For High School Students: What Admissions Officers Want in a College Applicant

High school students are often curious to know what will “look good” on their applications. Read on for insight into what colleges are really looking for.

At my firm, Manhattan Private School Advisors, we are frequently asked by parents and high schoolers about what students “need to do outside of the classroom” to be an attractive candidate in the college application process.

Our answer is always the same: students should do what they love.

Participate in activities not because someone tells you to or because it’s what everyone is doing; participate because you genuinely enjoy the activity.

Whether an extracurricular is mainstream or something off the beaten path, it’s best for applicants to focus on the sport, art, volunteer activity, or club that interests them the most.

Here are some of the ideas we share with high school students and their parents:

1. Find what you love.

It’s far more fulfilling and noteworthy to do one thing well than 10 activities half-heartedly. Choose your extracurricular because you love it (or think you may), and not because it’s popular or your parents or teachers pressure you.

By the same token, check out a variety of clubs to learn what you want to commit your time to. Do not feel guilty for quitting an activity after you have given it a fair shot; as you explore possibilities, you’ll find activities that really drive you.

Before you get too involved, read our article about how to balance extracurriculars and academics on your college app.

2. Don’t do it just because it “looks good.”

Don’t sign up for an activity just because you think it will attract a college’s attention. Playing clarinet in the school orchestra is great for students who like playing the clarinet, and a dreaded chore for students who don’t. Similarly, building homes for the homeless won’t be fulfilling if you don’t like construction, nor will joining the debate team if you fear speaking in public.

Don’t half-heartedly participate in an activity because “it looks good” on your college resume. You’re likely to be compared to other applicants who demonstrate passion for an activity, when the best you can show is lukewarm involvement. Instead, focus on what is important to you. Extracurricular engagement is most impressive when a student genuinely enjoys and believes in what she is doing.

Colleges are looking at your afterschool activities to get a sense of who you are as an individual, so participating in a club because you think it’s what other people want — whether it’s your parents, teachers, or admissions officers — defeats the purpose of this involvement.

Remember there are many benefits to participating in the arts that go beyond getting into university.

3. Don’t lie.

No matter what, never lie on a college resume (or any resume) about your activities or your role in extracurricular groups.

One of the worst — and yet, illuminating — stories I’ve heard about this issue was at a college presentation I attended at my daughter’s high school. I listened as an Ivy League admissions officer described a near-perfect candidate who had the grades, the standardized test scores, a variety of extracurricular and athletic interests, and who was offered admission. The college later learned that the student had lied on his application, falsely listing himself as the leader of one of his activities. His offer of admission was revoked.

4. Take the good and the bad.

Most colleges no longer interview students on campus, relying instead on local alumni interviews. If you meet with an interviewer, be honest about what you’ve enjoyed and disliked throughout your high school career — whether you had a summer job at a fast food restaurant, participated in an athletic tournament in Russia, or have volunteered at a community center for four years. For each experience, focus on why you did it, and how you did or did not benefit.

Of course, be mindful of how you frame things. If you are talking about an activity you disliked, end your anecdote by focusing on the lessons you took away, or on how this experience then led you to a path you preferred.

5. Academic challenges matter most.

More than the activities or standardized test scores, what colleges focus on most are students’ grades, how challenging their classes were, and what they may have achieved in these courses beyond just grades. Admissions officer want to see that a candidate has stretched herself. Although GPA is important, evidence of a student pushing herself academically signals a willingness to go beyond what may be comfortable for a student.

Take the case of a girl who excelled in science and history, but wasn’t passionate about language arts. In 10th grade, she had an English teacher who asked students to write an essay that examined an object or circumstance from the inside out. The student, a nationally ranked fencer, wrote about her life inside a fencing mask, behind the wire cage. Despite the fact that she didn’t enjoy writing as much as other subjects, the student crafted a compelling essay. She took what she knew — fencing — and used it as a means to explore an area of scholarship that was difficult for her. Her willingness to take a risk and to push herself in a subject she wasn’t fond of represents the characteristics that colleges are looking for.

Colleges want to create communities of passionate, engaged learners, so show them that this is you — in the area that matters most to you and not the one you assume is most attractive to them.

Follow this link to explore more advice from experts about getting into college on Noodle.

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