Extracurricular Lists: Why Being Well-Rounded No Longer Works

When advising their children about the college admissions process, parents often encourage them to explore an array of extra-curricular activities so that when they apply to college, they will appear well-rounded.

While that strategy worked when parents were applying to college, it no longer does. Why?

Colleges are looking for specialists not generalists

Colleges receive an overwhelming number of applications each year, and each year they spend a lot of time determining–from among the wealth of qualified applicants who applied–how one student is better suited for admission than the next. It’s a daunting and difficult process.

For example, let’s take a hypothetical University X. UX has just received 33,000+ applications, yet they only have room for 2,100 first-year students. The admissions officers conduct their initial review and manage to whittle down the number of applicants they will consider from 33,000+ to 5,000, all of whom are excellently qualified applicants, at least on the surface. That means admissions officers still need to reject 3,900. In other words, they have to find a way to determine that excellently qualified Student A is more worthy of admission than excellently qualified Student B, and that excellently qualified Student C is more worthy of admission than excellently qualified Student D and so on and so on until they’ve found the 2,100 applicants they feel best qualified for admission.

How do they do this? First, by reviewing a student’s application essay and the supplemental essays. In terms of gaining admission, the value of the main (Common App) essay and supplemental essays cannot be overstated. These essays can make or break your admissions chances.

But college admissions officers also study an applicant’s extracurricular profile, and what college admissions officers are looking for in a student’s extracurricular profile is evidence of commitment, focus, and initiative, not well-roundedness.

Let me illustrate by comparing two students both of whom applied to three Ivy League colleges.

Robert (1510 on the SAT, 4.0 GPA, 5 AP courses) joined ten clubs, played viola in the school orchestra, and had a job as a camp counselor at the town recreational center during the summer between sophomore and junior year and junior and senior year of high school.

Nikita, (1510 on the SAT, 4.0 GPA, 5 AP courses) joined three clubs, played euphonium in the school band, raised money to purchase band equipment for children in an underfunded elementary school, and organized a band competition in her town for charity that was covered by local media outlets.

It’s not hard to see how Nikita stands out–her interest in music and what she has done with her interest shows commitment, focus, passion. Nikita looks like a leader, a potential change maker. We see that she can make things happen. But we see no evidence of that in Robert’s extracurricular profile. As a result, an admissions officer could easily make a case for admitting Nikita and rejecting Robert. In the end, Nikita was offered admission at all of the three Ivy League colleges to which she applied; Robert was rejected by all three of the Ivy League colleges to which he applied.

When putting together your extracurricular profile, remember that the college admissions process is much different now than it was 20 and 30 years ago. And the more competitive the college, the more the college wants to admit highly accomplished specialists.

Want help strategizing your extra-curricular profile starting in ninth grade? Call us!

If you’re applying to college now and want help making the most of the extra-curricular list you now have, call us. We will make sure you look outstanding!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.