to know which ones I've seen over the years that I would regard as “good" from an admissions-currency perspective? If so, it's a tougher question.

There are countless teenage undertakings that college admission officials view as admirable or worthwhile, and I agree. But if you're looking for the ones that have most quickly turned my head, I suppose I would say these:

  1. Unusual research or invention. It's hard not to be wowed by teenagers like this one who created a low-cost test for pancreatic cancer: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/jack-andraka-the-teen-prodigy-of-pancreatic-cancer-135925809/?no-ist or by the boy who invented a sensor to help prevent Alzheimer's patients from wandering: http://sfglobe.com/2014/12/02/15-year-old-invents-a-sensor-to-keep-alzheimers-patients-from-wandering/
  1. Published novel. A “vanity press" book doesn't always count but it's not necessarily a deal-breaker. Some excellent books would never make it out of the desk drawer if the author hadn't acquiesced to self-publishing. Writing a full-length play or screenplay impresses me, too, especially if it's produced beyond the back yard.
  1. Paid work. Plenty of students can't afford to spend endless hours in the Key Club or Model U.N. They need actual paid work to cover their own expenses and often to contribute to household coffers, too. When a teen puts in long hours at a job, I always take notice, and admission folks do as well. Working students should note on their applications if they've received promotions, if they're responsible for opening or closing a business, supervising a shift, etc. And grungy minimum-wage jobs (in supermarkets, restaurants, drug stores, etc.) usually stand out more than cushier positions … especially when Mom or Dad or Uncle Al is the boss!
  2. Taking any talent off the school grounds. Plenty of high school seniors sing in the school chorus or march in the school band, but I'm always intrigued when I see that a student has been cast in a community-theater production (or, better yet, a professional one) or is doing stand-up comedy at a local dive, even on open mic night. Some teens have recurring gigs playing music for restaurant diners (I knew a young cellist who did this), and street-corner or subway performers catch my eye, too. Similarly, students who win national competitions in Scrabble, chess, rock-climbing, yo-yo etc. demonstrate atypical dedication and have undoubtedly interacted with a broad range of others, which can boost admission odds (and delight “The Dean").
  1. Identifying and Filling a need. My “Ask the Dean" inbox is overloaded with queries from students who want to know how many hours of community service will impress college officials. Those sorts of questions irk me. I hate the way that volunteering seems to have become an admissions imperative. So many teenagers seem to view helping others as primarily a ticket through the Ivy gates. I wish I had a dollar for every kid who claims to have founded a non-profit organization before his or her braces came off. But far more meaningful to me are those teens who practice more random acts of kindness … the sort that may never end up in newspaper headlines, at awards ceremonies, or on applications. Once, for instance, back when I was working at Smith College, a senior put on her application that she babysat 10 or so hours per week. We then learned from her guidance counselor that this girl actually did child care for free for a neighbor who had been a victim of domestic violence and diagnosed with breast cancer. According to the counselor, the student approached the neighbor to ask if she might want some time to herself and offered to watch her small children. That's exactly what I mean by identifying and filling a need. And I prefer these sorts of hands-on experiences (I can just see this girl down on the floor covered with Play-Doh!) than the volunteerism that largely involves attending meetings or asking family friends to subsidize fund-raiser exercise sessions.

You wanted me to limit my list to five, but there are many more interesting and unique activities that appear on applications … or should. This old College Confidential discussion thread on “Hidden Extracurriculars" will give you an idea of the varied passions that some of your peers have pursued and which might eclipse the standard fare (Spanish club, debate society, yearbook, soccer team …) at admissions-verdict time.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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