July 27, 2020
My son is a strong student who got almost a perfect score on his PSAT but hasn't had a chance to take the SAT or ACT yet. His grades are all A's. So I think he has some good opportunities in terms of college choice, except for one thing: His only interest is video games. He doesn't have any extracurriculars, and he never went out on weekends, even before COVID. No school football games, no parties, no homecoming float, no school plays. Sometimes other kids will come over and play video games with him, but other times he will just play against other people online. We are talking about his college essay and he wants to write it about video games, and then for his activities list, he wants to list winning a video game tournament. Will it be a problem for him to highlight video games so prominently in his college application? I should add that he is not majoring in anything having to do with video games — he wants to major in education.
With excellent grades (although you didn't mention the rigor of the classes) and potentially high test scores, your son will certainly have college options. However, as you probably already know, the vast major of institutions — even large public universities — practice "holistic admissions." This means that admission officials will look beyond the GPA and test results to see what else the applicant has accomplished. And, as you can imagine, an application that highlights just your son's prowess as a video gamer will probably work against him and will thus limit those options considerably.
Granted, there are folks out there — even in admission offices — who tout video games as a way to develop myriad skills or as a much-deserved stress-breaker for harried teens. But the fact that playing these games is your son's only extracurricular endeavor is going to be a greater negative than if his sole devotion were, say, volunteering at a community soup kitchen or leading the marching band. Yet any candidate who lists just one activity, however worthwhile it's perceived to be, is going into the potentially competitive selection process with a couple strikes against them.
It's fine for him to include winning a video game tournament on an Activities List. But if that victory isn't accompanied by other ventures outside of gaming, it will raise a red flag for admission officials. Likewise, while "The Dean" isn't quick to endorse an essay about gaming, of greater importance is how well your son writes and what, specifically, he writes about. More on that in a minute.
You say that your son wants to major in education. So how does he know this? Has he volunteered in a school? Tutored other students? Assisted a teacher? Even during these crazy times, he could test-drive his ambitions by providing online academic assistance to struggling elementary children or peers. Even better, he might design and present a summer Zoom class on a topic that will engage youngsters (yes, even video games, although that wouldn't be the ideal choice!).
I would also suggest that your son pursue a paying job that gets him out of the house and away from those controllers, if you're in a place where it's safe and pragmatic to do so. (Grocery stores and fast-food restaurants are hiring teens in many areas.) If working isn't practical or wise, it's time for your son to find an activity other than gaming that he can do at home. In fact, this "activity" could even be tied to his interest in video games ... as long as it's not more video games (e.g., he could read about a certain historical period that is featured in his games or teach himself graphic design/coding). Then, when it's time to write a college essay, he could amuse admission committees with a topic along the lines of "Coming Up from the Cave," which begins with his passion for gaming but then explains how it led him to new pursuits.
If, on the other hand, your son is skilled at eSports, that's a whole separate conversation. (You don't mention this, so "The Dean" is assuming that it's not the case, but I also know what's often said about those who ASSume!). Because I grew up in an era when Mr. Potato Head was considered a technological marvel, I never thought I'd live to see colleges recruiting eSport "athletes." Yet today over 200 schools not only field eSports teams but also offer scholarships. (These range from about $1,000 up to $25,000, but with most toward that lower end.) A Google search can provide an abundance of information or you can read more here. So if your son seems qualified to compete on a collegiate level and he contacts coaches and lands on their recruit lists, then his limited extracurricular life shouldn't be a negative after all.
Nonetheless, I'll give him the same advice that I would give to any prospective college athlete: "It will be clear from your application that you have achieved success in your sport. Yet, although a coach may advocate for you, it's ultimately the admission staff members who determine your fate. So you'd be smart to write your primary essay about something different, just to show them that you have other experiences, interests or ideas."
Hopefully, if you encourage your son to expand his horizons this summer, this will be true for him as well.
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 email@example.com.
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