- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

McClain Bell, 16, has a 3.8 grade-point average. David Benkeser, also 16, has a 3.9 GPA. Yet, like many high-performing high school students, they say they know that won’t be enough to get them into their top college choices, which include Boston College and Cornell University, in 2006.

“I know I have to have leadership roles and be involved in the community,” McClain says.

“[High school counselors] really stress the importance of activities and leadership skills,” says David, an Atlanta native who recently visited the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

David and McClain, who lives in Warrenton, Va., are talking about extracurricular activities, which colleges want listed in a prospective student’s application.

As admission to the nation’s top universities has been getting increasingly competitive in the past few years, the “extracurriculars” are becoming more and more important in the application process, local college admissions counselors say.

“The first thing to do is to do well in school. Take difficult courses. Be a great student,” says Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions for George Mason University. “Beyond that, having experiences which develop you as a person, leader and member of society is always in your favor.”

Katherine Cohen, author of “The Truth About Getting In: A Top College Advisor Tells You Everything You Need to Know,” goes a step further.

“Your transcript is the most important document. Colleges are looking at the rigorousness of your courses and your grades,” Ms. Cohen says, “but the second most important document is your ‘brag sheet.’ It’s a transcript of the student’s life outside the classroom.”

In a competitive situation, that activity list can be what tips the scale, says Ms. Cohen, who also is the founder of IvyWise, a professional college counseling company.

“There are a lot of kids out there with similar transcripts, but the brag sheet is where you can show who you are, what sets you apart,” she says.

When the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an Alexandria-based nonprofit organization, asked colleges nationwide in 2003 about the importance of extracurricular activities, about 80 percent of the colleges answered that they placed limited to considerable importance on extracurricular activities.

About 20 percent said they place no importance on extracurricular activities.

By comparison, colleges place much more importance on grades and class rank, for example, but less importance on interviews and certain SATs and AP courses.

“Extracurricular activities are important because they are a way for the student to develop some identity beyond the statistics that are reported to the college [in the form of grades and test scores],” says Judy Hingle, spokeswoman for NACAC.

The NACAC sent its trend survey to 1,540 colleges and universities. The 2003 study is based on the 595 responses that were received.

Depth, not breadth

While acknowledging that extracurriculars are important, colleges don’t want to see 10 activities in which the student had only limited involvement, says Kent Weaver, coordinator for the high school counseling program at Montgomery County Public Schools.

“[Colleges] want depth of involvement rather than breadth,” Mr. Weaver says. “They want to see involvement over the four years in high school.”

Both McClain and David have that kind of depth. They have been involved in sports since ninth grade and plan to continue in their senior year, too. They say they also have fulfilled the requirement for community service.

“I think I am pretty set [activitywise],” McClain says. “If anything, I need to work on my grades some more.”

Still, she was quite pleased to be elected captain of her varsity lacrosse team earlier this month. She’s already captain of her field hockey team.

One reason students think they have to pile on activities is that they don’t start thinking about applying to college until they’re juniors in high school, Mr. Weaver says. They think they can make up for lost time by piling it on then, he says.

“[You don’t want] this explosion of activities in the second semester of their junior year,” he says. “You never want it to look like you’ve been involved in activities just to pad your resume.”

The most important school year in preparing for college as far as being involved in activities and community service and working toward those ever-important grades, is not 11th grade, but ninth, he says.

“That’s when you lay the foundation,” he says. “That’s when students should start asking themselves, ‘What am I preparing for?’”

Ms. Cohen calls the students who wake up late in their junior year and try to make up for lost time by joining a dozen groups “serial joiners.”

“They become a jack of all trades and master of none,” she says, “but colleges are not looking for quantity, they’re looking for quality.”

When juniors and their parents seek Ms. Cohen’s college counseling services, she tells the students to build on activities and talents they already have — but may not realize they have — instead of adding a bunch of new things.

Mr. Weaver says he gives the same advice.

“You’re trying to get the student talking about what has happened so far,” he says.

If the student, for example, says he or she is interested in sports medicine and has been involved in a team and done community service at a hospital, that can be something to build on, he says.

“Are there other opportunities to advance that? Try to get them to focus, and further that,” Mr. Weaver says.

Mr. Flagel advises students to stick with activities for which they have a passion instead of trying to fit a particular bill because there is no magic college admissions formula. A college can’t predict exactly from year to year what its needs will be in its sports or music programs, he says.

“I hear it every year. Students ask, ‘Should I drop this activity even if I love it?’ The answer is no,” he says. “Do what makes most sense for your life and then find a school that matches your interests and skills. Not the other way around.”

Leadership, working

When college counselors talk about quality versus quantity regarding extracurricular activities, they are not only talking about the length of a student’s involvement. They also are talking about leadership. Being a team captain — as McClain is of two teams — looks better than just being a participant.

However, leadership comes in other forms, too, Ms. Cohen says.

“You can definitely show leadership skills in other areas of your life [than sports],” she says. “You can look and see what’s missing in your school. Maybe you can help start an advanced French class. … We often tell students, ‘If you can’t find it, found it.’”

However, not everyone will have the time or money to be involved in or start activities. Some students have to work part time to help support their families.

“We’re certainly not going to hold that against you,” says Fumi Ala, assistant director of freshman admissions at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Mr. Flagel agrees and says students working part time develop skills beyond the particular job.

“Working part time shows us time-management skills,” he says.

Having chores or assignments in the family, such as helping taking care of siblings or grandparents, also can be worth noting on a brag sheet, Ms. Cohen says.

“A lot of kids undersell themselves,” she says. “Cooking for the family three times a week, spending a lot of time reading, designing Web sites are all real activities,” she says.

In the end, colleges want diverse student bodies, she says. They are looking for people who will enrich and contribute to campus life, whether it is in sports, drama or charitable work. So, instead of trying to crack the college admission formula, she recommends taking a crack at introspection.

“It’s not about trying to figure out the system,” Ms. Cohen says. “Figure out yourself, and you can make the system work for you.”

More info:

Books —

• “The Truth About Getting In: A Top College Advisor Tells You Everything You Need to Know,” by Katherine Cohen, Hyperion, 2002. This book gives tips on a wide range of issues, including ways in which students can set themselves apart from other applicants, such as writing an effective “brag sheet.” It also offers college application work sheets and checklists.

• “Acing the College Application: How to Maximize Your Chances for Admission to the College of Your Choice,” by Michele Hernandez, Ballantine Books, 2002. This book says an important part of getting students into their dream colleges is the way they describe themselves in their applications. It goes on to show how to write effectively about talents, skills and passions.

• “What It Really Takes to Get Into Ivy League and Other Highly Selective Colleges,” by Chuck Hughes, McGraw-Hill, 2003. This book discusses the relative weight college admissions offices give to academics and extracurricular activities. It also gives advice on how students can improve their chances by preparing early in high school, writing a better application and finding a college that’s a good fit in terms of interests, personality and goals.

Associations —

• The National Association for College Admission Counseling, 1631 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Phone: 703/836-2222. Web site: www.nacac.com. NACAC is a nonprofit organization founded in 1937. Its goal is to support college admission counselors so they can better help high schoolers make successful transitions to college. Its Web site has a section offering students advice on how to write a successful college application, additional online resources and a list of college fairs. The next local fair listed is the Montgomery County National College Fair on April 20 and 21 at the Montgomery Country Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg.

• U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20202. Phone: 800/872-5327. Web site: www.ed.gov. This federal agency provides information for students about preparing for college, including information on the application process and financial aid.

Online —

• MyFootpath (www.myfootpath.com) is a Chicago-based company that sells Internet-based programs designed to improve guidance and college preparation within high schools. The Web site consists of dozens of articles on college preparation, including how best to complete applications and seek financial aid.

• Next Step Magazine (www.nextstepmagazine.com), a Rochester, N.Y.-based publication for teens, offers tips for high schoolers on topics such as college planning and career exploration.

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