Researching U.S. Universities

Students often wonder if their involvements outside of the classroom are impressive enough to help them get into a highly selective college. Is the boy who spends his weekends at a Yo-Yo competition more striking to the admissions committee than the girl who sits by a tree and writes poetry on Sunday afternoons? It’s all about the ways in which these students choose to present themselves. So, let’s think about the question this way: What do the Ivies and other highly selective colleges want to learn from a student’s Extracurricular Activities? What kind of people do these colleges seek?

As a former admissions officer at an Ivy League school, here are some of the types of qualities (and some specific examples of these qualities) that Ivy League and similarly selective colleges hope to unearth when reviewing their applicants’ extracurricular activities:

  • Interesting: It’s great to be Captain of the baseball team or 1st chair violin in the orchestra, but the reader is more interested in learning about your role in the activity and what meaning it held for you. Did playing baseball lead you to coach a little league team or learn more about sports statistics? Did playing violin in the orchestra lead you to want to compose music or learn a new instrument?
  • Engaged: How immersed are you in your activities? Do you offer to do research for, and practice with, the other team members in preparation for a debate? Do you take on multiple responsibilities at your volunteer job with the Red Cross?
  • Motivated: What kind of drive do you have? Do you wake up at 4:30am for hockey practice every day during the winter months? Do you babysit for young kids after you get home from your school day?
  • Self-starter: Have you created your own business selling snacks to other students or organized a fundraising drive for your local charity? Running or coordinating a business or volunteer effort to help in your community can go a long way to highlight your strengths and personality traits.
  • Leader: Are you the President of your student body? Chair of your Model UN team? Do you head up your Church youth group or lead your Girl Scout troop?
  • Creative: Have you started a blog, taken photos for your school magazine, or made videos for YouTube? Find activities outside of the mainstream to showcase your innovative side.
  • Adventurous: Do you spend a lot of time in the great outdoors? Do you have a courageous, bold spirit? Not many students will climb Mt. Everest or hike solo on the Pacific Crest Trail by the time they’re 17, but if you enjoy hiking, climbing, or repelling in your free time share this on your activities page.
  • Curious: Has your Mom told you story after story about how inquisitive and inquiring you were as a small child? Has that continued into your teen years? Do you question everything and have a need to learn more and more about a topic or an interest?
  • Depth: Have you been committed to a particular activity or involvement for years? Did you start swimming competitively when you were five and plan to swim on a college team? Did you tinker with computers when you were in elementary school and turn it into a paying job fixing them throughout high school?

Make sure to ask what your teachers and guidance counselor are saying in their recommendations about your extracurricular activities. Did you share anything in your essays about your extracurricular involvement(s) that help portray the qualities listed above? A list of extracurricular activities alone won’t set you apart. And there is no extracurricular activity that is better than another. No matter if you are a dog walker, a volunteer, a researcher, an athlete, a musician, or an ice cream scooper, selective colleges want to see the passion, impact, and interest that you can bring to their campus.

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Written by Amy Alexander
Amy Alexander is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Amy received her bachelor's degree from Yale University and her master's degree from Golden Gate University. Prior to joining College Coach, Amy worked as a senior admissions officer at Yale.