Steve Schwartz is a professional college admission counselor with more than a decade of experience. He’s written the popular Get Into College Blog since 2009, moderates Reddit’s college admissions forum, and now hosts a podcast, College Admissions Toolbox.
Steve, please tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do with college applicants.
I wowed Columbia’s admissions team with a college essay about my experiences lobbying government delegates at a United Nations conference in South Africa. (The real UN, not Model UN.) Delegates from government and non-profit organizations wrote my letters of recommendation. My résumé described my leadership in a national youth organization advocating sustainable development. Soon after Columbia accepted me, friends, neighbors, and people I barely knew began asking for advice on how to improve their college applications.
Today, I help students craft college essays that showcase their strengths. I also moderate Reddit’s college admissions forum (come check us out!), write articles on college admissions for my website, Get Into College Blog, and host the podcast College Admissions Toolbox.
It seems like today’s students are involved in more extracurriculars than ever before. Is that a good thing? What’s the “right” number of extracurriculars for a student?
It’s all about quality, not quantity. Focus your time on one thing (or a few) that you truly care about and would enjoy doing even if you knew that colleges wouldn’t know you’d done it.
Can you give us an example of what would make for a good extracurricular?
Suppose you’re a student interested in marketing. Here’s one step-by-step approach I might recommend to help you discover an extracurricular that will stand out and make for a compelling story:
* Talk with lots of small entrepreneurs / nonprofits in industries that interest you.
* Keep a list of the ones you like.
* Propose an idea you think your favorite would like and offer to carry it out for them.
* If they say no, see if you can figure out something else for them.
* If not, move on to your next-favorite.
This one extracurricular could end up consuming all your free time, leading you to have only one. However, you’ll be a much more compelling applicant than one who “did” several, but did nothing truly meaningful in any of them.
Are there any common mistakes students should avoid when it comes to extracurriculars?
Too many students join a million clubs simply to “build their resumes,” do nothing significant in them, then list them on college applications. Those don’t “count.” Again, if you want an EC to “count,” you should do something that you enjoy. Otherwise, you won’t have anything compelling about it to include on your application.
If everyone is involved in extracurriculars these days, what can a college applicant do to stand out? Is just “being involved” enough?
Most people stay on pre-defined paths, whether they’re in high school, college, grad school, or the working world. However, if you want to do something unique and meaningful, and you want to stand out, you can’t follow a pre-defined course.
Don’t just “be involved.” Students who do this and then ask “how to stand out” don’t get it. Forging your own path isn’t easy. You don’t do something unique simply by trying to do something unique. It’s something that’s hard to relate to unless you’ve already done it, and the path there is seemingly random in nature.
By definition, you can’t try to be unique. At least, you can’t have a specific goal in mind. Instead of starting at Z, start at A. Don’t compete with people like yourself, and don’t work within established programs. Instead, explore your interests, use your skills, and do things outside the system. Things other people aren’t doing. This gives you the freedom to do things that will not only sound impressive, but will actually be impressive. And you’ll eventually get to do something that leaves a mark on the world.
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