CBO - Fall 2021

The Extracurriculars U.S. Admissions Officers Look For

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Student [looking me in the eye, concerned tone]: What extracurriculars should I join to stand out in the U.S. admissions process?
Me [stone cold serious]: You must join the dance team.
Student: *blinks*

Unsurprisingly, I get this question all time, and I’m sure that you can relate. Many students just want to be told what do, given an equation that will ultimately equal success. However, in the holistic U.S. admissions process, there is no one right answer. While that can be frustrating for some, it is also part of the beauty. There is no one right answer, so holistic admissions allow students to unabashedly be themselves. The more so, the better! 

So, what the heck is this article about then?

While there are no specific activities that U.S. admissions officers require students to take or privilege in the process, there are certain qualities they are looking for. The students that I have worked with who have had success in the selective admissions process typically display one or more of the following five qualities. Please note, that it is rare for students to have all five of these qualities. As we advise students, we encourage them to focus on the qualities most pertinent to them.

The Five Qualities Admissions Officers Look For

1. Achievement

Universities that are selective like selecting students who have been selected for things before, whether that be prizes, awards, scholarships, internships, honors, etc. Achievements are quantifiable, so they are easy to include in Activities or Honors lists. Students don’t need to have achievements in everything they do, but if they dedicate a lot of their time to one Activity, they should think of ways to demonstrate achievement. For example, a student into Math, Science, or Robotics can test their might in a competition. A student who is a writer can enter their works to be published in a journal, newspaper, or blog. A student into community service can compete for a grant. Because achievements have titles or quantities, they pop on an application. 

2. Leadership

Leadership does not just mean running for student government. Stepping into a leadership role means taking on responsibility in any activity and hopefully leading a team to success. Leadership can be formalized like being the President of a club or Captain of an athletic team. Additionally, students can display leadership in less formal settings by being a peer mentor or taking on a project in their community. Grade 11 and 12 students should be thinking of more ways to step up and lead in the activities that they enjoy.

As a guidance counsellor, you can support this with students who want to start a club. If your school doesn’t have a history of having many clubs, work with another counsellor in your district to learn about how to launch popular clubs like DECA (Business), HOSA (Health Sciences), Model UN, or debate. Of course, it is key to have at least a small group of keen students and a faculty mentor who would like to help get the club off the ground. These kinds of clubs are not only ripe for leadership experience and achievements, but they also provide opportunity for career guidance.

3. Community Service

U.S admissions officers appreciate when students give back to their community, whether that is the student’s school, city, or other community organization. Oftentimes students think of “volunteer hours” and immediately think the more hours, the better. But simple quantity is not as important as quality. A student could spend 100 hours as a volunteer for a music festival checking wristbands and getting to see Drake for free, but that is not the same as providing service to your community. Whatever students are good at can be used for community service. Musicians can play free concerts at the senior residence. Athletes can volunteer as coaches for younger kids. Scientists can create ways to share the excitement of STEM with others. The best advice for students is to ask them, “What are you good at that you can share with others for free?” That is community service.

If your school has mandated community service hours for graduation, you can provide more guidance on how the student can brainstorm and begin a project of their own. Allowing students to use their talents to meet their hours will lead to overall betterment of your community, and for more engagement with the assignment.

4. Maturity

Demonstrating maturity is much less defined than an achievement, leadership role, or community service. This is a quality that can jump out in a student’s application in many different ways. For example, a student who has a full-time job, takes care of a younger sibling, and still maintains stellar grades is taking on a lot more familial responsibility than other people in the same age group. Although that student may not have a lot of extracurricular achievements or formalized leadership roles, they are showing the maturity it takes to handle many of life’s stressors and still excel. 

As you review your student’s application, keep an eye out for the kind of formal and informal activities where they are demonstrating maturity and make sure they highlight this quality in their activities list or essay writing. This is a “show, not tell” kind of quality where students need to demonstrate maturity through their examples. For example, a student who has become a community spokesperson on an issue and has been featured on the news, a student who has a paid job position more typical of a person in their twenties (like a financial adviser or research assistant), or a student who brought important issues to the forefront in your school such as Black Lives Matter or anti-bullying. 

5. Grit

Out of all the qualities, this one cannot really be pursued, but rather shared. Grit is something that is earned through perseverance, typically through difficult circumstances. If your student hasn’t had to endure truly challenging obstacles in their life, then grit is a word that may not describe them, and they should therefore focus on the other four traits. However, if your student has endured hardship, they should not be afraid to share their story in their application. Showing admissions officers where at student comes from and what they have overcome is part of their unique story. 

Sometimes students are afraid of sharing difficult circumstances and coming across as a “pity-party.” If this is the case, encourage them to reframe their story with Grit as their lens. Ask the student, “How did you preserve and gain your Grit?” Truly leaning into these moments and being vulnerable usually makes for the most unforgettable personal statements.

So, there you have it! As your students pursue the things they love, from Model UN to fly fishing, Relay for Life to marching band, they can think about how they can take that thing to the next level. Is it fundraising for a cause they care about? Teaching others? Starting a Youth Council? Launching a YouTube channel? The options truly are limitless! 

And a quick note related to COVID… I know that this pandemic has made involvement more difficult, especially if the activities your students are most passionate about have been completely cancelled, such as athletics. You can still find ways to help them pivot their involvement. I’ve met students who, during the pandemic, have started a business, volunteered for the relief effort, worked on research projects, taken online university seminars, refined a hobby, learned to code, shared what they love in a blog, and more. Students are also hungry to keep their clubs going, so if we do end up in any at-home schooling in the future, consider ways to help them keep these activities going. 

By: Jenika Heim, EducationUSA Canada Senior Adviser