The Most Underrated Section of any College Application

The Most Underrated (Picture)

For the past twelve years I have helped a multitude of students successfully navigate the college application process and during that time I have noticed a disturbing trend that can sometimes mean the difference between a coveted acceptance letter and a disheartening rejection missive. While most students rightfully dedicate the majority of their high school careers towards raising their grade point averages, optimizing their standardized test scores, and cultivating compelling topics to discuss in both their Personal Statement and supplemental essays, many tend to overlook another essential component of their application: the Activities List. An unheralded part of the Common App whose mere existence many students are unaware of at the outset of the process, the Activities List is one of the very few opportunities that students have to distinguish themselves from their peers on their own terms. And colleges endow this section with more importance than most students could ever imagine!

Sure, standardized test scores and high school grades are the two greatest determinants of whether or not a student will be accepted into a school. But as the number of worthy applicants increases each year and colleges remain flooded with tens of thousands of applications that feature nearly identical test scores and grade point averages, admissions’ panels have become increasingly reliant upon other factors to help weed out their hyper-competitive applicant pools. The Activities List is, perhaps, the seminal metric that Admissions’ officers have gravitated towards in recent years and should be thoughtfully considered as one embarks on their college applications.

What is the Activities List?

The Most Underrated (2nd Picture)

A de facto high school “resume” of sorts, the Activities List affords all applicants the invaluable opportunity of enumerating their greatest interests, passions and values in the form of “activities.” Students are able to enter as many as ten extracurricular activities on this Common Application section and to provide brief explanations of their relationship with each activity. To complicate the exercise slightly, the Common App also asks that students “rank” each entry in order of importance to them (i.e. Activity #1 would be of  greater “importance” than Activity #2 and so on). Each entry also requires students to state the specific high school years in which they engaged in the activity as well as to approximate both 1) the number of hours the student participated in the activity per-week and 2) the number of weeks of participation throughout the year.  A final yes-or-no question at the end of each entry inquiring as to whether or not the applicant plans on participating in that activity in college concludes the proceedings. The whole section is frustratingly simple, but like most resumes can take an inordinate amount of time to get just right.

Why is the Activities List so important?

Colleges have placed increasing importance on this section for a few very important reasons. First and foremost, the Activities List is one of the rare opportunities throughout the entire Application process in which a student is able to transcend their “numbers” and project a three-dimensional representation of themselves that captures the essence of who they are and, importantly, what they may want to accomplish in college. If a student is intent on one day becoming a doctor, for example, and has fashioned his/her schedule towards volunteerism at health centers and internships at medical laboratories, colleges will use the Activities List to better understand that student’s level of commitment in achieving that goal. And while students are also able to divorce themselves from their numbers and reflect on their goals in their Personal Statement essay as well, the Activities List can effectively substantiate such aspirations and add proper perspective as to how any given activity may fit into the broader context of that student’s life.

The Activities List not only provides colleges an invaluable glimpse at the overall tapestry of activities a student has partaken in throughout their accomplished high school career, but HOW much time that student has devoted to a specific endeavor. By being able to ascertain 1) the gross number of hours an applicant has spent towards a specific pursuit as well as 2) how highly a student “ranks” that same activity, Admissions’ panels are able to employ what I have termed a “passion calculus” to gauge both a student’s interest and ability in a given activity. This is important because in recent years colleges have begun focusing on admitting incoming Freshman classes that feature a well-rounded “student body” rather than the traditional well-rounded “student.” And as colleges seek to accept applicants who posses highly specialized skill sets, Admission Offices have been increasingly reliant upon the Activities List to determine students who are both self-motivated and expert in specific fields.

My Advice

Spend time thinking about extracurricular activities early and often! I encourage students to begin busying their schedules as early as middle school with different activities in the hopes that they discover some interests that they are willing to “dedicate” themselves to for years to come. While it may not be a life-long pursuit, it has been my experience that colleges reward young students who are willing to sacrifice their most precious commodity (i.e. time) in the pursuit of certain endeavors. And, remember, schools are hoping that just a few activities account for the lion’s share of a student’s extracurricular time and interest. So whether it be volunteerism, music, sports, or after-school clubs, don’t be afraid to experiment with different activities and fully commit to an interest. Colleges are counting on it!

What Every Successful College Essay Has in Common

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Let’s face it, the college essay component of the Common Application may be among the most influential 650 words one composes in a lifetime. Crafting a truly memorable and impressive “personal statement” that helps distinguish an applicant from his or her peers has become a particularly challenging feat as schools continue to be inundated with record numbers of applications each year. Yet, an increasing number of high school students struggle with this written exercise because they are seldom (if ever) asked to express anything noteworthy about themselves in an academic climate increasingly beholden to standardized tests.

The Common Application does its best to help alleviate the stressors associated with the autonomy of this assignment by offering applicants an option of five different topics to write about, each of which are meant to inspire the author to share an essential characteristic about his or herself that helps define them. Even with such creative guidelines in place, however, many applicants still struggle to understand what subject matter they should be tackling and stylistic choices they should be making in their respective essays because there are few (if any) clear indicators as to what Admissions Officers are looking for in any given year.

For the last ten years I’ve helped well over a hundred students craft their personal statements and have been confronted with countless questions about this anxiety-inducing essay of great import. “Should the essay focus on my accomplishments or can I reveal an interesting life philosophy?” “Are serious essays usually better received by Admissions Officers or can I infuse the essay with humor?” “Is it okay to include personal anecdotes and, if so, can I write about my dog?”

The truth of the matter is that there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. The only universal truth I’ve discovered throughout my  experiences editing personal statements is that every successful essay possesses one inimitable trait: an authentic narrative voice. For example, one student may flounder when articulating events of serious consequence, but may be an exceedingly compelling writer when interspersing comedic flourishes into an otherwise banal story. Therefore, I encourage those embarking on this difficult assignment to try writing about a topic of genuine interest to them (rather than a topic they believe would be of interest to colleges). Adopting this approach will help an applicant discover their all-important narrative voice and enable them to write with an infectious authenticity that colleges can’t help but be intrigued by.

3 Tasks to Complete the Summer Before Senior Year


Now that the school year has officially ended, both students and parents can breath a collective sigh of relief! The summer has finally arrived and should be treated as an important time for rest, fun, and the pursuit of enriching extracurricular activities. While the three-month summer break should be just that (“a break”), there are three tasks that I always encourage prospective high school seniors to engage in over the summer to alleviate the stressful college application experience once they arrive back at school.

1) Research (and Visit) Prospective Colleges
Seniors are often surprised by how little time they actually have to complete their college applications once they return to school in the Fall. “Early” applications are often due within 6-8 weeks after school resumes (November 1st) and “Regular Decision” applications only a few months thereafter (January 1st). Because there is such a preponderance of work to finish in such a short period of time, I always encourage students to visit as many schools as possible before they commence their Senior year. Try spending a few weeks at the beginning of the summer researching prospective schools and dedicating the second half of the summer to visiting as many of those schools as possible. Remember: Colleges remain open all summer long and are expecting visitors. Make sure to take formal campus tours and log your name into their “Campus Tour” Registers (FYI: some schools place added weight on applicants who have visited their campus).

2) Prepare for Upcoming Standardized Tests
An overwhelming majority of prospective Seniors will (and should) attempt to improve upon their SAT/ACT and/or Subject Test scores at least once during the Fall of their Senior year. My advice to these students: Do not let procrastination set in! I have helped students prepare for the SAT & ACT exams for well over a decade and can say with confidence that focused students tend to experience their biggest score increases over the summer. Completing as little as 30 minutes of test prep each day throughout the summer will not only help stave off potential rust, but will enable students to demonstrably raise their all-important test scores in the Fall.

3) Begin Working on the “Personal Statement”
Perhaps the most time-consuming and challenging aspect of the entire college application experience is the 650-word “Personal Statement” section to the Common Application. Most students are not used to writing about themselves and often struggle with the exercise, at least initially. Therefore, I always encourage students to begin thinking about possible Personal Statement topics at the beginning of the summer and to attempt to craft at least one or two successful drafts of the essay by the conclusion of the summer. I will provide more tips on how to write a successful Personal Statement in a later article.


4 Key Differences Between the SAT & ACT Exams


Several families I work with have recently asked me to clarify the key differences between the SAT and ACT exams. Do colleges prefer one over the other? Do both tests require students to write essays? Does the ACT  really benefit math/science-oriented students because it includes an additional Science section? Both tests are approximately the same length, include written components, and are regarded as equal by most universities, but as far as I’m concerned that is where many of the similarities end.

While the prevailing sentiment engendered by most guidance counselors is that the differences between the two tests are quite minimal, I have had an altogether different experience. One student I worked with recently, for instance, had trouble scoring above an 1800 on the SAT. Yet, her score on the ACT test was a 29.5 (equivalent to a 2050 on the SAT). Conventional wisdom would suggest that this student had a greater aptitude for Math and Science, but she had only ever taken two AP classes in high school: AP English and AP History. I’ve prepared students for each exam and have truthfully found them to be markedly different. Here are a few key differences that I hope will help you make an informed decision when it comes time to choose which test is right for you.

1) Time-Management: The format of the SAT and ACT could not be more different. The SAT features 10 “shorter” sections and asks students to frequently revisit sections at random. For instance, a student may be asked to answer Math questions on sections 2, 5, and 10. The ACT, on the other hand, features four “longer” sections, each of which focuses exclusively on a single subject. Ultimately, I find that the SAT benefits more versatile test-takers who don’t struggle with time-management issues and who can effortlessly switch gears between subjects. For students who utilize different test-taking strategies depending on the subject, I would suggest the ACT exam because it allows you to more easily focus your attention on a specific subject.

2) The ACT Does Not Test on Vocabulary: I hesitate to say that the ACT offers an “easier” English section, but the truth of the matter is that its questions are more straightforward and generally result in higher scores with the students I work with. I believe that the reason for this is twofold. First, the ACT does not ask vocabulary questions of any kind. The SAT will usually ask 15-18 vocabulary related questions. Second, the SAT asks many more inference-based questions that test the ability of students to detect and discern the subtle nuances of a passage. The ACT asks far fewer sub-textual questions, instead opting to test students on function and form.

3) The ACT’s Science Section is Not as Hard as One Might Think: Most students are intimidated by the ACT because it features an additional Science section that the SAT does not, but you don’t have to be a science wizard to perform well on this section. The Science component of the ACT generally asks students to interpret various data sets (i.e. charts, graphs…etc.). The truth of the matter is that the ACT Science section seldom tests students on topics that would require more formal scientific training. I usually find that students exceed their performance expectations on this section after only a few practice tests. The existence of this section should not deter any student from considering taking the ACT exam.

4) The ACT Math Section is Challenging: I can not emphasize this point enough. The ACT Math section offers consistently more challenging questions, including Log functions, Sine/CoSine/Tangent trigonometric functions…etc. The SAT does not generally test students to this degree. While you do not need to be an AP Math student to perform well on this test, it is essential that a student taking the ACT know basic trigonometry and pre-Calculus formulas to receive a strong score on this section. In general, I notice that non-AP math students I work with score approximately 100 points better on the SAT math section.

I hope this is a helpful breakdown of the Pros and Cons of both tests!