A marathon. A gauntlet. The Indy 500. There is no shortage of metaphors to describe the college application process. As a high schooler, these images can be daunting, if not downright scary. But, to add a new – and perhaps more heartening – metaphor to the mix, try this on for size: a skyscraper.
Freshman year is all about laying the foundation, comprised of strong academic coursework, time management, and organization. Building upon these general life skills, sophomore year is the time to widen the basis of support. Now is the time to expand the focus to the external factors that impact the college application process – extracurriculars and summer activities, for example.
But where to begin? It’s easy to be simultaneously overwhelmed by choices and not particularly excited about any one commitment. The answer? Passion. “Sophomores have to focus on their passions,” says educational consultant Peggy Baker of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She says she asks her students, “What extracurricular activity do you love and excel at?” Educational consultant Pearl Glassman of New York tells her clients: “Continue to take the strongest courses you can handle academically, but start looking outside yourself to find activities that you will enjoy and can become passionate about, if you haven’t already done so. This is the time to get serious about some project or activity.”
The task of identifying an extracurricular passion (or three) is undeniably easier for some teenagers than others. For those who struggle a bit more, Glassman recommends using the summer after freshman year as an exploratory period. “Look for a fun experience that is also worthwhile,” she suggests. Not every student is genuinely interested in building houses in South America; some might prefer to work at a local animal shelter, or teach arts and crafts at a senior center.
The goal should be to find something that is as enjoyable as it is potentially viable as a longer-term interest. The first (and second, and even third) concern should be whether an activity is fun, fulfilling, and personally meaningful. The weight it will add to a college application should be an afterthought. “My colleagues in admissions can tell who truly has the goods, as opposed to those who are trying to do what they think [the admissions office] wants,” says David Altshuler, an independent educational consultant based in Miami, Florida. “Going to a nursing home once for two hours isn’t going to do it. You need to find what makes you smile; the interest and passion have to be real.”
Also, don’t worry about doing everything. Just like the strongest structures have a few well-integrated centerpieces, so should a college application have a strong list of activities for which the student shows true commitment. “Colleges have moved away from looking for students who do everything,” says Karen Plescia, an educational consultant at Leslie Goldberg and Associates in Braintree, Massachusetts. “Now they are interested in what you have identified as a passion, where you have delved deeper. Ideally, by the middle to end of sophomore year, you begin to focus your passions such that, in your junior and/or senior year, you can step up and take on leadership roles in those [few] activities.”
However, while honing academic and extracurricular passions, sophomores don't need to worry about narrowing down college choices quite yet. Some counselors recommend one or two low-key campus visits, just to begin to investigate what “college” actually looks and feels like. “You don’t need a list, just visit informally,” Plescia advises. “If you’re going to a basketball game at Boston College, go early and walk around. What does a large school feel like? A small school? An urban school? Just gather the pieces of data early on; worry about narrowing later.”
That time would be much better spent in a soup kitchen, on a golf course, or in the dark room – wherever your child’s passions may lead.