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  • Bentham Team

What Extracurriculars should I do?

Grades and test scores alone don’t make a successful applicant. Neither do grades and sports, unless you’re going to be recruited for the college team. Extracurricular activities are increasingly significant as more and more students, with the assistance of tutoring companies, are applying with perfect or near-perfect grades and scores. And colleges and universities are finding that such students are not necessarily an asset to the community of learners, or notable after they graduate. They tend to be followers rather than leaders, conformists rather than innovators. Cautious, rather than taking the risks necessary for significant achievement.

So what you do outside of the classroom is important to selective colleges and universities. However many students and parents have misconceptions about how to approach extracurriculars and summers. Below is advice on how to select the right activities, and avoid pitfalls.

A zero is well-rounded

The common wisdom twenty years ago was that colleges didn’t want nerds focused only on studies, but well-rounded applicants. So students made sure to do a sport every season, join every possible club, run for office, star in the musical, and volunteer for a few community service opportunities. By doing so many activities, the student could only do most of them superficially. Rather than innovate explore or try risky things, the well-rounded student doesn’t get very involved aside from going to meetings and cuts out early to get back to their homework.

If you join a lot of clubs, you demonstrate that you’re not really serious about any of them. Colleges know that students rack up extracurriculars just to pad their applications. In this age of profound problems and remarkable transformations, where entrepreneurs and the teams behind new technological advances are our heroes, colleges, and universities are looking for students who have devoted their time outside the classroom to a particular interest, skill, or passion.

This common hashtag is an excellent guiding principle when it comes to building an extracurricular profile for selective colleges. Don’t focus on conforming to existing standards. Focus on forging a unique identity as a deeply committed specialist.

Imagine a well-rounded applicant who captained the tennis team, did Model UN, worked for five days in a soup kitchen during a community service day organized by her school, and tutored kids in her school. She wrote her college essay about how she once had a hard time in chemistry but learned to never give up.

Now imagine a student with a less-than-perfect GPA who is interested in fashion. For the fun of it, as a freshman, he created an Instagram where students at his school could post their looks. His interest deepened, and he created a website dedicated to the fashions of different decades. He wanted a particular jacket from another era but couldn’t find it in a vintage store, so he dragged a sewing machine down from the attic and learned how to use it. He volunteered with a local community theater to help create costumes. He began reading obsessively about notable costume designers of the stage and screen. He became interested in the work of a particular designer and created a blog devoted to her. By his senior year, he was thinking about the social implications of fashion, and wrote articles for her local newspaper about body shaming on social media, and the environmental waste created by “Fast Fashion”.

Because he knows so much about the subject, he writes a perceptive and detailed college essay about how she has developed her own personal style.

Which of these applicants do you think will stick in the mind of the admissions officer? Do you remember anything about the first applicant? When the admissions office is putting together a class, they are looking for students who pop, who stand out, who demonstrate original thinking, deep commitment, and depth.

But where will I find the time? And what about my grades?

I know you have a lot of homework and a lot of tests to study for, but pay attention to how much time you actually spend working and studying when you “spend hours on homework.” You could probably find two to three hours a day that you could free up for pursuing a passion or interest. But what about your downtime? If you are pursuing something that interests you, it will feel like downtime.

Selective colleges are looking for students whose academic record is a little bit flawed because to build a perfect record is to miss out on those activities that require personal initiative and commitment. The crack is where the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen sings. Perfection is no longer the ideal. Failing fast and learning from your mistakes is the mark of an actual achiever.

If you are pursuing something you love.

But what if I don’t have that kind of passion or interest?

Look at the example of the student interested in fashion above. Initially, he was just interested in what his peers were wearing. Gradually, as he did more research and got more deeply involved, his passion grew and grew. Keep your feelers out for something that kindles your interest, and pursue it. It’s the same as learning an instrument - it only really becomes fun when you’ve gained a little proficiency.

If you'd like help with your application, we'd love to provide it! Contact Bentham today!


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