A preponderance of strong and highly advantageous activities begun early in high school will dramatically improve a student’s chance of receiving offers of admissions from elite colleges. The issue is not whether the right set of activities will improve a student’s chances. The question is which activities will do so, and which ones are just a waste of time and money. In order to address this question, one must understand a basic premise of college admission: colleges are not looking for well-rounded students, but instead are looking to build a well-rounded student body. They do this by accepting strong students across several priority areas.
For example, most major universities have many departments that needs students to fill seats. Because this is a seller’s market (where colleges are the sellers), admissions officers can afford to raise the price to extraordinarily high levels. In other words, they can accept only the strongest students within each department. Therefore, for example, if you are making a case for admission to an elite college as an economics student, you should not only have strong grades but also a strong list of related activities. The same is true of students applying for admission in virtually any department. The activities chosen over four years of high school should demonstrate passion for a particular field of study.
Another question to address is whether big-name programs hold more sway with elite colleges than other activities. For example, would a student be better off taking a class through Harvard or Stanford, attending a sports camp, finding an internship at a local company, or earning money at a summer job such as a lifeguard or working at a local store. The truth is that any or all of these activities can be beneficial for a college application, as long as they address a particular need or passion of the student. If applying as an economics student, it could be highly beneficial to take an economics class regardless of where that class is offered. If it is possible to take the class for credit and earn a high grade, this could be quite helpful. However, that class could be through a local community college, through Harvard, or through Stanford. It really does not make much difference. On the other hand, taking a class at Harvard just for the sake of taking a class at Harvard will not be very helpful. In other words, each chosen activity must make sense in the context of the student’s strengths, interests, and range of opportunities.
For a gifted athlete, attending a summer sports camp could have more of an impact on colleges than taking a college-level course. For a student interested in computers, it makes far more sense to take a course in programming or computer engineering than doing an internship at the local City Hall. For someone interested in history and politics, the opposite would be true; it makes far more sense to have an internship related to history or politics than it does to take a computer programming course. Students interested in writing would benefit greatly from taking a writing course, both for the sake of improving a skill and strengthening an application. Students interested in debate would be well served by attending a debate program or competing in contests.
The point to all this is that activities must make sense in the context of each student undertaking these activities. It is simply a waste of time to engage in activities that have high profile names but that do nothing to strengthen the narrative. Therefore, activities should be chosen carefully and strategically. By the time a student is ready to submit an application, he should have a set of activities that is as impressive as it is appropriate. Application padding can be counterproductive, because colleges recognize it for what it is. Always remember that the activities section of college applications is not a place for window dressing; It is a place for résumé building, narrative strengthening, and passion proving.