How will you benefit from attending our college? What will you contribute to our college? While you may not see these questions on college applications, if you have answered them in your applications, you will be setting yourself apart from other applicants and making a persuasive case for your admission.
Students sometimes lose sight of the fact that colleges are academic institutions, and they are looking for people who love to learn. Someone whose idea of fun is discussing Kant’s moral philosophy will take full advantage of the opportunities for intellectual engagement in college. When admissions officers read an application from a student who has demonstrated this kind of love of learning by pursuing opportunities beyond her high school classroom, they know she will benefit from attending their school.
Many students have taken years of piano lessons, but one of my students is so passionate about music that she also led monthly workshops to study composers, because she believed that learning about their personal history would help her understand their music. She attended music festivals and entered competitions, where she embraced new musical perspectives. She wrote poetically about her love of music, and was accepted at several highly selective colleges because admissions officers understood that she will be committed to learning from professors and peers.
Admissions officers make assumptions about what you will contribute to their college based on what you have contributed to your high school or community. The more selective the college, the greater the impact your contribution needs to have in order to stand out. While tutoring children in a shelter for homeless families is certainly a valuable contribution, organizing a program to match every child with a mentor, recruiting other students to participate, and expanding that program to other shelters would have the kind of impact that stands out.
If the activities you pursue have a theme, you can focus your application on that theme, which helps admissions officers get a clear picture of your values and interests. When an aspiring anthropologist has volunteered every Saturday at a museum, taken anthropology classes at community college, and spent a summer on an archaeological dig, he will be able to put together a cohesive and compelling application.
But not everyone has a defining intellectual or career interest, and students shouldn’t feel pressured to choose one area to pursue in depth just because it will look good on applications. In fact, balancing a scientific or technical side with an interest in something artistic is another way to stand out. A young woman who loves science and wants to major in physics, but also writes poetry that she reads at a local coffeehouse would be very interesting to admissions officers.
Summer is a good time to explore your interests by getting involved in community service or research opportunities. If you can’t find an established program, try creating your own.
For example, a student who is on his school’s basketball team might combine his love of the sport with community service by volunteering to coach or organizing a program for children at a recreation center.
One of my students found a scientist who was doing research that sounded interesting, so she arranged to meet him. She ended up volunteering in the lab and enjoyed it so much that after spending much of the summer there, she decided to continue volunteering during the school year.
Find something you love to do and any impact it may have on your college applications will just be a bonus.