I’m glad you asked, because there are indeed concrete steps you can take to enhance your college application whether you’re in 9th grade dreaming of college, a senior overwhelmed with the process of college applications, or any student (or parent) in between.
First, a little background. When I first started advising students about how to get into a college that would be a great fit for them about 29 years ago, most colleges were looking for the “well-rounded” student. The ideal applicant would get good grades, have high SAT scores, belong to several school clubs, play a sport, and perhaps even dance or sing or play an instrument. The more areas in which a student showed competence, the more attractive the applicant.
About 15 years ago, there was a shift. Colleges decided that they could have a well-rounded freshman class even if each student wasn’t well-rounded. In fact, perhaps a college could build a stellar class if they chose some students who were brilliant academically but had no other activities, some athletes who were stars on the field but didn’t test well and didn’t have wonderful grades, some virtuoso cellists who had played Carnegie Hall but never joined a club or held a job, and so on. Colleges were looking for “passion,” drive, and singular achievement.
About 7 or 8 years ago, there was another shift. Colleges found that sometimes star athletes, world-class musicians, and brilliant students kept those interests isolated from everything else in their lives, and so didn’t add much to the school environment. Now, colleges are looking for something I call “consistency.” They want to see that your interest or talent pervades your life, that you don’t merely dance or play lacrosse because someone said it would look good on an application. They want to see how you use that interest throughout your life. So if you dance, they want to see that you work part-time in a dance studio helping younger dancers, that you and your friends give free dance performances each Christmas in the local senior center, that you dance in your local dance group, that you’ve organized a dance group for your school. If you play lacrosse, they want to see you get paid for coaching lacrosse, they want to see you spend your summers at a lacrosse training camp, they want to see you volunteer to coach kids in some sport in your nearest inner city Boy’s Club. Your in-school, out-of-school, volunteer, and paid work should all be organized around your interest, talent, or ability.
The best applicants actually DO have a pervasive, enduring interest that shows itself in every aspect of their lives (while those applicants also get good grades and have good scores). But if you know that’s what colleges are looking for, you can give them what they want. Instead of going on your church’s midnight run to give food to the homeless in the city (or in addition to that), be sure you look for volunteer opportunities that complement your “interest.” Better yet, create volunteer opportunities that both reflect your interest and highlight your leadership abilities. Be thoughtful about how you spend your summers. If you’re an athlete, camp or life-guarding is fine, but if you want to be an engineer, perhaps working theater tech for local community theater is better. Choose after school activities wisely. If your strength is academics, you may want to join the prom committee, but the debate club might be a better choice.
In many ways, I’m sorry for this trend. I do think 14- , 15- , 16- , and 17-year old students should be exploring lots of interests. How do you know if the chorus isn’t for you until you try it? Maybe you’ll find that the Model U.N. ignites a passion for public service in you. Maybe not, but you won’t know until you try. So on the one hand, I’m giving you advice I don’t believe. I don’t believe young people should be hyper-focused on one passion. Your “passion” at 15 might bear no resemblance to your “passion” at 17 — and that’s how it should be.
On the other hand, people do pay me for my years of expertise about how to get into their top choice college — and telling students to focus, focus, focus on their grades and one big talent or interest will absolutely differentiate that student from the thousands of other smart, suburban, perfectly likable and capable students who will compete for a limited number of spots at that college. So you need to decide whether your passion or talent is enduring or a passing flirtation, and how important it is for you to tailor your activities (beginning in 9th grade, if possible) based on college acceptance. Or maybe this advice gives you permission to resign from clubs and activities that don’t light your fire in favor of those that feed your passion. Feel free to comment (politely).
Shortly, I’ll write about other aspects of a college application over which students have control so they can give the college what they want. Stay tuned!