Running Out of Extracurriculars?

As applications are reviewed by college admissions officers, they must survive several "screens" to make it to the end. The more selective the school - the less porous the screens.  This week, we address the first two screens in the process.

Screen #1

  1. GPA
  2. Standardized Test Scores (SAT or ACT)
  3. Rigor of coursework

Outcomes on these three criteria will dictate the "selectivity" of colleges to consider. 

Screen #2

When (and if) a student gets through Screen #1, the more selective schools dig deeper.

Next stop: Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular Activities include anything that happens outside the classroom:

  • Sports teams
  • Debate Team
  • Part-time work
  • Elder or childcare responsibilities
  • Summer experiences
  • Volunteer work
  • Theater
  • Travel

On the Common Application, there is room for 10 such Activities. The activities should be listed in the order of importance to the student. Space is limited (50 characters for the position and organization name and 150 characters for the description - that's characters, not words!)

  1. Soccer, Varsity, 3 years
  2. Editor-in-Chief, School Newspaper, 1 year
  3. Soup Kitchen volunteer, holidays
  4. Counselor-in-Training, YMCA, 1 Year
  5. Froyo Yogurt shop, part-time
  6. o
  7. o
  8. o
  9. o
  10. cc

I talk to a lot of students who are motivated to beef up their lists, but claim they don't have the time or money to do anything else.

This sounded like an excuse - and a great challenge.

Check out these three Extracurricular Activities. I wrote these exactly how I would advise my PrepWellers to write them on the actual Common Application. A max of 50 characters for position and organization and 150 characters for description. 

These activities would be appropriate for any student interested in Environmental Science, Economics, or History. 


Subject Matter Expert - Climate Change (40 characters)

Reviewed, analyzed, and summarized over 352 TED Talks (90+ hours) on the topic of climate change into a personal, searchable database in Evernote. (146 characters)


Subject Matter Expert - Economics & Finance (41 characters)

Mastered 42 Khan Academy modules on Economics & Finance topics. Reviewed 210 hours of instruction and successfully answered over 650 questions. (147 characters)


Subject Matter Expert - Presidential Leadership (47 characters)

Read 47 Presidential Biographies. Analyzed, tracked, and cataloged common leadership traits among U.S. Presidents into a searchable, indexed database. (149 characters)


If you were an admissions officer, would you be impressed by these activities?

I would.

If you were an alumni interviewer, wouldn't this be the first thing you talked about?

It would be for me.

What do these examples have in common?

  1. Time commitment: 15 minutes every other day
  2. Cost: Free
  3. Time to complete: 1.5 - 2.0 years
  4. Veracity: I made them all up

There are countless opportunities to build impressive Extracurricular Activities for your college application. Here are the keys to making this strategy work:

  1. Start Early. These activities require imagination, patience, time, and discipline
  2. Be Passionate. Student must be excited by the topic to stay engaged.
  3. Call me. I love brainstorming with PrepWellers who are up for a challenge.

Reality Check: You might be thinking: There's no way my son/daughter would have the foresight and discipline to make this happen. You may be right. Strategies like this work for motivated students who want to make things happen. There are plenty of them out there. They are my favorites. Don't sell your child short. I've seen many students execute this plan with amazing results.

What about the other "screens"?

I will address the remaining screens in the coming weeks. Here's a preview:

Screen #1: GPA, SAT, Rigor (Objective Academic Metrics)

Screen #2: Extracurricular Activities (What You've Done)

Screen #3: Awards & Honors (How Well You've Done)

Screen #4: Letters of Recommendation & Interview (What Others Think of You)

Screen #5: Demonstrated Interest & Why Us Essay (What You Think of the School)

Screen #6: Main Essay, Additional Information (What You Think of Yourself)

Screen #7: Hooks (What the Schools Need)

I'd love to hear from you. How is your child doing on extracurricular activities? Would they ever get excited about the long-term project described above? What's holding them back?

Keep Prepping,

Author: PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank, etc.

PrepWell Academy is an online mentoring program that immerses teens in a variety of experiences and opportunities. In doing so, it helps them find and pursue their passions in a way that will not only make them extremely compelling college applicants, but also young adults who are well equipped to face life's future challenges. Black's specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League admissions, and student-athletes.

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