Using Extracurriculars to Build a Cohesive College Application
6 minute read
When junior admissions officers are trained to read applications, they're taught to value applications that have a clear and consistent story.
I'm not saying they reject applications that feature multiple, diverse extracurriculars.
But I am saying admissions officers are trained to look for students with focus and clarity — demonstrated at every level of their application, but particularly in their extracurriculars.
Take two students as examples.
Student #1 got into debate in their first year of high school. In sophomore year, they organized the club to do service work in a lower-income part of their city, offering debate mentorship to students who didn't have any. In junior year they became president of the debate club and expanded their volunteer work. The summer before their senior year, they took a class at the local community college titled "Effective Altruism: How to Make a Difference." That course helped them revise their plan for the club's community engagement in senior year.
Student #2 started their first year as a varsity baseball recruit. In sophomore year, they switched to water polo and started a band with their friends. Then, in junior year, they dropped sports and music (but joined student government!) to enroll in a more rigorous AP courseload. In senior year, they picked up a photography class and got really into astrophotography.
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Both students were engaged throughout high school. But on first glance, student #1 has a more admissible application.
In an admissions office (especially a highly-selective one), clarity is key. A student doesn't need to know exactly what they want to study in graduate school to be admitted. But ideally, their application will show consistent engagement with topics in which they're actually interested.
Admissions officers are looking for students who will make good members of a campus community. They want to get a sense of who a student is, and what makes them tick. For an applicant, presenting a clear, coherent narrative is the easiest way to be memorable while standing out from the crowd.
One of the best ways to create cohesiveness within your application is to think strategically about your extracurricular pathway. (Strategic application building is something we come back to again and again across our writing.)
In this post, we go deeper into how extracurriculars (including passion projects) play into admissions decision-making, and how you can use your extracurriculars to create a cohesive narrative that stands out.
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When we're working with students, we teach them about the "three levels of admissions data" used by admissions officers. When reviewing your application holistically, admissions officers use information from each level to inform their admissions decision.
Level 1: The Data
The first level is the most basic — the data about grades, scores, course rigor, and more that an admissions officer gets from your transcript, standardized test scores, and school report.
This information is absolutely essential to the admissions decision process. It's where you might be ruled out preliminarily or put through to the next stage of review.
Level 1 information is also where an admissions officer gets a basic sense of your orientation as a member of an academic community. What courses or sequences have you taken? How did you respond to academic challenges? Did you prepare yourself for the major you're interested in?
When putting together your application, there isn’t much you can do about the data. By your senior year, your data is pretty set in stone.
That’s where the other two levels of your application narrative come in.
Level 2: “Connective Tissue”
The second level is what we call the "connective tissue" — it includes the resume you submit via the Common App, your additional information section, and your letters of recommendation.
As you can imagine, the connective tissue helps connect your application data to your overarching narrative.
Admissions officers might see a “B” in AP Chemistry on your otherwise perfect transcript and infer that you’re not a chemistry buff. But their opinion might be changed when they read your additional information section about how you missed three weeks of class that semester due to an illness or when they read the letter of recommendation from your chemistry teacher that refers to you as “a spectacular, once-in-a-career student.”
Application data is clear, but you need that connective tissue to tell the whole story.
And when it comes to Level 2, your extracurricular resume is particularly important. It helps an admissions officer understand how your interests were shaped outside of the classroom. You say you're passionate about microbiological approaches to cancer detection — can an admissions officer see the "proof" in your extracurriculars? How can they determine that your curiosity is authentic? Does your biology teacher’s recommendation explain that you frequented the lab before and after school to get some extra research in?
Connect, connect, connect.
Level 3: Context
Finally, level three: your essays. Your essays are the "context layer," the most qualitative and personal part of the application. (If your essays seem impossible, you aren’t alone. This is the area where our students often need the most help.)
You've got great grades in your science classes and a record of extracurricular engagement with biology in your resume. But so what? "Why" did you spend your time on these areas? Your essays are your opportunity to explain the reasons that guided your allocation of time and attention throughout high school.
It’s your chance to explain that you’re interested in the microbiological approaches to cancer detection because you watched your grandmother go through cancer and want to help forge new research pathways—that’s why you’ve dedicated your free time to your research project. Or, in a supplemental essay, that a particular program is perfect for your interest because it’s the only program with a specific opportunity to help you build on your current research.
Without understanding the personal stakes, insights, and sense of clarity you gained through your extracurriculars, they mean little to an AO.
An amazing application knits these three areas into one cohesive picture of the applicant. Coursework is the academic foundation, extracurriculars show dedication and the ability to take initiative and deepen your engagement with a subject, and essays bring it all together to answer the all-important question—"Why?"
The "Connective Tissue" - Extracurriculars and Passion Projects
All three levels of application data are essential to crafting a cohesive narrative. But extracurriculars and essays are often where students admitted to highly selective institutions stand out.
There are many, many academically qualified students out there—many more than there are spots at the nation's top schools.
So while taking a rigorous courseload is crucial to being considered, extracurriculars make or break the “cohesiveness” of your college application narrative. They help establish, or undermine, the credibility of your claims throughout the rest of your application.
You say you’re interested in studying econ? An extracurricular project focused on the topic will help you ground that interest in your application. It’ll give you something to write about in your supplemental essays, and it will help an admissions officer see how your coursework prepared you for your experiences outside the four walls of the classroom. In other words, it will help knit everything together—the basic data of your application and your personal writing in your college essays—into one coherent package.
By the same stroke, students who want to study a hyper-competitive major like computer science or engineering but who lack any practical experience in the subject will face an uphill battle. They just don’t have the skills that an extracurricular in that subject can help build.
In committee, admissions officers will often rely on stories from your application to make a case for your file in particular. Impressive, relevant extracurriculars that reinforce your academics and essays help them do their job—and help you build stronger applications.
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