Excelling outside of class is one of the most important things you can do to differentiate yourself in the college admissions process. It's also important for your personal development. Experiencing success and failure, trying new things, taking on a leadership challenge, working with different kinds of people, pursuing your own initiatives, taking risks — these are all important for your growth, learning, and confidence. Of course, it's also important for you to balance your time and not get overwhelmed with college prep.
No formula for college prep activities
There is no one "right" or "wrong" activity to engage in. A student who does 8 million community service and volunteer activities will often ask whether she needs to play a sport to get into college. A tri-sport athlete asks whether he needs to do some service or have a job. There's no clear answer. Some students are able to be involved in multiple activities of different kinds, and they enjoy it. Others like the focus of intense involvement in one or two key areas, and should feel good about showing leadership and initiative.
Whatever you do, try to take it to the next level and search for opportunities to expand and deepen your involvement. Remember to keep your eye on your academic courses and grades, though, since they are the cornerstone of the college admissions process.
Activities you enjoy can help your college plan
Ready to get involved? Look beyond your high school and into the community, and outside of the academic year into your summer schedule. Some personal hobbies — stamp, coin, or card collecting; dance; music; art; writing; work or internships — might have no connection to school. They might even seem inconsequential — something you have always done and which you are naturally good at or interested in. These may turn into your primary passions during high school and could be an important component of your college applications.
One student made sure to continue her dance during the weekends and evenings near home during the school year, and to take advantage of high-level summer programs in dance, even though her high school didn't offer dance and she was unable to participate in a high school sport. She wrote about her love for dance and added a recommendation from her long-time dance mentor in her college applications. These are the types of things that set a student apart.
Activities can help you get into college
There is a direct connection between what you like to do with your time and your presentation to colleges. Colleges ask for you to detail what has been most meaningful to you. It makes sense for you to write about your most important activities or personal hobbies, and for these involvements to flow from your interest and dedication, not from any manufactured effort to impress. Stick with what you know (and what you're good at) and the rest will follow.
If you love the outdoors, pursue a wilderness and leadership program during the summer. Get certified as an EMT or wilderness first responder. Create a ropes course at your school or start an outdoors, hiking, or skiing club. There is no end to the ways in which you can take your passion to the next level. All you need is persistence and creativity. Is money an issue? Fundraisers, applications for community grants, and solicitations for local support can even overcome financial barriers to new programs, clubs, and trips.
Looking for activity ideas?
There are many resources available to help you plan your activities and summers. An online search will produce an unbelievably long list of programs for the summer or school year, ranging from study abroad opportunities to pre-college programs. Examine those that fit your interests very carefully. Check references, explore whether the academic or activity level is right for you, and consider how the program fits with your objectives — not just to help you get into college, but for the exploration and development of your skills and abilities.
Don't choose activities because of college planning
We don't recommend, as you may have already picked up, doing programs or activities because they will help you go to college. Do them because they fit you, will help you find what you love to do, and will help you promote your personal development as you move through high school and college. Last but not least, have fun!
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.