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Rose Murphy: Which extra-curricular activities impress on college applications?

Rose Murphy

The college application season for fall 2022 is underway. Rising seniors can now create their accounts in the Common Application, which is a platform for more than 900 colleges. The University of California (UC) and California State Universities (CSUs) have opened their applications as well, although submission dates are in late fall. Enjoying summer should still be a priority. However, seniors who plan to apply can begin selected sections now to relieve pressure later. For those students the big question always seems to be … what can I do to impress college admissions officers so that I will be accepted?

Unfortunately, that question does not lead us to a definitive end. Students should be asking themselves “what do I love to do?” The path to finding the perfect college, career, or major is not about checking boxes, but in finding passions. Many private colleges and UCs require essays and lists of extra-curricular activities. Colleges want students to show that they follow their interests. What has a student done to grow or discover? Have they taken healthy risks? Each student is an individual with unique passions. For that reason, there is not a template of “best activities” to complete. It would be tiresome for admissions officers to repeatedly read about the same activities. To be an exceptional candidate requires figuring out who you are.

Students who dedicate time learning more about themselves, their passions and desires stand out on the application. Some activities can even demonstrate to a student what it is they don’t like, or don’t want to do. Trying something and failing can teach us as well. Students who persevere through failure build critical life skills needed in college and career.

What makes you come alive? If you are uncertain, finding an internship, job shadow or volunteer position, employment, a class in an unexplored (or favored) area can help a student discover more about their likes and dislikes. Athletics, travel, personal commitments and hobbies like filmmaking, writing, creating art or music, building things, raising or training an animal, can all build character, as well as soft skills. What makes you come alive? What is it that you do that makes you lose track of time? Colleges want students who dedicate themselves to their values and pursue them. There are no “correct” activities.

Essays and Activities Lists help a student stand out on an application if they spend time thoughtfully writing about their time outside of the classroom. The UC application allows students to list 20 Activities, Honors and Awards under a variety of categories. The Common Application limits the Activities and Awards to 10. There are also character space limits. Precise wording is important due to this restricted space. Crafting the wording provides an opportunity to show that the student has been self-directed and followed their passions and values. Ethan Sawyer, also known as The College Essay Guy, provides free resources of tips and strategies for completing sections of the college application to make them “pop”. (https://www.collegeessayguy.com/blog/)

Developing drafts of these narratives is important in creating quality descriptions that stand out. As in all good work, this process should not be rushed or taken lightly. The application wants quality over quantity. The UC application reads, “Choose experiences that demonstrate commitment, responsibility, leadership, and most of all, genuine interest.” As you craft your activities lists and essays remember to tell a story, not just report a list of things you’ve been involved in. It is not a checklist. Explain what makes you unique and how you arrived at your future goals. Life skills are acquired in the breadth and depth of these experiences. College admissions officers will value this in prospective candidates.

As students finalize their college list and begin the application process, it is important to remember that finding a college that fits your pursuits, interests and passions is also key. Not all colleges have the same characteristics, opportunities, costs or degrees. Researching the campus and matching it to the student’s values, academic abilities and needs is paramount for a successful college experience. Discovering your unique self is a life-long process. There are no limits to the enriching experiences to explore! Impress the admissions officers with your ability to follow your passions. Tell them the story of who you are, what you value and how that matches your desire to attend their campus to continue your pursuit of personal growth and dedication.

Rose Murphy is a retired high school counselor now working as an independent educational consultant. She can be reached at abestfitcollege@gmail.com or abestfitcollege.com


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