Step Off the EC Hamster Wheel and Become a Star

March 2, 2021 • by AdmissionsMom

“How good are my extracurriculars?” is one of the most common questions we get on r/ApplyingToCollege. Then I receive tons more about how many extracurriculars are necessary and whether a kid’s chances will be hurt because they haven’t performed at Carnegie Hall, been speaking Mandarin since they were five years old, or cured cancer. I get it. It’s an important part of your application. It’s also a broad category, and as a result, there’s a lot of room for creativity and individuality. That also means that kids feel a lot of pressure to have the most impressive, superhuman extracurriculars possible.

I mean if you’re at any stage of the college admissions process, you already know the word “extracurriculars” is important. Colleges want you to not just be a great student and an amazing test taker, but also someone who spends their time doing meaningful activities.

JEEZ. As if you didn’t have enough on your plate.

But think about it like this: there are lots of students who have grades and scores similar to yours, but none with the exact combination of interests that make you you. Here’s the good news: activities that are meaningful and important to you can actually improve your life and make you a better person while making you a stronger college applicant. Considering the opportunity that the Activities Section of the application affords you, be proud of your extracurriculars! Despite what you might have heard, you do not need to cure cancer, be a violin prodigy, have thousands of volunteer hours, be president of multiple clubs, or be in a sport to go to college. Those are all good activities, but they aren’t a requirement.

If you help out at your parents’ business or care for a grandparent, include that! Do you work as a cowboy, like a real, working, horse-riding, rounding-up cowboy? Definitely put that down. Are you a professional speedcuber? Let colleges know. Do you like to read a lot? Show them. Do you moderate a subreddit? Do you spend a substantial amount of time running a meme page? Do you spend hours conducting your own Internet research about a topic you love? They want to know that, too.

The bad news? There is no magic formula or combination of “best” extracurricular activities that will guarantee you get admitted to your favorite colleges. If so, everyone would be doing those.

SO, WHAT DO COLLEGES REALLY WANT?

Ask yourself: Does it seem interesting to you? Is it something that you can get behind and feel like what you are doing is worthwhile or meaningful to you or others? If so, yes, it can be good for your application. If not, then no. If you’re worried about the amazing specialness of an activity or opportunity, it means you’re really not that into it. The lack of interest is what makes that particular EC nothing special for you, and you’d be better off finding something else. As an admissions counselor from U Chicago shared at an info session, “As soon as you figure out what you think we’re looking for, we’re gonna change our minds.” Colleges want to see the reflection of who you are and what interests you, not what you’re trying to guess that they want you to do.

In a statement made last summer from over 300 College Admissions Deans about what they care about, they said: “We have never had specific expectations for any one⁠ type of extracurricular activity or summer experience and realize that each student’s circumstances allow for different opportunities. We have always considered⁠ work or family responsibilities as valuable ways of spending one’s time, and this is especially true at this time.”⁠⠀(I summarized the entire statement in an Instagram post linked here and in a blog post linked here if you’d like to read the entire document — which you should.)

And, here’s what MIT Admissions says about Extracurricular activities:

“Some students feel so much pressure to get into the “right” college that they want to make sure they do everything right — down to their extracurricular activities. Fortunately, the only right answer is to do what’s right for you — not what you think is right for us.

Choose your activities because they delight, intrigue, and challenge you, not because you think they’ll look impressive on your application. Go out of your way to find projects, activities, and experiences that stimulate your creativity and leadership, that connect you with peers and adults who bring out your best, and that please you so much that you don’t mind the work involved. Some students find room for many activities; others prefer to concentrate on just a few. Either way, the test for any extracurricular should be whether it makes you happy — whether it feels right for you.

College is not a costume party; you’re not supposed to come dressed as someone else. College is an intense, irreplaceable four-year opportunity to become more yourself than you’ve ever been. What you need to show us is that you’re ready to try.(emphasis mine)

Remember it’s not exactly about the type of ECs you do — it’s more about your involvement. If you are enthusiastic, interested, and involved, then any activity is a good EC. They don’t have to be unique. In fact, I’m not so sure there is such a thing as a “unique” activity anymore. If it has added value to your life and helps paint a picture of high school you, include it in your application.

In the end, you gotta realize that extracurriculars are merely one part of your whole application. Do they guarantee admission to any particular school or set of schools? Are they the deciding factor between acceptance and rejection? No and no, because colleges that consider your ECs are looking at your entire application package and also at their own institutional needs, so there’s no guessing what’s going to appeal to any one school for any one year. If anything, learning about your activities provides admissions counselors an opportunity to get to know you better. That means you just have to keep doing you!

So while the following tips aren’t a cheat sheet, I hope they offer some wisdom and guidance that you might find helpful on your college admissions journey.

THINK OUTSIDE THE EC BOX

Keep in mind that basically anything that you do outside of classwork, homework, and test prep is considered an activity. That includes jobs, family and home responsibilities, elderly or child care, personal projects, interests, and hobbies, and independent research, in addition to the more typical research, internships, and in and out of school community service, clubs, and sports.

That’s right. ANYTHING. If you worked in a coffee shop, that counts. If you maintain a blog, that counts too. Even playing video games can count in the right context (like if you’re interested in a related field).

Colleges want to see that you have a life beyond school work and test prep. So don’t be afraid to mix it up. Also, keep in mind that colleges understand when you have home and family responsibilities, and these also belong on the Activities list on your application. If you spend your afternoon taking care of your siblings or your grandparents or you have to help your parents in their business, list it. That counts.

BE STAR-SHAPED

I mean colleges don’t want you obsessing over the most impressive, superhuman extracurriculars possible. They aren’t looking for you to have any particular kind of ECs. They want to know what gets you interested and involved. High school is a time for you to learn about yourself and what intrigues, interests, and excites you. You’re a teenager; you should be exploring and checking out a variety of interests and experiences.

Don’t box yourself in, thinking that there are only a few things you should be doing. As such — and I acknowledge I’m going against the grain here — my philosophy for helping kids with extracurriculars is all about being star-shaped. I don’t actually recommend having one big “spike,” meaning a single extracurricular you devote all your time to, though I recognize that’s the trendy advice these days, nor do I recommend trying to pursue every single extracurricular you can because you feel like you need to check off a laundry list of activities for the “resume booster club” so you can be “well-rounded.” Instead, shoot for being kinda well-rounded with some spikes — like a star — by pursuing four or five activities that interest and excite you. But honestly, you do you. Be who you are. That’s what colleges want. And if being you means having one big spike or being a perfectly round ball, then that’s perfectly fine, too.

GET INVOLVED

Get involved with your life: Read, read, and read some more. Get a real teenager job. Take care of yourself. Exercise. Walk — a lot. Practice mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. Learn stuff that helps brain development, like an instrument and a language. Take up a hobby like knitting, origami, historical research, or whatever strikes your fancy. Do more than schoolwork, social media, video games, and Netflix binging — not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, there just needs to be a balance. Take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Get involved with your family: Be a leader in your family. Organize game night. Cook dinner for your family. Wash dishes. Babysit your siblings. Help with grandparent care. A note about family responsibilities: Some teens have to be at home every day after school to watch siblings while parents work or help with elderly relatives. There’s no way they can participate fully in other extended ECs. Not only do your family responsibilities preclude “normal” ECs, but they also show your dedication, commitment, and responsibility. Colleges want to know about this. Colleges know family obligations take precedence over more conventional extracurriculars. If your family relies on you to care for a relative, let colleges know. You can address this in the Activities section and then explain in more detail in the Additional Info section if you feel it needs to be addressed more fully in order for them to more fully evaluate your application.

Get involved with your school: Join a club or two, or start one. Or not. Just do something independently, like make a point to sit with someone new at lunch once a week, especially looking for the kids who are alone. You can figure out what your school needs and what skills and talents you have to contribute.

Get involved with your community: There are multitudes of ways to be involved. Even just taking the time to answer questions for your fellow applicants on A2C can be helpful. Here’s a mom reminder: “If you’re ever at a loss with what to do with yourself, do something for somebody else.” Look around your community and figure out what the needs are, then begin to work on one. (Maybe check out www.volunteercrowd.com for some ideas). Here are a few suggestions:

  • Help out at a retirement home or homeless shelter. Play games or music. My kids interviewed senior citizens about their lives at our local retirement home and then turned the responses into songs that they performed for the senior citizens a few weeks later. You could also write poems about them or make a story for them to share with their families.
  • Make comfort bags for people who don’t currently have housing. In my family, we call these “Judy Bags’’ after my mom, who would always drop off food. Include water, granola bars, handy wipes, and anything else you feel could brighten their day and let them know someone is thinking about them.
  • Walk dogs and play with kittens at your local animal shelter.
  • Volunteer for an after-school program.
  • Make sandwiches at your local food bank.
  • Coach a kids’ sports team.
  • Tutor for the SAT or ACT.

If you don’t feel called to volunteer, don’t worry about it. Use the time you would have spent volunteering to cultivate the activities that interest you. After all, community service is not about college applications, and it’s also not an absolute requirement for your apps. Do it because it makes others feel good, and it can also bring about some of those warm fuzzies inside you.

MAKE TIME FOR FUN

Filling your schedule with back-to-back extracurriculars just to pad your résumé is fun for exactly no one. You only get to be a teenager once. You should enjoy yourself and find activities that make you happy. And then you can figure out how to turn those into an extracurricular activity.

If there’s no club at your school that specializes in what you love, start one. “Club Founder” looks pretty good on an application. Look, you can also only list 10 activities on the Common App. Most students list fewer. So keep that in mind too. Don’t overload yourself needlessly.

If it feels like a waste of time, it probably is. Enjoy yourself and find the activities you enjoy. And that will also be valuable to your life regardless of what school you get into. Katie Mattlie from Georgia Tech says “To be competitive, you should choose activities that make you happy.”

WORK IT, BABY

You’d be surprised at how far a good old-fashioned teenage job can go. There aren’t many students who work. And the ones who do often think it doesn’t count as an EC, but it does, and colleges love to see real job experience on your application. It shows you’re responsible and gives you real-world skills that a lot of students entering college just don’t have.

If you feel you’re lacking in your extracurriculars, I think getting a job is your best bet.

From scooping ice cream to chasing kids around at daycare to working unpaid (or paid) at your family’s business, jobs can only strengthen your application. By having a job, you are demonstrating initiative, responsibility, leadership, the ability to work with others, and a willingness to get out of your comfort zone. A job can be anything. You could work at a restaurant, a retail shop, an office, a gym, a bookstore, a public pool, a preschool, a summer camp, or an artisanal vegan cashew cheesery — the possibilities are endless. When filling out your activities list and resumes for applications, be straightforward and honest about what your job entails. Simply say what you do. If you work at a pizza place, include the hours each week you work and your job duties. Do you work at the cash register? Do you deliver pizzas? Do you make the pizzas? How do you interact with customers? Or if you work at a daycare, do you organize activities? Monitor children during playtime? Interact with parents? Facilitate the teachers with their lesson plans? Organize materials? Encourage literacy by reading books? Encourage problem-solving by playing with blocks? Encourage creativity by introducing open-ended art projects? A job might seem like nothing special to you, especially when you go to it all the time, but it’s often much more special than you might assume.

BE A GOOD PERSON

Colleges are looking for applicants who care about themselves, others, their school, community and the world around them. In his blog, Jeff Schiffman from Tulane writes, “I love reading recommendation letters about students who treat the cafeteria people with kindness and respect. Or the compassion some students show to kids outside of their friend group. These are the important things you do when you think no one, and no college, is looking.”

CHANGE IT UP

What you do in your free time doesn’t have to be what you want to do forever. You’re allowed (and dare I say encouraged) to be interested in different things. That’s healthy. Just because you want to be a doctor doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time doing “doctor” things. If you love hiking, great. Find your passions wherever they are and don’t limit yourself because it doesn’t feel like a storyline cohesive to your goals.

MORE SUGGESTED ECS — GLOBAL PANDEMIC STYLE

While there’s certainly some light at the end of this Covid-19 tunnel, you might be wondering what to do while we are still enmeshed in physical distancing and possibly even working and schooling away from home. It’s ok at times to feel like you just have to “get by.” I mean it’s been a tough year, and if you need to play video games, catch up on movies, while away the hours on Twitch, or watch YouTube and TikTok for hours on end, do so, but then but I also encourage you to get out there and interact with your family, friends, school, and community, while taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Eventually, you might even find yourself getting a little bored. Boredom can lead to great discoveries so allow it. And if you start looking for something else to do, I suggest a personal project. SUMMER TIP: I always suggest to my juniors that they use the summer before senior year to get a job and work on a personal project so this is an opportunity for you to take the time to learn about and do some of the things that you just don’t have time to do during your busy life.

Read, Read, Read: Reread your favorite books (Percy Jackson calling your name?) Read books you haven’t had a chance to read before (Tess of the D’urbervilles, Rebecca, Fahrenheit 451, Anything by William Faulkner, Ta Nahhisi Coates, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelo, or Jane Austen, or so many other amazing writers out here. I know my kids loved Robert Jordan when they were your age.) Added bonus: the best way to become a strong writer is to read — a lot. Reading will improve your standardized test scores and help you in every class — believe it or not.

Family Time: Family History Project — Collect family stories, photos, and documents to create a scrapbook for your family to keep. Become a Chef — Learn to follow recipes and create homemade meals. Chilling with Chores — Do dishes and laundry without your parents asking you. These are the kind of tasks you can do with mindfulness by focusing on the task, or you can stick on some headphones or turn up the speakers and have a big ole Chore Dance Party. Connecting with The Elderly — Call and FaceTime with grandparents and the elderly in your life. They will be lonely and disconnected right now and will need you more than ever. We’ve been setting up family video chat times so everyone can catch up and the grandparents don’t have to be so isolated. Family Game Night — Bond your family and learn new games or bring out the old favorites

New Hobbies and Projects: Pursue a hobby you haven’t had time to explore before: Teach yourself Italian or another language that piques your interest, Learn an instrument like guitar and ukulele, Learn about Astronomy, Martial Arts, Gardening, or Chess. This is your chance to explore areas you haven’t given yourself time to explore or you can fine tune some skills you’ve been working on all along. Take an Online Class: Ed X, YouTube tutorials, MOOCS, Coursera. Learn Marketable skills: Learn to code through Udacity, Learn Excel — if you can help someone with an Excel Spreadsheet, you will forever be on their good side.

Get Creative: Find your artistic side: Draw, Sing, Cartoon, Dance, Paint, Collage, Write plays, Play and Write Music, Stories, or Operas

Be Outside (Sunshine and Green Bathing are both great ways to stay healthy!) Wear a mask, sit in the sun, take walks, bike rides, jogs (keep 6 feet spacing between you and others )

Community Service and Volunteer: You will need to talk to your parents about these and remember to keep your health and safety a priority. Some ideas: Childcare for people who must work, Errands for the Elderly — make grocery store and pharmacy runs for those who shouldn’t be out and about, Help out at food banks for those who are newly unemployed and need back up food, Hand out food or comfort bags, See if animal shelters need assistance

Get a Job: Amazon and Grocery Stores are both hiring if your parents and you are comfortable with your being in that setting. Fast food restaurants are still hiring. Or work from home and find someone who can use your schools.

Journal/Diary: Write. Write. Write. And write some more. I encourage you to find your voice and practice with it while keeping a record of what’s happening in our world right now. These are truly historic times and your children and grandchildren will treasure your thoughts and reflections about what it was like to experience this event as a teen. Also, bonus — these diaries and journals will help you find your voice and give you reflections and thoughts to turn to when you begin to write those essays.

Learn: Learn more about the history of our country and the human rights uprising that’s happening. I have a list filled with youtube videos, books, and movies here if you’re interested. I’ve also written about it (briefly) here.

Photos: Make a photo journal of our changed scenery. As you walk around town, snap up photos of empty spaces, signs posted up, long lines at stores, empty shelves, masks, whatever you see around you. This will be a great way to document for yourself, your family, and others.

And remember it’s ok to just be. Sit still. Think. Chill and relax. These are historical times, and sometimes we need to just be with ourselves to process and understand what’s happening to us and our families and our friends and our schools and our neighbors and our cities and towns. Sometimes we just need to sit and breathe.

JUST KEEP BEING YOU

Mostly, remember it’s not exactly about the type of ECs you do — it’s more about your involvement. If you are enthusiastic, interested, and involved, then any activity is a good EC. They don’t have to be unique. In fact, I’m not so sure there is such a thing as a “unique” activity anymore. If it has added value to your life and helps paint a picture of high school you, include it in your application.

In the end, you gotta realize that extracurriculars are merely one part of your whole application. Do they guarantee admission to any particular school or set of schools? Are they the deciding factor between acceptance and rejection? No and no, because colleges that consider your ECs are looking at your entire application package and also at their own institutional needs, so there’s no guessing what’s going to appeal to any one school for any one year. If anything, learning about your activities provides admissions counselors an opportunity to get to know you better. That means you just have to keep doing you!

STEPPING OFF THE EC HAMSTER WHEEL

Most of all, enjoy high school! Explore and try stuff and take risks and change your mind if you don’t really like doing something. This is the time for you to learn about yourself and what intrigues, interests, and excites you. Don’t pin yourself into a box, thinking that there are only a few things you should be doing so that you — as a teenager — will become the expert. At the same time, don’t feel like you have to be Captain Every Club or have to join a whole bunch of activities to create a crazy long list for college apps. As frustrating and scary as it might seem to figure out what you want to do outside of school right now, it can also be an amazing opportunity for reflection, self-growth, and learning if approached with the right mindset.

You might have noticed that I don’t use that P-word here in this post. That’s because I think telling 14 and 15-year-olds, and even 17 and 18-year-olds, to “follow their passions” adds unintentional pressure. What if they’re not feeling any passions yet? What if they’re doing stuff that simply interests them? Or if they don’t even know what interests them yet? That’s why I encourage you to explore. Try new stuff. It’s ok to learn what you like and don’t like to do. There’s no shame in starting something and then dropping it when you find something that’s more interesting or exciting to you. Plus, I don’t think colleges are looking so much for that P-word in the way you guys imagine it anyway. They are just looking for authenticity — for you to portray who you genuinely are. Be your authentic self and try to lose the idea of who colleges “want you to be.” You, the real you, are enough.

Tl;dr:

  • Think star-shaped for your activities: kinda well-rounded with a few points or spikes for special interests you might have.
  • A job counts as an EC, as well as some other stuff you might not normally consider like family obligations, independent research, and hobbies.
  • Those Olympians, spelling bee champs, violin prodigies, computer wizzes, and cancer researchers are actually few and far between.
  • Figure out what interests you. Try new stuff. Explore. And then dive in when something sparks you.
  • Be your authentic self. As Jeff Schiffman from Tulane says, “Do whatcha wanna.”

**Stay tuned for posts in the next couple of weeks about leadership and summer plans! Also, be on the lookout in the summer for a post about filling out the Activities Sections. (All those posts will be much shorter — I promise!)

Posted on March 2, 2021 in Activities and Extracurriculars,College Admissions,College Applications

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AdmissionsMom started by giving advice on the subreddit r/ApplyingToCollege and has grown into a full-blown college admissions adventure with a blog, a book, and a College Visit Hub, College Vizzy. AdmissionsMom helps students and parents through the stressful college admissions process with tips on choosing the right school for YOU, learning to leave the pressure behind, and practicing mindfulness while learning more about college admissions and yourself.