What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

This is the foliage of destiny.

Welcome back to our series, What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? While tests and grades are the most important part of your application, they alone are not enough to distinguish you from all the other kids who are applying. As difficult as it may be to get the grades and scores required to be considered by Ivy League schools, there are tens of thousands of high school students who do it every year, and there just aren’t enough spots at the top for all of them. This leaves the admissions officers with a problem: how do they pick one candidate over another? Thus begins the applications arms race of extracurriculars, personal essays, recommendation letters, etc., etc.

This part of the application can be hard because you can’t measure how well you’re doing with a number or exam score, but if you keep in mind what the admissions officers are looking for, it can be easy to know what you need. So, what are they looking for? Remember, as I noted in my first post, Ivy League schools want kids who are going to go on to be “successful” – rich, famous, powerful, prestigious. Yes, being smart is an important ingredient here, but it’s not enough to be a study robot that does nothing but make good grades and ace exams. You have to be able to get people to like you if you want to be successful. You have to be “well rounded.”

There are thus three main types of extracurriculars: creative, athletic, and volunteering activities. For each activity you do, admissions officers are looking for three additional dimensions: commitment, leadership, and recognition. Some colleges give you an entire page to list your extracurriculars: don’t be intimidated and try to fill all that empty space. With extracurriculars, less is actually more. You really don’t need more than five extracurricular activities, so stop stressing out about how to fill that page. You do need to do those few activities for real though.

First, let’s examine the three dimensions and what they mean.

Commitment is how much time you spend doing an activity and for how long you’ve been doing it. You need to do an activity for all four years of high school and practice/participate in it regularly. This is the most important dimension, and the least complicated to achieve.

Leadership comes in many forms.

Leadership mostly applies to clubs or organizations to which you belong. Colleges like it when you have some official position in at least one of the organizations you participate in – for instance, getting elected President of one of the clubs in which you participate is a classic and highly desirable option. The kind of success that admissions officials are looking for often includes having impressive titles, making decisions, and bossing people around in real life after college, and they think that being President of a high school club might indicate future success in that direction (these admissions officials make many such leaps of faith – but with so many applicants they have to choose somehow). Getting elected to a position also shows an ability to get people to like you, which is a big plus as well. Student government always looks good on an application (even if it doesn’t have any real power). Who knows, maybe you’ll get elected President of the U.S. some day (this is really how their minds work).

You have to admit, she really does do a great Margret Thatcher impression.

Recognition is related to leadership, but it usually takes the form of prizes, awards, and accomplishments. Winning an award in one of your activities is a way to try to prove you are actually good at it that is easy to document on a resume or application. Remember, on paper it doesn’t matter how good you are at something unless you have an award to prove it, and college admissions, job applications, and so many other things in life are primarily conducted on paper (it’s just the way things are).

So, what kinds of activities should you pursue? First let’s discuss the “creative” type. These  are the most important type, and can include any arts activities you do, including things like: visual art, music, dance, theater, etc. If you’re not artsy, though, don’t worry: computer programming, building robots, astronomy, the school newspaper, yearbook, chess club, speech and debate, and even math club could potentially count here, too.

South Korean gamer Jang Jae Ho is a Warcraft III and Starcraft II world champion.

The trick here is to take whatever you like to do in your spare time and make it sound prestigious on paper. Saying “I like to play video games all day” is not that impressive, but saying “I won a prize at a video game competition two years in a row, I review games each week on my blog (www.gamesnobbery.blogblog.com), I’m president of my school video game club (which I founded (with my friends so I could put it on this application)), and I am very interested in programming, designing, and revolutionizing video games as a career” sounds very impressive. You just have to make it fit the format that they are looking for. Preferably, this type of activity will be something you actually like and care about, and it’s great if you have more than one.

If there isn’t an organization dedicated to your chosen activity at your school, try to find one outside it or even create a new one (president and founder sounds extra fancy – if you can start a club, maybe you can start a company someday!). You should also look for summer programs dedicated to your activity. Anything you can put down on paper is your friend.

American gymnast Nastia Liukin won gold at the Olympics in 2008.

The athletic type is pretty straightforward: join one of your school’s sports teams, and do it all four years. If you do a sport that may not have a team at your school, like gymnastics or taekwondo or weight lifting, try to find a local organization dedicated to it, and make sure you go to competitions and win some kind of prize (it can be sixth place at the local level or something – you don’t have to be state champion, although it’s great if you are). Getting a trophy or letter jacket is a nice award to rack up in this department (you don’t always have to be good, either – I did my time and got to be a relay alternate on my swim team at regionals, so I got a letter jacket without even getting wet!). This is another way to show them that you are well-rounded, or even a “team player” (you can work with people/get along/have basic social skills) if you do team sports.

Mother Teresa famously said to “find your own Calcutta.”

As for volunteering, this theoretically shows that you are a good person (or that you really want to go to Harvard), and is a good way to rack up leadership, since volunteering often happens through organizations that you can advance through if you want. If you belong to a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or some other religious community, this is often a good place to find volunteering opportunities (religious youth groups can also be a good place to get leadership points, since leadership positions may be less competitive than in school clubs). There are many non-denominational ways to find volunteer opportunities as well, of course, and there are probably numerous clubs and organizations for volunteering at your school. It’s always best, of course, to volunteer when your heart is truly in it, and you might try to find a way to tie your creative extracurricular into your volunteering. For instance, if you love to play the piano, you might volunteer to play at a hospital or retirement home once a week. The important thing is to pick something and do it regularly all four years of high school to show commitment.

So, what did I actually do as far as extracurriculars? Here they are:

  • Played Violin in the school orchestra, 3 years, conducted the orchestra playing a piece I wrote, participated in playathon fundraiser
  • Music composition summer camp, 2 years, wrote music for a ballet in collaboration with the local ballet academy, had a piece I wrote played on a professional concert
  • High School Swim Team, 4 years, received letter jacket, went to regionals for 100 Butterfly
  • Debate Team, 1 year, won trophy in novice Lincoln Douglass debate
  • Economics challenge team, 1 year
  • High School Quiz Bowl team 1 year, undefeated, went to nationals*

*Note: Quiz Bowl is another tried and true Ivy League favorite for extracurriculars.

That was the main stuff. Notice I didn’t have any volunteering, and not too much leadership either (I guess you could count conducting the orchestra. I don’t know what it is, but people just don’t vote for me). Not many real awards, either (although the professional concert might count as an accomplishment/recognition). The main thing is that I had two activities, music and swimming, that I was committed to and did a little something to distinguish myself in (composing also isn’t that common, which helps). The others are mostly prestigious things that look good on paper, even if I didn’t do them for very long.

The Whiffenpoofs at Yale are the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the U.S.

So, if you have at least a few things that you do seriously you should have a good shot during this part of the admissions process, but I would personally highly recommend that you do at least one creative, one athletic, and one volunteer activity regularly for four years, since if you manage your time and start early it’s really not that hard to rack up extracurricular experiences that look great on your application. If you haven’t been doing one of these, start now – one year is better than no years. For your other activities, try finding a small club at your high school that you might be interested in, and be a member of it for all four years of high school. If it’s a small club and you are generally friendly to everyone in it, you are bound to get a leadership position by your senior year. Also, remember that the more intellectual or prestigious sounding your activity is, the better. Student government, debate, newspaper, yearbook, quiz bowl, and glee club (especially glee club – I don’t know why, but students at the Ivy League just love a cappella) are all stereotypical Ivy League activities. Also, professional experience can also count as an extracurricular (especially if you do one of your creative activities professionally).

The main thing is to show commitment in whatever it is you do. We live in a time where awards for kids are cheap, since everyone’s a winner. Do your time and take advantage of any leadership or award opportunities that come along. If you stick with three or more things for four years, you’re bound to get something eventually. Also, always remember that grades are more important than extracurriculars. Never sacrifice grades for extracurriculars.

I hope that was helpful. Remember, if you have questions about anything in these or other posts on this site, you can ask us with the Ask Test Masters feature. Next time, we’ll discuss essays and other writing samples you are asked to provide on your application. In the mean time, get back to studying!

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

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