While some students will be going off on costly service trips or educational programs during the summer, others are finding less expensive ways to explore their interests. When a student takes the initiative to pursue her interests, that experience is likely to be more meaningful to her and more impressive to colleges.
In a case study session at a recent professional development meeting, admissions officers talked about activities that stand out on an application and mentioned a student who was an aerial artist. That doesn’t mean you need to run out and sign up for trapeze lessons. What matters is finding something you enjoy doing.
Last summer, a student who had already taken the basic psychology course offered at his high school signed up for a summer class in social psychology at a nearby university. His excitement about the subject impressed the professor, who asked him to help with a research project. While the student’s initial motivation was his intrinsic interest in the subject, and a desire to explore a potential college major, he ended up with great material for a college application essay. Admissions officers like to see genuine intellectual curiosity, and this student was able to demonstrate his love of psychology through his coursework and research experience. Despite the fact that his extracurricular activities were not particularly impressive, he will be attending one of the most selective universities in the country.
Admissions officers like to see long-term commitment and leadership. Leadership isn’t just being elected president of your school. It’s what you do with the position. One newly elected student council president had enjoyed volunteering at a center that provides services for people with disabilities, and he made it his goal to have the school do more service projects. His first act as president was to create a committee that assessed the needs in the community. But you don’t need an official position to demonstrate leadership. Persuading a group of friends to start an after school program for low-income elementary school kids shows that you can influence people in a positive way. Even more ambitious would be getting additional students involved and expanding the program to other communities.
Not every essay needs to impress admissions officers with a grand achievement. A student who loves cooking got together with his best friend every week to experiment with new dishes. He wrote a lovely essay about how they keep each other in check when one gets too carried away as they explore New Orleans Cajun cuisine with a Japanese fusion twist.
The impact of coursework beyond the high school curriculum or ambitious service projects depends on the college and on the student. It can be both frustrating and comforting to realize that there isn’t one clear path to an offer of admission. Evidence of intellectual curiosity and impact on your school or community is more important at highly selective colleges. But these factors only come into play when a student has an excellent academic record, and the strongest essays won’t overcome an unimpressive transcript and mediocre test scores. While rising seniors can use the summer to get a head start on application essays, younger students who have struggled in school might spend part of the summer brushing up on their most challenging subjects and developing study skills so that they are prepared for a successful school year.