There are many factors that go into the college admissions decisions at higher learning institutions nationwide, but one that has long been a concern for student applicants is how extracurricular activities affect their chances at attending the school of their dreams.
Whether playing on the football team or solving equations in math club, writing for the school newspaper or arguing logical points in debate team, there are plenty of choices but also the risk that doing too many (or the wrong kind) is a waste of valuable time and energy.
One person who’s uniquely qualified to offer advice on the issue is Mo Hyman, who has served as the executive director of College Access Plan for the past 12 years. The nonprofit organization provides services and advice on college access and success at no cost to students attending Pasadena Unified School District schools through partnerships with community-based organizations
“One thing that’s absolutely important to know is that admission officers tell us extracurriculars are never going to save a student who’s not competitive in grades or their course load, including taking Advanced Placement or honors classes,” says Hyman. “They are the icing, they are not the cake. From there, one of the things that we’ve noticed in our 12 years of existence is that colleges have become much savvier at recognizing when a student is packing their resume, or doing activities and community service that’s meaningful to them. Those go hand in hand.”
Hyman recommends that students and families employ strategic decisions in their choices for extracurriculars, noting that “it’s better to have depth than breadth.” That means that it’s wiser for students to have a couple of involvements that they truly focus on and show leadership advancement within. It’s also important to pick activities that fit your intended field of study.
“If your lifelong dream is to be an engineer but you’ve done nothing in your extras or summer to illustrate that you care at all about engineering, that’s bad,” notes Hyman. “If everything you’ve ever done is in theater, then apply as a theater major. They want to see that you have passion for and embedded yourself in your area of experience. Make sure you’ve dug into your superpowers.”
Teenagers are known to have ever-shifting interests as they define their identities, and Hyman says that should not be a concern for students as they choose what groups they want to join. But, if a student does make a dramatic shift in their participation midway through their high school careers, Hyman notes that it’s important to have a strong narrative explanation of those decisions.
“The most important thing for a student who was crazy about photography for a few years but took horrible pictures and changed interests, is they should be able to tell that story,” says Hyman. “Be able to say you’ll notice I was really eager about photography a couple years back but I learned I wasn’t as passionate as I thought I was. You don’t have to stay with something that you changed your mind about, but reflect your authenticity. Colleges can smell inauthenticity, and the most competitive schools have the most honed noses.”
Students should first make their selections from among the opportunities offered by their own school, rather than outside community groups. Only then should they add on activities on weekends or summers, because another big mistake arises when students “overstuff their calendars and resumes with no cohesive way of doing things,” says Hyman.
Another important point is that academics should always remain any student’s primary concern, and to focus on their own passions rather than comparing themselves to what other peers are doing. Students should also be careful not to pack so many obligations into their lives that they can’t be kids and simply have fun as well.
“All a super-stuffed resume shows is you have access, privilege and a ride,” says Hyman. “Colleges aren’t interested in somebody who has a ride. They’re interested in somebody who has character.”
Finally, Hyman offers a compassionate piece of advice for students who have difficulty finding the time and energy to do lots of extracurriculars because of difficult family circumstances.
“This is really important for students to understand, and especially for those with complicated or financially stressed circumstances: what you do with your time counts,” says Hyman. “Caring for a sick relative or looking out for siblings daily is an extracurricular too, and you can list it and say what it says about you as a person and the values you hold. Those things are equally as important as any sport. That’s as valuable and says as much about you character as playing soccer.”