High School 2 College

Without Extra-Curriculars, How Can I Stand Out?

Before Covid, high school juniors came home from school and told their parents that it was time to plan a trip to check out colleges because their friends had been talking in the hallways about their own trips. Before Covid, I would get phone calls from parents of juniors saying, “I hope it’s not too late. A friend of mine was telling me that you don’t have a lot of slots left for SAT tutoring. Am I too late?” Before Covid, parents were warning kids that if their grades didn’t improve, they’d have to drop at least one sport or one dance group or one club.

That’s how students stood out from their peers when applying to colleges: besides good grades, kids had high test scores and lots of extracurricular activities. Now what? How can kids stand out when sports have been cancelled, school dance groups are home, school plays aren’t being staged, and after school isn’t a thing anymore.

What seems like a hopeless disappointment might be a fabulous opportunity to stand out from your peers who are home playing video games.

Here are some questions only students can answer for themselves:

What do you want to major in? Have you spent time talking to your parents’ friends who have different careers about what they like and don’t like about their jobs? Have you researched which colleges have the best departments in that major? Have you emailed those schools to ask if you can “sit in” on a virtual class in that subject?

How can you help others? Are you strong enough to mow the lawns of elderly neighbors? Are you thoughtful enough to shovel the driveways of those neighbors? Can you contact a local nursery school and volunteer to do a zoom craft project for their kids? Or can you read a book to those kids every week? If you’re thinking about majoring in science or engineering, can you design a science experiment kids can do from home with supplies they already have that you can share with your old elementary school teacher? If you’re handy, can you sew masks? If you drive, can you do grocery shopping for parents who can’t get out? And if you do any of these things weekly instead of once, that’s what really gets the attention of colleges – and will probably make a great college application essay.

How can you recreate your prior life? Can you take over an afterschool club and conduct gatherings weekly online? Can you transition to a sport that can be played outside? If you have less than stellar grades in a particular class or two, can you contact the teacher and ask about an extra credit project you can do, especially if you can suggest one yourself? Can you dedicate time regularly to SAT or ACT prep to make sure your scores shine? (Yes, many schools are going test optional this year, but that doesn’t mean test blind. Given two students with similar activities and grades, if one doesn’t submit test scores and the other submits amazing test scores, which do you think will get the acceptance email?)

Can you challenge yourself, even if the results aren’t great? Can you try to learn a new language? (Try Duolingo. It’s free and fun!) Can you watch YouTube videos and try to learn to play the piano or guitar? (There are free piano apps and you can buy a guitar online for a surprisingly reasonable amount of money.) Can you commit to making a three-course dinner for your family at least three days a week? (Just Google an ingredient and you’ll find thousands of recipes.) Can you try to read a new book a month – especially if you try all different sorts of genres? (I can suggest history books that read like adventure novels, biographies that are fascinating, science fiction, fantasy, true crime, mystery, even humorous books that you might really like – and no one is going to quiz you on them!) Might you try to write a book of your own? Can you learn to sing well? What if you took a pretend $10,000 and “invested” it in different stocks in the stock market and tracked those stocks over time to see whether you have a talent for money management? Of course, you’d have to do online research into different businesses and learn how to read the stock market page of the paper, but that’s the point.

Can you engage colleges even though you can’t visit? Have you checked out the college search features of the College Board or US News? (The “compass” part of US News, which costs $30 a year, is well worth it!) Have you compiled a huge list of colleges that you can begin to investigate online? Have you filled in the “send me more information” page of each of those colleges? Have you opened every single college email you get back in response? (Colleges can track exactly when you open their emails. Do you wait hours, days, weeks, or longer? They know, and the quicker you open the email, the more interested they presume you are.) Do you click on the links in those emails and ask for a user name and password for each school that offers one? Do you email colleges you might be interested in with a question or two whose answer you can’t find on their website? (Try questions like, “Does your school assign a faculty advisor to students who are undecided to help us? Do you house all freshmen together? How many of your psychology/ engineering/ sports marketing majors go to graduate school right after graduation and how many get jobs in their field? Can I sit in on an online class in my major?”) Do you make sure to go to EVERY SINGLE “visit” that colleges do at your high school? (Check with your guidance department to see when colleges will be visiting. Those representatives are often the very people who will be deciding whether or not to accept your application.)

Don’t let every day be a pajama day. Don’t let the days melt into weeks and months. If you want to go to a college that you’ll be proud to call home for four years, it’s all in your hands.

If you need more ideas or if there’s anything I can do to help, feel free to reach out! I’m already out of bed and I’m nearly dressed!

Wendy Segal



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