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What Do Selective Colleges Look for in an Applicant? Engagement Beyond the Classroom: The Extracurricular Record

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Apr 28, 2011

Selective colleges expect students not only to be strong academically but also to be interesting, contributing members of the campus community and the community at large. Colleges used to talk about the importance of being well-rounded and showing evidence of leadership in extracurricular activities. Now admissions officers talk about having a well-rounded class composed of students who each have exceptional talent or commitment in one or two areas. The shift reflects the reality that there are just so many hours in the day and that achieving excellence in a given area can take up most of those hours. Or as David Gould, former dean of admissions at Brandeis, has said, “The embodiment at age seventeen of a Renaissance person is difficult to find. We realized we could accomplish the same thing [for our freshman class] with lots of different people.” Colleges look to see whether a student has made a sustained commitment to an activity over a number of years; involvement in one long-term activity can be more impressive than involvement in several short-term ones. Sometimes admissions officers speak about students having “passions.” We think “commitment” is a better term, and it is the one we choose to use.

Extracurricular Activities

But just what does exceptional talent or commitment mean? In general, the more selective the college, the higher the bar for evaluating extracurricular activities and leadership. Involvement in debate, for example, can range from participating on a team to winning occasional local tournaments to having a winning record at the regional, state, or national level. The more selective the college, the higher the level of achievement it takes to impress admissions officers. Being a dedicated member of the school orchestra is good, but being first violinist and student concertmaster is better. Better still is winning regional, state, national, or even international competitions as a soloist.

Have you seen Gilmore Girls, the TV show? There’s a character on there who really wants to go to Harvard. She is frantically calling soup kitchens right before Thanksgiving because she won’t get into Harvard if she doesn’t work at a soup kitchen over Thanksgiving and she’s going crazy because she has to work at a soup kitchen. I think that’s insane. - High school senior with focused interests

Colleges like to see evidence of leadership in an applicant as well. Being president of an active high school club, serving as a student body officer, or editing the high school newspaper or yearbook are all examples of high school leadership activities commonly seen on applications to selective colleges. In general, the more selective the college, the greater the expectation that applicants will hold leadership positions and that they will be at the highest levels, possibly extending beyond the high school to local, regional, and state organizations. Colleges differ, however, in the emphasis they place on leadership. Fred Hargadon, long-time dean of admission at Princeton, was well known for preferring to see evidence of perseverance in applicants rather than leadership itself. Complicating matters is that leadership can be difficult to assess meaningfully, since the same position can vary greatly in importance and responsibility from high school to high school.

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