One of the great attributes of our American university system is the inclusion of extracurricular activities within context of the educational process.The “well-educated” person is also a “well-rounded person”, both academically and non-academically. However, it’s not about fattening your application resume. Less is more. Elite colleges are not only looking for well-rounded people, but what you might call “well-lopsided” people – someone that has developed a strong skill in either an academic subject or extracurricular.
What role do a student’s extracurriculars play in the college admission process? How much is enough? Does working while in high school diminish your admission chances because of the impact on time for extracurriculars? These are exactly the questions we put to Seamus Malin, a former Harvard University admissions officer and current ePrep expert in College Admissions and Planning. Join us for our continued talk with Seamus as we explore the road to college.
Extracurricular Activies in High School and College Admissions (transcript)
Karl Schellscheidt- Hi, I’m Karl Schellscheidt. Welcome to ePrep! I have in the studio today, Seamus Malin. Seamus is a former administrator at Harvard University. He is a great guy and he’s been a lot of fun to talk to. I would like to talk about extracurricular activities in high school. Are they important? How many should you do? When should you get started?
Seamus Malin- Let’s step back a little bit and see what is the purpose of extracurriculars in the first place? In my view, one of the great pluses of American universities, is that the universities themselves put an emphasis on extracurricular activity in the university context as part of education. This is exceptional, really, it is a very American phenomenon. The rest of the world doesn’t see it quite that way. For instance if you go to a French public high school, you will study academics, but you will have no extracurriculars because it is not a value in the university.
We value it in the university system in this country for good or ill, sometimes to excess. (I’m not sure we need to have stadiums that hold one-hundred thousand people on university campuses, but that’s another issue for another day.) The notion is that the well-educated person is also a well-rounded person. I would like to add another dimension to this. A lot of the most selective universities are looking for well-rounded people, but they are also looking for what I call the well-lopsided people. The somebody who really has developed an excellence, perhaps in academics, perhaps not in academics, but who has an academic interest that is strong, vivid and important.
If you have the kind of passion for developing that lopsidedness, where you really pursue something in depth, then the earlier that you begin it, the more likely it is that you are going to pursue it in depth. The truth of the matter is that more and more kids are already getting into it before they enter 9th grade. They have already done junior baseball programs, hockey programs, other sport programs or theater, dance, music etc. A lot of people are already doing this stuff before 9th grade. The 9th grade though, is the point at which you begin to ask yourself, â€œHow many of these activities do I really care about? Which of them are the ones that I put posters up on my wall about? Which are the ones that really resonate with me? What am I signing up for just because somebody said it’s a good idea to fatten up my resume?â€.
Do not try to fatten up your resume. It is more valuable to concentrate on doing a couple or three things well. Even if you turn out not to be the extraordinary lopsided person: the brilliant musician, the brilliant performer, the brilliant athlete.
Less is more in many ways. Sometimes the colleges create the problems for themselves by having a block on the form that has many, many lines to fill in for extracurriculars. Students and parents feel compelled to fill all of those boxes with little activities that the student does for maybe an hour a week. My advice is do not do that. At the beginning of 9th grade join a couple of clubs that you want to try out or that your friends are joining. If you feel after a year or so that a club isn’t too fun or not what you are looking for, drop it! Do not be afraid to drop it because you’re finding something else that is important to you or because you want to make sure you do not neglect your academics.
It is a winnowing process that requires maturity at a time when you are not at your most mature. It’s a challenge. Simplify as much as you can early on. Yes, you should experiment a little bit, but not too wildly or excessively. The other thing is that some students do not always have equal extracurricular opportunities, because of family circumstances they may have to work term-time jobs. I just want to assure those students and families that you are not penalized in the admissions process. You will not be penalized for not having the time to be involved in large numbers of extracurriculars. In fact, it may even work out to be a bit of a plus because you have gone and done something that is important for your family or for yourself.