The Best Activities for College Admission

by Neil Chyten

Why are so many rising 12th graders, who are candidates for admission to elite colleges and universities, suddenly lamenting choices they have made over the past three years? Perhaps they wish they had gotten that summer job, or that they had put themselves in a better position to request a stellar recommendation from their teachers. Perhaps they regret not taking more honors or AP classes, or not studying more for tests. Perhaps they regret not demonstrating their writing ability and passion by authoring a few articles, or proving their affinity for astronomy by acquiring telescope time at a local observatory. Perhaps they now question why they did not spend more time identifying possible internships, or volunteering at the Stone Zoo, or helping out at the Boys and Girls Club, or teaching tennis through Tenacity in Boston.

It is understandable, even admirable, to reevaluate one’s own choices in life. But why is the summer before 12th grade the first time that so many top college hopefuls are questioning their college-related actions of the past three years? Because, in many cases, this is when students are hearing about gaps in their application for the first time, through articles on the Internet, from their school counselors, or from private counselors such as myself. This is especially true of high-achieving students who may have felt that their GPAs and test scores, coupled with significant community service hours and expertise in a musical instrument, were enough to get them into Harvard or MIT. Much to their chagrin, they are now learning that these accomplishments, impressive as they are, are just a starting point at elite colleges and universities. 

With an acceptance percentage of between 5% and 10% at top colleges, only one student is accepted for each 10 to 20 who apply. Equally daunting is the fact that virtually every other candidate has high GPAs, high test scores, and other impressive attributes. Throughout their first three years of high school, many students believe that all they have to do is work hard in school and study for tests, and top colleges will come knocking at their doors. However, they are now finding out that every moment of a student’s time, from 9th grade through the first half of 12th grade, is tracked, evaluated, and judged. They are finding out that the difference between acceptance and rejection for top students at highly-ranked colleges can be as simple as the way that a college application assembles three-and-a-half years of activities, the choice of adjectives used by teachers in their recommendations, the level of classes taken, or how a student responds to a college’s supplemental essay question. Of course, for rising seniors, most of these factors are already locked in place. ”If only I had known,” they say.  “If only I had known.”

So, for all the rising 9th graders, 10th graders, and 11th graders, and parents reading this article, heed the message of those who have come before you. Plan your strategy for college beginning in ninth grade. Identify your passion, then prove it with your choices. Show how much you care about the world around you by doing something to improve it. Show teachers how much you deserve stellar recommendations by being a model student, a class leader, and a positive influence in the classroom. But these are just a few ideas and there are literally hundreds more. No one activity is necessarily better than another. Each one choice is a building block to a stronger application. Furthermore, don’t engage in activities just to fill up the 10 spaces on the common application. Colleges would much rather see quality than quantity. They would like to see longevity of commitment, rather than an accumulation of short, random activities. 

In closing, I would just say that you should use your sixth sense to tell yourself this is the right activity for you. If it feels right, then it probably is. If you are truly interested in something, then pursue activities that are related to things you are passionate about. Pursue them to a meaningful conclusion, to an advantageous outcome. Always strive to be the best person you can possibly be, to help others, and to help yourself along the way. Don’t let any opportunity pass you by, or you’ll find yourself in the same position as these rising 12th graders who now find themselves wondering why they didn’t do more during their previous three years.

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