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Articles / Applying to College / Extracurriculars that Strengthen College Applications

Extracurriculars that Strengthen College Applications

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Feb. 16, 2015

Question:  Thank You so much for all the great information you share on this forum! I have been getting tons of great advice for my kids. My daughter is in freshman year. Her career goal is to be a pediatrician or dentist. Besides taking relevant AP subjects and marching band in school, what extra-curriculars (individual and team) in school or outside can she do that are good enough to be counted or make an impact towards her college admission/application? Are programs such as ‘Science olympiad’or ‘US First robotics’ worth the time and effort? I recently read your post mentioning Intel & Siemens science competitions and have been looking into those too.

 I appreciate your kind words about College Confidential and am pleased that our site has been helpful to you as you begin to wade through the college quagmire.   In response to your current question, here are some suggestions:

If your daughter is taking challenging AP classes and getting good grades (meaning mostly A’s and B’s) in them and if she is active in marching band, then “The Dean” assures you that she will have many college options and can then, in turn, prepare herself for medical or dental school.

But, commonly, when “The Dean” is asked the question that you’ve posed here, the subtext is “How can my child get into not just anycollege but into one of those prestigious but very picky places that turn away far more candidates than they accept?”

So, if that’s really your question, then The Dean must respond a bit differently:

All of the programs and competitions you’ve named (Robotics, Intel, etc.) are highly regarded but they are extremely common on applications at the most sought-after colleges and universities. Unless your daughter is a finalist in an individual competition, her participation will be considered very worthwhile by admission officials but will not turn any heads. Similarly, taking part in team activities is also viewed as worthwhile, but your daughter would need to distinguish herself individually in order to stand out in the crowd at admission time.

Aspiring scientists, computer scientists, and engineers who pursue their own independent research or who, at the very least, land assistantship positions with local college faculty, are often lauded by admission officials for their passion and initiative, although even these achievements have become commonplace.

Holding leadership roles in school is often considered important, yet admission folks at the hyper-competitive colleges are typically more interested in the big-time stuff:  class presidents and student body presidents rather than Latin Club or Chess Club presidents.  In fact, any application that is rife with school activities but offers few endeavors beyond the schoolyard boundaries may seem ho-hum compared to those submitted by competitors.

So, with your daughter just a freshman, encourage her to think about what she really loves to do and then come up with a way to do it in the community (or even nationally or internationally).  For instance, you mentioned that she’s considering a career as a dentist. Can she figure out a way to send toothpaste, toothbrushes, and floss to disadvantaged children in the US or abroad, to help educate them about dental care, and to engage other teenagers (and even adults) to join the effort?

And don’t overlook the working world. Admission committees always appreciate the applicant who has put in long hours at a paid job … and often the crummier job the better! Bagging groceries or scooping ice cream can offer more college-admissions currency than a cushy internship in the office of a family friend.

However, as your daughter forages for activity ideas that she thinks might “look good” on college applications, she would also benefit from those that allow her to explore her career interests. Granted, volunteering at a hospital and shadowing health-care professionals show up on applications all the time and won’t allow your daughter to seem unique. But, more important, these undertakings can help her to start figuring out if her current goals are on target.

Finally, keep in mind that many students do absolutely everything “right” (perfect grades, great test scores, extensive and uncommon activities) and are still denied from all of their top-choice colleges if they’re focusing on those uber-selective institutions where the decisions can seem confusing and even capricious. So, with nearly three years ahead to guide your daughter as she makes her college choices, be sure to direct her to a range of colleges and not just to the most celebrated ones. If she can hone in on a couple places that offer realistic admission odds to most good students, you will be helping to take a lot of the stress out of her high school experience and to best position her for graduate school down the road, regardless of where she ends up spending her undergraduate years.


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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