Proven approaches and examples of extracurricular activities to help your child stand out on college applications and get into their dream schools
Table of Contents
The Current State of Elite College Admissions
Why Being “Well Rounded” No Longer Works Well
What Are Colleges Looking For?
Common Objections to Developing a Specialized Extracurricular Profile
Asking “What extracurricular activities should my child pursue?” or “What’s the best route to take?”
Becoming a chronic joiner
Focusing on the end goal or a year-by-year extracurricular roadmap
Waiting and hoping your child will follow their “passion”
Spending too much time on uninteresting or unimpressive activities
Competing in competitive areas
Downplaying activities because they’re “just a hobby”
Treat time as your greatest asset
When opportunity knocks, go all in
Build relationships with mentors
Form an extracurricular experience
What are extracurricular activities?
Definition: An extracurricular activity is any activity done outside of class. It can include arts (e.g., painting), sports (e.g., baseball), clubs (e.g., Science Quiz Bowl), jobs (e.g., working at a bowling alley), personal commitments (e.g., caring for a younger sibling), and other endeavors.
Part 1: Introduction
The Current State of Elite College Admissions
Getting into top colleges is harder today than it has ever been.
Most noteworthy schools receive an increasing number of applications each year from incredibly accomplished students for roughly the same number of spots.
At schools like Stanford and Harvard, acceptance rates have plummeted to around 5% overall in recent years. Rates are even lower among regular decision applications vs. early action or early decision applicants. However, this trend is not limited to Ivy League acceptance rates or those of other private institutions. Elite public universities, like UCLA, University of Michigan, and University of Virginia, are also seeing significant drops in admissions rates.
Why Being “Well Rounded” No Longer Works Well
Parents and students often believe that the best way to succeed in an increasingly competitive college application process is to enroll in all their school’s toughest courses and receive straight A’s, top-notch ACT or SAT scores, and participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible so that they be seen as “well rounded.”
Teachers and guidance counselors often propagate this idea by telling students that elite colleges will not accept them if they receive B’s, attain less-than-stellar test scores, or do not participate in every extracurricular activity offered by their school and prestigious summer programs.
To be clear, your child’s grades and standardized test scores (i.e., their stats) collectively represent the most important factor in college admissions. (Note: this doesn’t mean they should enroll in every tough course at their high school and local community colleges. More on this point later.)
However, these days, most applicants to elite universities are highly accomplished. In addition to having excellent stats, many applicants have engaged in an abundance of extracurricular activities: they’ve served in a variety of leadership positions; volunteered with important organizations; taken summer courses at universities over the summer; traveled abroad for a mission trip; and participated in musical, theater, and athletic groups.
The problem is that when so many excellent candidates apply with similar applications, it becomes difficult for admissions committees to differentiate students from one another. It’s not surprising, then, that so many of these qualified applicants are rejected each year.
The approach of participating in tons of extracurricular activities to appear well rounded used to work. However, the college admissions game has changed from the time you or your child’s counselor applied to universities. If you stick to the old approach, your child’s admissions become a roll of the dice.
(Note: Parents and students who take the old approach to college admissions also experience personal drawbacks like stress, fatigue, and the feeling of never having enough time to pursue things they find most meaningful. When you drive your child across town to participate in various activities, constantly perform chores like washing soccer jerseys, and fill your weekends trying to perfect mock trial rebuttals, you risk sacrificing what matters most to you.)
What Are Colleges Looking For?
When admissions readers encounter a student with a common list of “well-rounded” extracurricular activities, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes them different from their peers. For instance, if asked what makes Dan—a student who did well in all his classes and on standardized tests, joined 6 clubs on campus, and played trombone in the school band—memorable, you’d struggle to come up with a good answer.
On the other hand, Susan played trombone in the school band, raised money to purchase band equipment for children in local, underfunded elementary schools, and organized a band competition in her community for charity that was covered by multiple media outlets, including the Chicago Sun Times. Susan would easily be remembered as “the charitable musician.” She has an “it factor” that she could leverage for successful admissions.
When evaluating applicants’ extracurricular profiles, colleges are looking for students who are specialists in what they do and genuinely interesting people.
College admissions reps routinely discuss how they’re looking to admit diverse applicants. Most people misunderstand this to mean that colleges simply want to accept individuals from diverse backgrounds with respect to ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and so on. While these personal factors are important, colleges are also looking for diversity when it comes to students’ abilities, interests, and achievements.
The more competitive the college, the more they’re looking to admit highly accomplished specialists in various arenas. In other words, they would much rather admit three students whose achievements are at the 99th percentile of science, community service, or teaching than three students who are at the 80th percentile in science, music, and community service.
Being a specialist literally and figuratively pays in American society. One prominent example comes from the world of physicians, where specialists (e.g., orthopedic surgeons) far out-earn generalists (e.g., family medicine physicians).
In addition to becoming a specialist, your child should aim to pursue interesting activities that will lead to them being seen as an interesting person.
Admissions readers can easily figure out how a student like well-rounded Dan got involved in his various extracurricular activities. Moreover, they would assume that he followed the paths of other students before him.
In comparison, specialist Susan’s achievements would be much more difficult to explain. How did she raise so much money to purchase expensive instruments? How did she organize such a large competition? How did she gain the attention of major media outlets?
If we knew nothing else about Dan or Susan, we would likely find Susan to be the more interesting student, as well as the student who has demonstrated greater initiative, impact, and leadership.
To truly stand out, your child’s extracurricular accomplishments should be difficult to explain. That is, someone should hear about their accomplishments and wonder, “How on Earth did a high school student do that?”
Benefits of Extracurricular Activities
Although this guide is written from a college admissions perspective, we recommend that your child pursue extracurricular activities that interest them for several other reasons, including: gaining deeper knowledge of academic subjects; refining non-academic skills; exploring curiosities; gaining clarity around potential career options; participating in team activities; honing leadership, initiative, and other valuable personal qualities; personal fulfillment; and fun.
Common Objections to Developing a Specialized Extracurricular Profile
At this point, you’re probably questioning whether and how your child will ever demonstrate achievement at the highest levels in a given area, how they will find the time, and so on. You may attribute incredible achievements—publishing a book, starting an activist movement, publishing original scientific research in a noteworthy journal—to genius, rather than something attainable for your child.
Before we dive into our step-by-step approach to developing a standout extracurricular profile, it’s important that I address your objections, hesitations, and questions. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to ever buy in and will instead probably revert to the well-rounded approach.
There’s more to life than attending Yale or some other elite school. Why not just let kids be kids rather than fuel their college admissions stress?
I agree that there’s more to life than attending an Ivy League or other prestigious school.
However, I believe that there’s tremendous value in doing so, such as the opportunity to take courses with world-renowned faculty, build a network of bright, creative, and interesting fellow students, access incredible resources, and have a brand name on your resume that can open all sorts of personal and professional doors. As the son of immigrant parents and a Cornell and UCLA alum, I can personally attest to all these benefits.
My goal for this article is not to communicate that your child must attend a well-known university, or that failure to do so will lead to fewer life opportunities.
Instead, I’m offering my insights—to interested families—on getting into prestigious schools, based on my 15 years of college admissions advising experience.
Here’s the most interesting part: students who pursue a focused extracurricular path instead of trying to join every activity and mimic what their peers are doing end up spending less time overall on extracurriculars; experience less stress by not trying to “keep up”; and stand out on college applications.
If your child is going to devote significant time to pursuits outside the classroom, why not go about it the right way?
I’m skeptical that my child can get significant media attention/lead a significant nonprofit organization/etc. How can my “normal” child, a non-genius, ever achieve things at that level?
Parents often view a successful student’s peak achievement and think, “My child is bright, but he’s not one of those students” before either: a) essentially giving up on their child’s chances of getting into a top college or b) trying to keep up with the Joneses’ kids by encouraging them to join every activity and falling into the trap that is the extracurricular activity rat race.
What these parents don’t realize, however, is that the successful student’s peak achievement reflects years of effort and incremental achievement in a singular area. These small steps are quite achievable and don’t require any sort of genius to take. (Note: I will provide examples later in the article.)
Imagine you’re about to go on a 3-mile hike to the top of a 2,000-foot mountain and back. If asked how you would make it to the top, you would probably tell me how you’re going to follow the marked trial, one step at a time, to eventually get there. On the other hand, you wouldn’t give up before you started thinking it would require one big leap to get to the top.
I encourage you to approach your child’s extracurricular activities like the deliberate hiker rather than the irrational person who questions their leaping ability. If your child takes one small step after the other, they’ll eventually develop a standout extracurricular profile. The key is to focus on a single trail, rather than routinely veering off-course.
How important will grades and test scores be if my child is able to stand out as an interesting specialist?
To reiterate: nothing can substitute for your child’s grades and standardized test scores, which make up the foundation of your child’s college applications.
Your child must enroll in challenging courses and do well in them if they aspire to attend top schools. Easy course loads, as well as low grades or test scores, cannot be overcome by developing a standout extracurricular profile.
However, it’s equally important to emphasize that doing well in challenging courses and on standardized tests like the SAT or AP Exams is not enough to get into elite universities. To stand out from the competition, your child must pursue interesting activities in a focused way to demonstrate expertise, initiative, leadership, impact, and other positive qualities.
If you don’t believe me, you can find countless examples online of high-achieving students (e.g., 3.9 unweighted GPA, 1550 SAT score) who don’t get into any of their top choices. On the other hand, we work with several students each year with impressive, but not mind-bending stats who outperform star peers at their school when it comes to college admissions. The difference comes down to their extracurricular profile and how they communicate their background and goals through their college essays.
Your child’s academic goal should be to achieve grades and test scores that fall at or above the 25th percentile of accepted students (the higher, the better) to have a realistic chance of getting in. Beyond that, it’s all about extracurriculars, essays, and letters of recommendation for college.
(Further reading: How to Create Your Perfect College List)
Is it ever too late to follow the specialist approach described in this article?
The short answer is no, but I’ll return to the hiking example to elaborate on this one.
Suppose you had 4 hours to hike to the top of the mountain and back. This would be doable if you’re reasonably fit. On the other hand, if you had 1 hour to make the trip, you would only get so far before time ran out. That said, you would still get some exercise in the latter situation.
In the same way, your child will likely achieve greater heights with their extracurriculars if they begin their focused journey sooner rather than later. However, if your child starts later, say, midway through their junior year, they can still make significant progress with their activities. If your child gets creative, they may be able to accelerate the process.
My point is that your child should begin developing a focused, standout extracurricular profile the moment they learn about this approach, whether a freshman or rising senior.
Part 2: How Not to Pursue Extracurricular Activities
Responding to common objections is the first step to shedding longstanding misconceptions about extracurricular activities for college admissions.
Before we explore effective extracurricular strategies, I’ll highlight misguided approaches that will lead to your child blending in with the rest of the applicant pool. Don’t worry if you or your child have been guilty of anything on this list. Becoming aware and changing course now will help your child get ahead.
Mistake 1: Asking “What extracurricular activities should my child pursue?” or “What’s the best route to take?”
Every year, tens, if not hundreds, of parents ask me what the best strategy is when it comes to extracurriculars. When I probe further, it becomes clear they’re not asking me whether their child should look to be “well rounded” versus a specialist. Instead, they’re essentially asking me, “What is THE path my child should take?” during the school year, summer, etc.
The best route for your child will look very different from other students’, even from those who got into top schools. In other words, there is no single path to achieving extracurricular success.
Suppose we were evaluating summer activities for your child. A prestigious math program at MIT would be great for your child if they’re elite in that area and looking to further develop their skills, win competitions, conduct math research, and so on.
On the other hand, the same program would be a poor fit for your child if they were looking to scale their nonprofit business focused on teaching computer coding to individuals in their community without a strong educational background. In the latter case, your child would want to devote their time and energy to those efforts and would be wise to recognize the opportunity cost of attending the summer program.
Any time your child asks, in a general sense, “What extracurricular activities should I do?”, treat that as a sign of lacking clarity. It’s much better to take things slower than you’re comfortable with to identify the right opportunities for your child than to jump into things out of anxiety or because you heard an activity “looks good” on college applications.
Mistake 2: Becoming a chronic joiner
Many high-achieving high school students are what I call “chronic joiners.” These students tend to be ambitious, looking for opportunities to impress others.
A chronic joiner, for example, holds a non-officer membership on the yearbook staff, serves as secretary of the French club, volunteers 20 hours at the local soup kitchen, participates in the math club, and perhaps sings in choir. This student probably is enrolled in the maximum number of AP courses possible, too.
By participating in too many extracurricular activities, a chronic joiner spends so much time doing busy work for various committees, sitting in meetings, and attending mandatory rehearsals that having time to see friends, complete homework, and pursue independent projects becomes almost impossible.
Moreover, a chronic joiner demonstrates little initiative, creativity, ambition, and perseverance to admissions committees. In fact, this student would be viewed as interchangeable with another student, because nearly any student can fill these positions. So why blend in by filling these positions at all?
College admissions committees view the chronic joiner as someone who has developed few, if any, discernibly unique skills, as well as an applicant who has not experienced many challenges to join certain organizations or achieve in standout ways. They simply followed a prescribed path. Real talent and skills need to be developed individually and over a long period of time. To make matters worse, many of these positions require busy work that do not benefit the student.
The chronic joiner is likely following in the footsteps of his friends, older siblings, cousins, and others. Indeed, they may be following the paths of older siblings and cousins who were once successful in the admissions process.
After all, if a student’s sister was accepted to a well-known school and participated in the same activities and took the same courses, why wouldn’t the younger sibling be accepted, too? We’ve already covered how college admissions has become competitive to the point that students need to be unique to be successful, not well rounded. Looking around to see what others are doing is a surefire way to blend in—and not stand out.
What your child should do instead
Nowadays, admissions readers want your child to be somewhat rough around the edges. They want to accept your child only if they demonstrate ambition and curiosity and tackle a problem or an interest directly. Your child should demonstrate openness to change and willingness to take risks, pursue activities that they love, even if the paths they follow are messy, complex, and extremely difficult to do well in. They want your child to demonstrate a willingness to make mistakes that are intelligent and interesting. Moreover, they want your child to understand that failure and well-informed mistakes are necessary on the road to innovation and change.
Mistake 3: Focusing on the end goal or a year-by-year extracurricular roadmap
It’s common for families to ask me years in advance what extracurricular activities their child should pursue during each year of high school, as well as what “capstone project” (more on this later, but it’s essentially a student’s greatest extracurricular achievement) they should complete.
I don’t know. Neither does your child. And that’s precisely the way it should be.
The earlier your child is in their high school career, the more they should focus on exploring things they might be interested in. As time goes on and your child develops more clarity around their interests, they should go deeper with the things they enjoy and cut out the rest. Think of this approach as an extracurricular funnel.
When students and parents ask me during freshman or sophomore year about their year-by-year extracurricular roadmap or what they should focus on during the summer before their senior year, it’s impossible for me to answer well because a lot can change between their question and final summer. What if we select an end goal that the student no longer wants to pursue in six months?
What your child should do instead
The better approach is for your child to start out doing a few things they think they’ll enjoy. Likely, your child will be interested in some of their choices and uninterested in others. They should identify two or three next steps for the activity areas they’re interested in and pursue those, letting go of the one(s) they don’t like and going deeper with the ones they do like.
It would be wrong to equate not having a roadmap with not being systematic. Your child should systematically explore interests without having a senior year destination. It’s likely your child will achieve bigger things at that time than they could have initially envisioned.
In the tech startup world, there is a philosophy known as “fail fast.” Instead of trying to build something huge at the start without first validating the idea’s merit, people who fail fast extensively test options and make incremental developments to determine whether an idea has value. They cut losses—that is, the things that aren’t working—quickly and turn their attention to the next idea that could work.
Eventually, your child will develop outstanding skills in their areas of interests, their end goals will become clear, and they’ll achieve at higher levels than their peers.
Mistake 4: Waiting and hoping your child will follow their “passion”
I’m not sure when “follow your passion” became such a buzz phrase. What I do know is that buying into the idea has been problematic for many families.
Some people approach choosing a passion or calling as if they were buying something from a catalog. Others believe that students should wait until, one day, they realize what they truly love and only then will they be able to fully apply themselves.
(Note: There is a minority of people who have always known what they want to pursue. However, while these individuals tend to know what area they want to focus on, they still need to figure out the specifics. For instance, someone who has a passion for photography may not know what type of photography they want to pursue, or whether to become a professional photographer themselves vs. a photography critic.)
My experience has shown me that the idea of waiting to realize or choosing a passion and then going all in is completely backwards.
Typically, the most successful students are those who do something for a while that interests them, even if they’re not initially good at it. As they become more skilled, they develop a passion for it, and pursue the activity at increasingly higher levels.
I’ll offer an example from my professional career to demonstrate the point. Even though I’ve been helping students get into top colleges since 2004, I only started writing about college admissions in 2014. Back then, I wasn’t very good at it. However, I kept writing because I wanted to provide valuable guidance for students, parents, and guidance counselors everywhere. Eventually, I became skilled at writing and developed a passion for it. As I write this guide, my insights have been featured on The Washington Post, US News & World Report, New York Post, and many other prominent websites. If I had waited to follow my passion for writing, I probably wouldn’t be reaching thousands of families with this information.
What your child should do instead
Finding a passion should be an active, deliberate process. Rather than wait around, join everything, or join what they think they should, your child should make small, educated bets on what they might like and go from there.
If your child goes deeper in areas of interest, over time they will become the student that admissions readers evaluate and think, “Oh, that’s the student who studied rare species of plants in Colorado,” “That is the guy who wrote a book about video games,” “That’s the young lady whose pancake blog went viral,” or “That student filmed a documentary about homeless dogs in New York.”
On the other hand, no admissions counselors will remember that your child was part of the Spanish club or that they were a supporting actress in a few school plays.
Here are some ways your child can explore extracurricular possibilities:
Reading. Your child can read books about a topic that interests them. The goal is not to reread a childhood favorite (e.g., Harry Potter) or read a classic, canonical work of literature (e.g., Moby Dick) that will probably not interest your child, unless they are interested in American novels or whales. Nonfiction books and How-To guides on topics that interest your child can be excellent choices. Podcasts, blogs, websites, and articles from The Economist, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or another periodical that excites your child can also work.
Individual practice. Students with interests in music, theater, sports, painting, photograph, or writing can use this time to build on previous skills or explore new interests. To improve, your child should spend time practicing on their own, take private lessons, and participate in elective courses that teach new skills.
Informational meetings. Attending a meeting or two of a club can be a useful way to see what time commitment an organization will demand of your child, and if your child is interested at all. It’s ok to attend a meeting or two or volunteer a few times and to decide not to pursue an activity.
Informational interviews. Students with longstanding interests in organizations that do not commonly host high school students can be difficult to find, but that does not mean they are inaccessible. To reach out to leaders in these organizations, your child can set up informal, informational interviews.
Volunteering and unpaid internships. Many students make the mistake of volunteering at an organization like a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or a retirement home simply because they believe that it will make them look like a “good person.” If your child is interested in painting, they should consider doing something like teaching art classes to students from low-income backgrounds. Historical societies, museums, animal shelters, art galleries, creative nonprofits, labs at local universities, and other unique organizations are always looking for extra help.
(Further reading: How to Find Internships for High School Students)
Mistake 5: Spending too much time on uninteresting or unimpressive activities
Many popular activities consume a lot of time and interfere with study schedules.
Take sports, for example. It’s common for a student who plays varsity basketball to wait an hour each day after school before participating in a two-hour practice. It could be 8PM by the time the student gets home, showers, eats, and begins homework.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with sports (I love sports)—or academic decathlon, chess club, debate, and other activities. However, many popular extracurricular activities take up a lot of time and can impact your child’s academic performance, as well as their ability to develop a standout extracurricular profile, pursue hobbies, or spend time with friends and family.
I’m not suggesting that your child leave every time-consuming activity they’re part of. If your child truly enjoys an activity, they should continue with it, recognizing that it won’t help them stand out on college applications. However, I recommend being involved in no more than one such activity. Moreover, I recommend cutting out any activity that your child doesn’t love, is hugely popular, and takes up a lot of time.
Mistake 6: Competing in competitive areas
In his book, How to Be a High School Superstar (which I highly recommend), Cal Newport documents how, despite slight differences in talent, Luciano Pavarotti is a far more recognizable opera singer than Juan Diego Florez. However, this difference has likely contributed to their large differences in income. While Florez probably earns a good living, Pavarotti’s estate was estimated to be worth $275-$475 million dollars.
Newport used this example to coin the term, “The Superstar Effect”: people who are at the top of their field receive disproportionately greater rewards. He then goes on to describe how students would be wise to become superstars in their chosen field.
I have consistently observed how the most successful college applicants were the ones who not only achieved great stats, but also superstar status. They’re remembered by admissions committees as “That young man who did X” or “That young woman who achieved Y.” This point is closely associated with the “Specialist” section above.
What your child should do instead
When faced with the choice of becoming a specialist in more than one area, your child should choose the one in which they’re likely to be the best.
The more crowded the activity, the less likely your child is to be the best or among the best. For instance, because debate is such a popular activity, your child will be competing against thousands of other bright students across the country. If they end up as the best debater in the country, they will stand out on college applications. However, if they’re among the top 5-10% of debaters nationally, top colleges will not be impressed.
Does this mean your child shouldn’t pursue debate? Not necessarily. However, your child should be thoughtful about how they pursue debate. If they’re doing it just for fun or to spend time with their friends, they should treat debate as recreation and not devote too much extra time to it.
On the other hand, if your child is skilled at debate but is simply not among America’s best, they can think of ways to be the best at something associated with debate. For example, if your child enjoys making videos, they can start and grow what eventually becomes the most accessed debate tutorial YouTube channel. Or, your child can organize a series of debates in her local community where experts in various fields discuss current events. These debates can be broadcasted live and the series can spread to other cities, college campuses, and so on.
While your entrepreneurial child will not be known to admissions committees as the best high school debater in America, they will solidify their superstar status as “That young woman who founded the debate series that swept Texas.”
(Note: Some students misinterpret this advice and pursue the most obscure uncommon activities in hopes of standing out. Admissions committees can see through this from a mile away. Being a nationally-ranked yodeler, especially if it’s not associated with your other interests or personal background, is not going to impress folks much.)
Mistake 7: Downplaying activities because they’re “just a hobby”
Many parents, students, and guidance counselors mistakenly believe that some activities—or types of activities—are inherently better than others when it comes impressing admissions committees.
For example, varsity sports, model UN, yearbook, robotics club, and summer programs are assumed to be more impressive than nature photography, coding at home, or blogging.
Most times when I ask parents what their child does extracurricularly, they stop at listing school clubs and community service activities. When I ask how they spend their time on weekends or with friends, parents tell me that their child, for example, paints during nearly every minute of free time, but that it’s “just a hobby.”
My ears perk up anytime a parent or student attempts to downplay the significance of activities that they devote tons of time to but that don’t fall under the made-up category of “serious extracurriculars.”
What your child should do instead
Your child has devoted a lot of time to certain activities and has developed a passion for them. Why not leverage this passion for extracurricular success rather than waiting for some other activity to pique their interest?
The previous debate example was meant to demonstrate that your art-loving child need not be the next Picasso to stand out through art. If they love teaching, why not volunteer at a local elementary school’s art class? How about preparing art kits for children who are spending weeks at the local children’s hospital? Both first steps can serve as the foundation for something much larger and demonstrate your child’s initiative.
(Further reading: How Any Extracurricular Activity Can Get You Into A Top College)
Part 3: How to Pursue Extracurricular Activities the Right Way
In Part 2, I didn’t stop at listing things your child should avoid when pursuing extracurriculars. Instead, we reviewed various common extracurricular missteps, why they’re a problem, and what your child should do instead.
This unit is intended to build on how your child should ideally pursue extracurriculars. While your child’s path will be unique to them, I’ve distilled success principles based on the hundreds of students I’ve supported as an advisor.
Strategy 1: Treat time as your greatest asset
Everyone gets 24 hours a day. Yet, few people accomplish much more than others with the same time allotment.
The most accomplished people I know—whether in their personal or professional life—are the ones who protect their time at all costs, devoting it only to the people and activities they enjoy most.
Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and writer, published a famous, 111-word blog post in 2009, titled, “No ‘yes.’ Either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or ‘no.’” The idea is that you should say “no” to everything that you feel anything less than, “Wow! That would be amazing!” By doing so, you leave room for the rare things that get you really excited.
It’s tough enough for well-intentioned adults to carve out time for priorities. For overcommitted high schoolers surrounded by overcommitted peers, this is especially difficult.
If you’re reading this article early in your child’s high school career, you can encourage them to wade into different activities. If your child is an upperclassman, they’ll have to cut out unimportant, unimpressive, uninteresting, and unnecessarily time-consuming activities.
I advise my students to schedule free time in their calendars to allow for meaningful exploration. For instance, your child can block out 5-7PM three evenings a week to try something they’ve been meaning to but haven’t yet gotten around to. In other words, the blocked-out time is meant to be used purposefully, not to watch a TV sitcom while eating potato chips. (unless they’re conducting research for their upcoming sitcom pilot, of course.)
The biggest obstacle to freeing up time tends to be parent and student anxiety. Students often try this approach for a week or two, before they feel internal or parental pressure to do something more tangible—join a club, enroll in a college course—upon observing how a certain peer seems to be “getting ahead.”
Resist this anxiety and encourage your child to protect their time at all costs if they want to deeply devote themselves to impressive activities. If you allow them to slip into mimicking their peers’ activities, your child will sabotage their admissions odds—the situation they’re ironically attempting to avoid by overscheduling.
Here are some additional ways to free up time:
(Note: I recognize that the following pieces of advice are controversial and differ from what you’ll hear from most parents, guidance counselors, and other high-achieving but burnt out students. However, they will help your child protect their time and develop a powerful extracurricular profile to stand out and get into the best schools.)
Reducing time spent on homework. You can share the following strategies with your child to help them study smarter—in less time:
Work in isolation and in a quiet space, such as in a library or at a desk in your house that is away from the computer.
Avoid using the internet unless it is required. If the internet is required for a certain assignment, use website blockers to avoid spending time perusing social media.
Do not have your phone near you while studying.
Work in 45-50 minute chunks with 5-10 minute breaks.
Don’t spend too much time transitioning between activities. Otherwise, you may get caught up in email, social media, and text messages from friends.
Eat well. Nutritious meals and snacks will help you be more efficient while completing school work.
Complete as much work as possible at school.
Eliminating unnecessary courses and reducing workload. Many students think that taking the most difficult course load possible will guarantee them admission to the best universities. They attempt to take every AP and Honors course offered by their school. If your child is already enrolled in AP Biology and they are not terribly passionate about science, they probably should not add AP Physics or AP Chemistry to their schedule. It is perfectly acceptable—and recommended—to take fewer time-consuming courses, especially if it allows time to achieve at an incredibly high level with extracurriculars.
Let’s revisit our discussion about “interestingness.” Because so many high school students across the country are taking similar courses, taking a school’s most challenging courses won’t help your child stand out among the applicant pool, even if it does in their own high school community.
If your child is choosing between two different courses to satisfy a requirement that they are not excited about (e.g., a future social scientist who is choosing between AP Biology and AP Psychology), electing the course that is less work or widely viewed as “easier” will not harm their admissions odds because it fits with the overall admissions profile they’re looking to develop.
Cutting unnecessary electives can also save time. If your child has enrolled in band, choir, art, or theater and has lost interest, it may be a good time for them to cut that class. In addition to class time, these courses also drain your child’s free time after class.
By eliminating unnecessary electives and replacing overly difficult courses with more manageable options, your child can down on class time and gain time to study at school or even leave campus early. More importantly, your child will eliminate hours of unnecessary homework, freeing themselves up to explore their own interests during their evenings and weekends.
Striving for academic success, not perfection. Another problem that many students and parents experience is the desire for perfection: straight A’s, only 5’s on AP Exams, and perfect or near-perfect ACT or SAT scores.
What surprises many parents is that perfection is no longer the key to acceptance. The occasional A- or B+, a slightly lower score on an AP Exam, or an ACT or SAT score that is closer to the 25th percentile of a college’s reported range of test scores are unlikely to be the factors that determine who gets accepted and who gets rejected.
Rather than spend months studying in order to bring an ACT or SAT score up a few points or to bring a B+ up to an A-, your child should spend that time pursuing their artistic, volunteer, or intellectual interests. This is not to say that students should ignore courses and test scores, but at a certain point good enough actually is good enough.
Elite colleges can fill their entire class with students who achieve perfect GPAs, ACT or SAT scores, and countless 5’s on AP Exams. Yet, they routinely reject many of these students in favor of applicants with slightly more modest stats but who have innovatively pursued extracurricular activities.
(Note: Trying to stand out through academics falls under the umbrella of “competing in competitive areas” that we discussed earlier. For your child to be seen by elite college as a specialist in academics, they would have to achieve a perfect GPA, ACT or SAT score, SAT Subject Test scores, 5s on as many AP exams their school offers, perhaps achieve As in college courses at well-known universities, and so on. While a minority of students in America will stand out in this way, the enormous time commitment required to be seen as “the best of the best” will detract from other activities and leave little to no wiggle room for academic missteps. In other words, it’s very risky to attempt standing out in this way.)
Strategy 2: When opportunity knocks, go all in
People who talk about the Sivers article tend to focus on learning how to say “no” more. While it’s important to turn down less-than-thrilling options, the second part is learning how to say “Hell yeah!” and to follow through on rare opportunities.
Earlier in this guide I discussed how your child should take incremental small steps in their area of interest so that they can reach the top of the proverbial mountain over time. At times while taking small steps, your child will create or be presented with an exciting opportunity that they are itching to pursue.
When the rare, truly exciting opportunity presents itself, your child should go all in and fully devote their time, attention, and emotion.
For example, if your child has been conducting biology research for two years at your local university and comes across a promising finding that he can write up for a first-author submission to a major journal, he should commit most, if not all, of his extracurricular time to doing so, even if it means taking a break from other activities.
Rare opportunities reflect months or years of hard work. Pursuing them effortfully will lead to outsized achievements and impressiveness when it comes to college applications.
Strategy 3: Build relationships with mentors
After spending some time exploring extracurricular activities and developing new skills, your child will have more clarity about their passions and be ready to take their activities to the next level.
While your child can go it alone, I strongly recommend they connect with a mentor. Mentors are like rocket fuel; they can help your child accelerate their extracurricular progress and achieve greater things during their high school career.
There’s no set time your child should seek out a high school mentor, but they should have a certain level of enthusiasm about an idea before doing so. Otherwise, the mentor might feel like they’re putting in more effort into a project than your child.
Mentors come in all forms. If your child is interested in pursuing scientific research, a local university professor could be a great mentor. On the other hand, if your child is excited about leading a fundraising project for infants with fetal alcohol syndrome, a philanthropist or nonprofit organization president could be the right person to guide them.
Reaching out to new organizations and possible mentors can be a daunting task. A good place to start with finding a mentor is through a personal connection, whether teachers, school staff, parents, family members, or family friends.
If a personal contact through these networks does not pan out, your child should consider sending emails to possible mentors with whom they might want to work. Because so many professionals are inundated with emails, this process takes care and patience. In an email to a mentor, students should succinctly state what they’re specifically looking for. The email should be personal and address the potential mentor’s expertise.
Email to mentor example
Dear Dr. Smith
I am a high school student at Lakes Community High School (resume attached) with a longstanding interest in bird evolution and migration patterns. I came across your work on the Calliope Hummingbird about a year ago and have been fascinated by how their patterns differ from other birds in their genus.
I’m writing to explore the possibility of joining your lab as an unpaid research assistant because I’m eager to learn from you and to help advance your research. If you’re interested, I’d love to know the following:
1. What types of duties could I take on as an entry-level research assistant?
2. Are there undergraduate or graduate students who might serve as mentors?
If you do not have space for a student, do you recommend any reading related to hummingbird evolution or know anyone else who might need a research assistant?
Please let me know if I can provide any additional information. I look forward to hearing from you.
If a potential mentor does not respond, your child should wait a week or two before checking in. Here’s a sample follow-up email:
Dear Dr. Smith,
I hope this message finds you well. I recognize you’re incredibly busy with various projects, but I’m writing to float my previous email to the top of your inbox.
If a potential mentor still doesn’t respond, that’s OK! Some professionals are either super busy or skeptical of mentoring high school students, so your child should move on and find someone who is excited to guide them.
Strategy 4: Form an extracurricular experience
By pursuing paths that are less common, your child’s accomplishments will take a different form than what is conventionally seen on college applications.
No matter what your child does, they should dive deeper into a specialized interest, rather than pursue multiple activities superficially. The former often culminates in a project, but it may also result in a series of different activities that constellate around a central interest. Let’s explore some ways this might happen.
Project-based approach. Exciting and impressive extracurricular accomplishments can take many forms. It might culminate in writing a book, maintaining a blog, creating a small business, starting an activist movement, or conducting (and publishing) original research, to name a few. These types of “passion projects” or “capstone projects” take months—or even years—to complete, and require long-term dedication. A project-based approach does not preclude your child from also pursuing other activities, but could consume substantial time.
Related accomplishments. Many students with an interest in more common activities such as violin, baseball, choir, and theater think that they will not be able to stand out because the standard for being “the best” is exceedingly high—performing or playing professionally.
It may be true that your child is not, empirically speaking, the best at a certain activity, but that does not necessarily mean that they should give up that activity, especially if it continues to interest them. Fortunately, your child does not need to be the best at a given activity for it to be worthwhile from a college admissions standpoint.
Instead, your child can stand out by immersing themselves in other aspects of an activity. Think about pursuing multiple interests or activities in a narrow field of ideas. Succeeding in related activities will make your child look even more successful.
A student with a longstanding interest in music performance might give private music lessons and start an organization that performs shows for low-income or elderly communities. A baseball player might volunteer or work as a coach for a little league team while writing articles for a local newspaper or a website about current events or affairs in baseball. The possibilities are endless. Your child should ask themselves, “What about this activity am I so interested in and how can I explore this interest in a new way?”
Both approaches—project-based or related accomplishments—require curiosity, dedication, and hard work, not special talents. Forget about the idea that successful students are unparalleled geniuses.
Initial successes are often slow and limited. They might come in the form of an unpaid internship or a volunteer position. Oftentimes, these positions require grunt work. A student who serves as a research assistant for a biology project will probably find themselves spending a lot of time looking at bacteria culture or collecting data. A small business might fail to generate profits. The first draft of a book may require substantial revisions before it is close to being publishable.
The process of getting good at something involves significant practice. Too many students quit activities right before they would have been promoted or otherwise leveled up in skill. Your child should be spending their time on an activity with the aim of improving. The rewards will come.
The good news is that success attracts more success. After your child proves themselves in small ways, they will begin to attract the attention of mentors inside and outside their current organizations. Your child will earn greater responsibilities, solicitations, and avenues for expansion with their developing reputation that they can leverage for more successes.
Take Janet as an example: after Janet was selected to work in Dr. Smith’s lab, she spent time compiling and collecting data and working under the supervision of graduate and undergraduate students. After proving herself by spending every Wednesday and Saturday conducting fieldwork, she began analyzing data under the supervision of an advanced graduate student. After learning how to use computer programs to analyze data, Janet began to propose other avenues for further research, which she followed on her own accord with the help of the graduate student. Dr. Smith observed Janet’s growth along the way and invited her to submit a first-authored manuscript on her independent project to a noteworthy journal.
The deeper your child goes into an activity area, the greater their achievement is likely to be—and harder to explain. A project that is harder to explain will stand out to admissions committees far more than an accomplishment that is simply hard to do.
Atypical achievements will lead admissions committees to wonder, “How did this applicant reach that position? How did they accomplish each step? Why did the student pursue this interest in the first place?”
Admissions committees are impressed by achievements that are tough to map out or initially understand because they signal that the student has not followed a conventional path.
Part 4: Summer Activities for High School Students
Many students and parents are concerned about wasting their summer, so they often find themselves taking courses at an elite university, enrolling in summer programs, working part-time jobs, or volunteering at home or abroad. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these options, families tend to select activities based on what they think will appear most prestigious and impress admissions committees. Families also mistakenly view summer as being discontinuous from the school year, like they must do something different during the months of June, July, and August.
Every year, admissions readers review applications from students who participated in Harvard summer programs or who went on a mission trip to work at an orphanage in Haiti. Some students even write trite college essays about these experiences in their Common Application or supplemental applications. Unfortunately, courses and trips like these can distract students from their ongoing projects.
Summers indeed provide fantastic opportunities to impress admissions committees. Your child should use these opportunities to explore areas they haven’t had time for or, ideally, to go deeper—with far fewer demands on their time—into areas in which they have already demonstrated promise and achievements.
For instance, if your child has been working on a sustainability initiative with her local school district, she may pursue an internship with a sustainability consulting firm and apply her insights to further advance her project. Volunteering at a medical clinic in Thailand for two weeks will not boost her extracurricular profile, especially if she hasn’t demonstrated a major commitment to healthcare through other activities.
On the other hand, suppose your child has taught music at schools with no music education funding and has recruited his friends to help grow this project to all middle schools in his mid-sized city’s public school district. He could make a connection with another school district—one in the US on a different academic calendar or abroad—to implement the program there on a trial basis over the summer.
If your child is obsessed with physics but lives in a rural community with no advanced school coursework or local colleges, she could certainly enroll in a summer physics program at a well-known university so she can pursue her interest at a higher level. Alternatively, she could look to obtain an internship at a company that could use her talents.
Finally, if your child has spent countless volunteer hours designing educational programs for children with autism, working with a nonprofit in Tanzania that aims to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness would dovetail beautifully with their longstanding commitment.
The takeaway from these diverse experiences is that you should judge the value of a summer opportunity based on how it fits with your child’s interests and the extracurricular profile they’re working to develop. Disconnected activities are far less impressive.
(Note: Expensive activities or trips do not equate to prestige. Many parents pay thousands upon thousands of dollars so that their students can travel or study abroad or take courses at prestigious universities, thinking that by spending more money on “flashy” activities, they will increase their child’s odds of getting into a prestigious university. However, admissions committees notice that the student is attempting to fill out their extracurricular activities carelessly, unless the “flashy” program relates to a larger, overarching interest.)
Part 5: Frequently Asked Questions
How will my child be able to explain their activities and projects on their application?
Many students worry that working on a niche, idiosyncratic project will adversely affect their application because it can be difficult to fully explain in the Common App Activities Section. Fortunately, your child has the following several options to convey their accomplishments to admissions committees:
Letters of recommendation. Your child can share their project with teachers and guidance counselors who, in turn, can write about the projects in their recommendation letters. Your child should explicitly ask their teachers and counselors to discuss appropriate activities.
Common App Essay (i.e., personal statement) or supplemental essays. If a project took substantial time to complete, it may be worth writing about in a reflective matter. Your child can describe how they came to the project or activity and what they learned from it.
Common App Additional Information Section. Unlike an essay, the Additional Information Section is optional and should not be written in an essay form. It should simply provide a brief explanation—about a paragraph long—of the project.
Interviews. Although not every school requires one, an interview is an excellent time to share the details of an unusual project.
(Side note: Your child should know that it is ok—even recommended—to not fill in each of the ten slots on the Common App Activities section. Admissions officers know that many students fill out this section application to impress them. However, what will impress the admissions committee is a unique, meaningful contribution, not an exorbitant number of activities. There is no harm in leaving insignificant activities off the application, either.
What if my child wants to pursue an extracurricular activity that does not require a huge commitment but is unrelated to their main interest?
A low-commitment extracurricular activity that requires an hour or so of work each week or every other week can be an excellent way to spend time with friends and explore another unrelated interest. This could take the form of volunteering once a week, participating in Model UN, or another club. Your child should select activities with light requirements. They should avoid activities that, from the get-go, require numerous hours of practice and rehearsal each week or activities that require a substantial commitment both in the classroom and after school.
What about spending time with friends? Why should my child pursue a project without his friends, who are all in band and choir? That sounds awfully lonely.
I recognize the value of friendships. However, high schoolers are often so busy that the only time they spend with their friends is during classes, part time jobs, and other activities. Taking the same courses and joining the same low-commitment extracurricular activity are excellent solutions to this dilemma. In addition, collaborating on a project with a friend can be an excellent way to expand the project’s scope, given that both students are equally interested in it.
My child’s GPA and test scores are not nearly as competitive as other students’. They have started an excellent extracurricular project, but it is already their senior year and I’m afraid my child won’t have enough time to complete the project. What should we do? I’ve heard of taking a “gap year” before applying, but I’m concerned my child will never start college.
If your child’s odds of acceptance to their dream school seem slim, a gap year after graduation may be an effective route to take. By advancing a unique, interesting project during this time that fits with the extracurricular profile they built during high school, your child will have a strong chance of standing out, even if their stats are lower than others’.
I like the idea of my child pursuing their own agenda, but I think they would like to make a difference in their school. Do you have any suggestions?
If your child is unsatisfied with their school’s extracurricular offerings, starting their own initiative, such as a club or program, can be an excellent way to demonstrate initiative and pursue a particular interest.