Monday, June 25, 2012

Getting into College: Extracurriculars

I teach mostly freshmen and seniors.  I call those grades the bookends.  Freshmen are learning how to do high school academics, make new friends, and begin thinking about later on.  Seniors are totally different.  Since college applications are due by the end of November, then even the first semester grades of the senior year will not be available.  This means the initial judgment of college is based upon the 9-11 years.  In fact some colleges do not look at the freshmen year at all.  A senior who has messed around all high school has little options and they know it, because the kids who are applying for college are shoving it in their faces.
Image by Paul at Ft. Collins

Freshmen, the best thing you can realize is that the friends you have now are probably not the friends you will end up with at graduation.  Why is this? All people change over time, but there is no greater window of time that experiences more change than the high school years.  There is just something about high school that holds a lock on our hearts.  I’ve been out of high school for 23 years but nothing draws memories more than my high school years.  You are figuring out who you are and that requires experimentation.  I’m not talking about doing drugs and all, but I’m talking about those adjustments to our personality that comes during adolescence.  Researchers have determined that more brain development happens during adolescence than any other phase of life.  This is significant, so cut yourself a break.

A class discussion took a curve one day in my senior economics course.  We were nearing graduation and the kids were sharing that they had made really good friends in high school and didn’t want to lose them.  That piqued my interest so I asked them, “Who are your friends and where did you make these friendships?” What they shared has stuck with me and I now share with all my freshmen.  They shared that their closest friends were their teammates.  There are other renditions of this, such as band, theater, choir, and other clubs but the concept was the same. 

The things you do outside of the classroom will determine your friendships.  If you don’t get involved then you will have few authentic friendships and high school is going to be very lonely.  An authentic friend is someone you can talk to face to face and in person.  It is someone you can be open and honest with and not have to wear a mask.  They accept you for who you are and you do likewise for them.  It is a give and take relationship.  I’ve seen many of my better students neglect their friendships (as well as schoolwork) to focus solely on the person they are dating.  Once the breakup happens they find out that they have no one to lean on in their pain because their friends have moved on and made new friendships.

Colleges like to see involvement in sports, clubs, and community service because it shows that you are a well rounded person.  It also shows that you can manage time by juggling the responsibilities of homework, social life, as well as practice. There is something about slogging through a losing season and sticking with it that builds real character.  How about taking the time to teach a technique to a less skilled teammate, or having that tough one on one conversation with the coach because the rest of the team is afraid to say something?  All of these experiences make these activities very valuable.

As good as these experiences are, you should understand that to a college, your extracurricular activities are a very, very small portion of what colleges are looking for.  In fact some colleges are very upfront by saying the only thing they look at are grades and college entrance exams.  

Community service is work that is performed without pay where you make a contribution to the community in which you live.  Community service allows you the opportunity to help others and feel a part of something much bigger than yourself.  Many students have found their calling by doing community service.  It is a great way to learn about your strengths and weaknesses.  There is something about helping a person, it makes you care for them.  As you do more community service, you will begin to care more for others.  This will make you into a better person.  Another benefit of community service is that you will gain a better understanding of the basic working of life and how things work.

While there are many things you can do, my suggestion is to view it like a buffet.  In a buffet, you try a little of this and that and then you go back for the stuff you really like.  Going alone to do community service can be intimidating, so go with friends and you will have more fun.  Think about the things you care about the most.  What around you needs improving?  Then go find others who are already doing good things to help in that area.  If you are feeling innovative, organize it yourself.  There is a cool website to check out called  They have lots of ideas, events to join.  They will even fund your organization if you submit a good plan to them.

Private scholarships heavily lean on community service, so while the community service may not get you into a college, it may help you to pay for it.  The goal is to find something you are passionate about and put lots of time into one or two things.  Summers are made for fun and relaxing, but they are a great time to rack up community service hours.

Many colleges look very favorably on community service, but even colleges that have a comprehensive review of the whole set of experiences of a prospective student still rate grades and entrance exams as the highest factor of consideration.