What College Admissions Officers Look For: Importance of the Personal Statement and Extracurricular Activities ?

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

How Important is the Personal Statement?

The personal statement or essay is your opportunity to tell college admissions counselors something about yourself that is not readily apparent from your application. It is a subjective factor, and one of the few ways you can communicate even indirectly with counselors to give them a feel for your personality, values, and passion. With the right essay, you can make your presence felt and convey to the reader a sense of who you are and what you care about. It is a vital part of the application and it is one of the few areas in which you have control. At this point in the application process, your grades and standardized test scores are already fixed, so the essay is your chance to set yourself apart from others and to clearly convey why you deserve a place in the college(s) of your choice.

The importance of the essay varies from college to college. Its value increases at the more selective colleges. Do not underestimate the power of the essay! I know of one admissions director at a large state university who was so swayed by a student’s essay that the student was admitted on the spot, even though her grades and SAT scores were slightly below
their average admissions standards! Please remember that this is one aspect of the admissions process that is definitely within your power, so take the time to write a convincing personal statement.

TIP: The essay is a critical part of many applications; take the time to write a great essay. How are extracurricular activities viewed?

How are Extracurricular Activities Viewed?

Any activity that you engage in inside or outside of school is considered an extracurricular activity. Most colleges ask you to list these activities on an application or to attach a brag sheet, a résumé, or an extracurricular activities list, all of these terms being interchangeable.

In addition to selecting candidates based on academic promise and ability, college admissions counselors are looking for students who have contributed their time and leadership skills to their school and to their community. No one ever tells you what clubs to join or what organizations in which you should become involved. Instead, colleges are hoping that you develop one or two areas of interest, about which you are passionate. It could be sports, music, politics, theatre, creative writing, community service, or any other area in which you excel. College admissions counselors are not generally impressed with a three-page résumé of many different activities, but rather how you have developed your interest or passion throughout high school. Have you added depth to your interest area(s) by progressing to a leadership position? For example, if you joined Key Club (a national organization) in ninth grade, did you become more active by becoming the membership co-chair in tenth grade; then in eleventh grade become a vice president of the club; and then become president and attend the national convention in twelfth grade? These emerging leadership roles show how you have progressed in the organization and further developed your interest level.

Do not attempt to join every organization or club in ninth grade, then drop them and add new clubs every year. Instead, try to develop a few areas of expertise and build on them over time. If your high school does not offer a club you’re interested in, then write a proposal and start a new club! If you’re interested in becoming a nurse, you can volunteer in your local hospital or shadow someone in the health sciences profession. Use your imagination and your resources to develop and refine your interests. Colleges are interested in what you do with your spare time and they want individuals who bring a fresh perspective and expertise to their campus.

Becoming involved in school or outside of school will make you a more interesting person and an appealing college student. Focusing on a few areas of interest is more desirable than overextending yourself in many different directions and appearing unfocused and spreading yourself too thin.

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