Former Admissions Officers Discuss Impressive Extracurriculars

Padya Paramita

Former Admissions Officers Discuss Impressive Extracurriculars

Considering how competitive the college admissions landscape has become, students have to try and find unique ways to stand out from the rest of the application pool. Because high GPAs and SAT scores are common, one of the ways in which they can make their profile unique is through impressive extracurriculars. However, because of circumstances such as time, resources, ideas, support, etc., not everyone can do something to the scale of founding their own company or building an app. Does this mean they can’t get into a top program? We asked our team of esteemed Former Admissions Officers from Duke, UChicago, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Bowdoin, and more, about how they think students should approach impressive extracurriculars.

It’s About Challenging Yourself to Do the Unusual

“Pursuing impressive extracurriculars is not about specifically building an app or starting a company, but more about the challenge that a student took on to demonstrate creativity or entrepreneurship or a talent that they possess. There is no magic formula to what can impress an admissions committee at the most competitive institutions, but setting yourself apart can be a real asset. 

But it is a simple idea. Assume that every student applying to the best programs has a strong academic and activity profile supported by outstanding recommendations. Then how do admission committees decide who they are going to offer admission to? For the most part, they may choose to focus on the usual, but then, when they see the unusual, they notice it.” - Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Georgetown University

Do Something Meaningful

“How much of a part impressive extracurriculars could play when the acceptance rate at the best programs is in the single digits is up for discussion. However, it is fairly obvious that if a student has achieved something outside the normal expectations of their peer group, it will be an advantage. But that is not limited to something that is earth-shattering, although that would surely be noticed! There are many ways to showcase a student’s unique achievements and that becomes a challenge. Going big isn’t necessarily defined by a large footprint or some preconceived notion. 

Doing something meaningful, in school or outside school, that significantly impacts an individual or a community may achieve the same result as starting a business or creating an app. There are no definitions or boundaries here. Admissions to competitive institutions are a combination of academic strength balanced by everything else in the application, not to mention a little luck. Catching the eye of an admissions reader is not easy when they are reviewing one exceptional application after another. However, if a student can find a way to grab their attention, it could bring the lucky break they need when the odds of admission are significantly challenging!” - Former Admissions Officers, Top 20 School

Take Initiative in Pursuing Your Passions

“The best programs are looking for students who take initiative in pursuing their passions, rather than just passively absorbing what they are learning. So while it need not be starting a business or building an app, having some sort of project is a differentiator. That could be a paper submitted for publication, but don't be afraid to be creative and do something like creating your own board game!” - Former Admissions Officer, University of Chicago

How You Are Using Your Experience

Impressive extracurriculars doesn't necessarily mean building an app per se, but you do need to show how you are using your experience or expertise at a higher level in whatever specific field you are interested in the most right now.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 5 University

It’s Also About How You Write It

“There’s a whole range of impressiveness when it comes to college applications. What’s important is the way the student talks about the activity or achievement. Even if it’s something smaller scale, if a student has truly gone into the details of their hard work and showcased genuine passion and enthusiasm, that can help the admissions officer know that they’ve gone out of their comfort zone and achieved something that can count among impressive extracurriculars, even if it might not look like it on first glance.” - InGenius Admissions Expert

There you have it—you don’t have to necessarily start your own company or build an app. What matters is that you showcase dedication and initiative. Carefully read through the ways our Former Admissions Officers have discussed impressive extracurriculars and pursue what you are passionate about. Check out the tag “FAO Advice” for more blogs in this series.

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