One of the key differences between the admissions process in the UK and the US is the holistic approach American admissions officers take to considering each student’s merits.
Whereas academic scores reign supreme in the UK, and offers are based primarily on predicted A-level or IB grades, in the United States extracurricular activities are nearly as important as grades. Admission officers often say they want to see how a student will contribute to campus, and prior engagement with extracurriculars goes a long way to showing that.
Furthermore, in very competitive applicant pools, such as the Ivy League's and Stanford's, most applicants will have near-perfect scores, and extracurricular achievement will be the only discerning factor between these students.
It can be hard to figure out which activities resonate best with admissions officers.
A key point should be that students should pursue an activity because they are interested in it, rather than to boost their resumés. In a variety of essays, students have to evidence that they are passionate about the activities they have done; students who were legitimately interested in what they spent their time on will usually write about them more convincingly.
Saying that - while interest is the most important factor in deciding which activities to pursue, it doesn’t hurt students to look at their list of activities strategically. Here are 5 things universities want to see in a prospective student’s extracurricular activities:
Already at the applications stage, admissions officers are considering what kind of alumnus a prospective student might become. For example, Harvard greatly benefits from having Mark Zuckerberg as an alumnus (even though he technically dropped out). When a student shows leadership in their extracurriculars, it allows admissions officers to be more confident that they will go on to leave a positive mark on the world.
Leadership can be shown in a variety of ways. Did a student found a club, advance from junior member to leader of a group, or did they convince a group of students to participate in a certain activity? Many types of participation allow students to display leadership, the student just needs to know how to link their participation to showing that they have effected positive change. Top schools often admit student activists and others who challenge authority and stand for what they believe in.
Questions to consider:
- Did other members of the group look to the student for help / advice?
- Did the student become a more senior member through merit rather than time spent in the group?
Colleges measure the value of extracurriculars partly by looking at the impact students had when participating. Many people could join a soccer team, but not everyone can score a lot of winning goals.
It’s also true that the actual achievement can be secondary to how the student connects it to their ambitions. A student with an interest in macroeconomics might not have had their extracurricular research published, but they might be able to show how their research allowed them to look at their own decisions differently. A good strategy for writing well about activities is for students to consider what goal they had when they initially started doing an activity, if they are still doing it for the same reason, and how they feel the activity has contributed to that goal.
Questions to consider:
- Did the student make a tangible difference in participating in the activity?
- Did they receive any outside recognition / awards?
- How was their own life impacted by this activity?
This might seem obvious, but colleges want to see that students dedicate a serious amount of time to any activity they describe as meaningful to them. If someone describes their dancing class as life-changing, but has only been 4 times, admissions officers will have a hard time believing them.
Encourage students to focus on a few activities rather than doing twenty rather irrelevant things to produce an impressively long list. In the end, the Common App will only allow students to enter 10 extracurricular activities they were engaged in, and in supplemental essays many colleges ask students to only highlight a single activity that had a profound impact them.
Questions to consider:
- Were there times when the student had to make a sacrifice to remain committed to an activity?
- How did the group grow / change while they were a part of it?
- Why did they commit such a serious amount of time to their activities?
Here is Yale’s mission statement: "Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society”. Princeton’s statement ends with "a pervasive commitment to serve the nation and the world.”
Top US universities tend to look for students who are not exclusively self-interested, who will use their education to better humanity. Admissions officers therefore want to see a track record of helping others. Someone who is interested in computer science and simply develops a website might not fit this criterion, but universities might be more interested if the student has made a website for a local homeless shelter. The trick is to know what universities are looking for, and to fit the activities a student is already doing into those criteria.
Questions to consider:
- In what ways were the extracurricular activities valuable for other people?
- Which cause did their activity support, and why does that cause matter to them?
5. Summer breaks
In the United States, for students, year 11 and 12 summers are rarely a time to relax. It is common for them to use the extra free time to pursue an impressive new project, or further their engagement in an activity they were already pursuing throughout the year.
For example, someone who plays soccer might use the summer to teach soccer camps in poorer neighbourhoods. Holding a summer job is just as valuable, and is not only beneficial for the college admissions process but will also boost a student’s resume. Encourage your students to do more than just relax and have fun over the summer. It will help their application, and will also give them something meaningful to do.
Elias van Emmerick is a Belgian student who completed his IB at 16 and next year is set to attend Pomona College, Forbes’ #1 Ranked College in 2015. He gained a great deal of experience with both types of applications by applying to both UK and US schools. He interviewed at Oxford, Stanford, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago.