8 Secrets to Stellar Extracurricular Activities
Mar 6, 2011 Other 2918 Views
As a college consultant, I get far more questions about extracurricular activities than about any other topic. Parents are concerned about their children's chances of getting in a good school or receiving scholarships. And, I must say their concerns are well grounded. After 30 years of working with and learning from amazing students from all over the country, I have the following suggestions to help ease parent's fears.
1. Forget the Joneses. That's a pretty profound statement for me given that "Jones" is my maiden name and that I was the one no one could keep up with in high school and college. But I emerged from that rat race broken and desperate. I was determined that my children would have a different life, even if it meant no awards, no scholarships, or no college. But, you know, God has such a sense of humor! My children had a much more laid back life and yet eclipsed everything I had ever accomplished as a young person. The secret is not to watch what everyone else is doing, but to look at your own family to see what needs to happen there.
We've lived that way for 20 years, but there are now others who are advising the same type of thing in order to be successful in college admissions. Cal Newport does a great job of explaining how damaging it is to try to look like everyone else in "How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out Without Burning Out." It is addressed to students, but is invaluable for parents as well.
2. Choose quality over quantity. You've heard it before, but I've found people rarely listen. Being a member of a zillion clubs really doesn't count. Everyone that crosses an Admission Officer's desk has clubs, usually lots of clubs or teams or competitions. And, they are just members. Anyone can join a club or a team. Anyone can go to a summer opportunity (if Dad forks out the money). By choosing quantity you guarantee that your student will get lost in the crowd because they look like everyone else.
3. Don't focus on accumulating Volunteer Service Hours. Sheer volunteering is pretty standard these days. Many schools even require it, making it less and less meaningful in applications. I am not saying that service hours are unimportant, but unimportant service hours are unimportant. If your student volunteers for something they love (and it may take several attempts to find that), if they move up the ladder of responsibility in the organization, the hours add up by themselves. They are doing useful things with those hours. That is what is important.
4. Don't Chase Programs and Contests. If your student is exceptional at Math Counts, that's great. Let them compete and bring home the awards if it doesn't stress out their life. Just keep in mind that a lot a wonderful mathematicians are not contest people. You don't particularly need contests to prove they are math-oriented. Likewise, getting into summer programs at the Ivy colleges doesn't guarantee that you'll get accepted there. Those programs are designed to make money for the college during the slow months of summer. Sometimes they will pick up a student that is a particular stand out, but usually not. It's great if you can afford those kinds of opportunities, but not a disaster if you can't.
5. Don't worry about a short list of awards. Homeschoolers awards are generally very different that a public or private schooled student. There usually aren't many. If you have them that's great, but it won't keep you out of a good college to have pursued the path less traveled that's not littered with trophies.
6. Pick Activities to Build Skills. It's not the activity that matters, it is who your child becomes through the activity. Do they find a new passion, become more humble, learn the gift of service, or figure out how to lead or manage people, or overcome shyness? That is so much more important than doing the things most teens do - hanging out with people just like themselves practicing groupthink.
7. Do Less. The key to doing less is to do it very well. The activities your children do pursue should be done to a high level, often taking them outside their comfort zones and requiring adult-level responsibilities.
8. Take breaks. Your students won't learn much if life is a headlong rush from one activity to another. Without time to debrief, evaluate, and think through experiences, no thoughtful growth happens. Your students also need to take breaks from technology and not fill every waking moment staying connected.