- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

Cheerleading or writing, swimming or civic-mindedness — which competitive, brainy or virtuous extracurricular activity is the ticket to those ivy-covered halls?

After analyzing the trajectories of about 9,000 students, a pair of Harvard University researchers have ranked the affects of youthful extras on the college admission process, which they deemed “increasingly mysterious to students, parents and guidance counselors alike.”

Certain activities are trump cards for the collegiately minded, according to a new study by Harvard social science professor Jason Kaufman and Jay Gabler, a doctoral candidate at the school.

Those who hope to get into Harvard, Yale or some other “elite” school should work on their high school yearbook or newspaper staff, participate in some clearly defined hobby club and most importantly, have parents who visit art museums.

“It does not seems to matter whether students themselves visit museums — as long as their parents do,” the researchers noted, theorizing that such an artsy pedigree enriched a students “cultural capital” in the eyes of the campus gatekeepers. Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Gabler contend that artistic knowledge honed at home is as big an asset as income and social connections.

And the rest? Students who are simply interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a less-prestigious school should take dance and music lessons, participate in interscholastic team sports, join the school band or musical group and hold an office in the school government structure.

What didn’t matter? Participation in art classes, school plays, individual sports, cheerleading, public service clubs and, amazingly enough, academic honor societies did not seem to factor in to the selection process at the less-swanky schools.

But neither did the three activities that seemed to pull so much weight at the elite colleges.

“Grades and standardized test scores matter a great deal, as do parents’ income and education,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Even when we consider these, however, we find that participation in some extracurricular activities in high school makes it much more likely that a student will go on to college.”

He reasons that those activities increase a student’s technical skills, cultural awareness and social competence — transforming them into “more attractive candidates for colleges in any number of ways.”

The study’s authors based their conclusions on an analysis of the National Educational Longitudinal Survey, a Department of Labor project that has plumbed the interests and opinions of thousands of teenagers beginning in 1997. The survey, which continues to follow the students’ outcomes, has been updated seven times since then, most recently in February.

The researchers looked for extracurricular activities most common among those who made it to college — elite and otherwise.

“There are no magic bullets,” they write, emphasizing that grades and test scores still have the most impact on the admissions process. But parents may hold the most sway.

“Only a few activities matter, and the most important predictors in our data have to do with family background, rather than extracurricular activities,” they add.

The research was published May 24 by the American Sociological Association.

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