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

  1. Daniel L. Pelzl says:

    Good advice! I have often wondered if there should be a discount for test scores that are partly the result of practice. Even family experience skews the playing field. Do teachers ever post their scores? Is there any way to learn what questions were missed? These are the only questions of personal interest.

    • Calvin says:

      Thanks! As for your questions:

      “Do teachers ever post their scores?” – If you mean Test Masters teachers, then no, there isn’t a place online where you can look up our scores (or anything else about us, really), but I’m sure any Test Masters instructor would tell you what he or she scored if you ask him or her in person (we all scored really high). If you mean some other teachers, I have no idea.

      “Is there any way to learn what questions were missed?” – If you mean you took the SAT and you got your scores and you want to see what questions you missed, then yes, that is possible. You can find out how to do this through the college board here: http://sat.collegeboard.org/scores/verify-sat-scores

      If you mean you want to know what questions you missed on a Test Masters practice test, then yes, you should always receive a score report with a question by question break down for every test you take with Test Masters. If you mean some other test, I’m not sure how to answer.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Justin says:

    I am a sophomore white male in a top 50 public highschool, and my one downfall is extracurricular activities. I play beach volleyball, and have placed 4th and 5th in national events, which may look good, but is it too late to start doing volunteer work? I know I can’t go into the creative outlet, because I am not good at any art besides calligraphy. I am just worried that it is too late for volunteer work and clubs to matter if I started 2nd semester sophomore year. Any advice?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Justin,

      What do you mean, your downfall is extracurriculars? Sounds like you have plenty to work with. Stick with your volleyball – if you keep placing nationally all four years that will be really amazing. No, it’s not too late to start volunteering – I did all my volunteering for the IB diploma my senior year. You generally only need one or two main extracurriculars that you’re really involved in – all 4 years, leadership positions, awards/recognition, etc. – and the others are mostly there to show that you’re “well rounded” – whatever that means. So starting volunteering halfway through sophomore year is fine and will definitely add to your application – it just won’t be as important as volleyball.

      Also, there is nothing wrong with calligraphy! In fact, it’s pretty good because most kids probably won’t have that and it can help you stand out. If you’ve dedicated a significant about of time to practicing calligraphy, you should definitely include it in your list of extracurricular activities. If you feel confident about the skills you’ve developed in calligraphy (and don’t be too hard on yourself: you will only need to impress non-experts, since admissions officers probably don’t know anything about calligraphy), you might even include a sample of your work as a supplement to your application (maybe write out a short poem – the school’s fight song, perhaps? – in a few contrasting styles or something like that).

      To me it sounds like volleyball will be your main thing, and maybe calligraphy could be a secondary main thing (depending on how into it you are), and then you can round out your application with some volunteering, a few clubs, maybe a summer program or two. I can tell you that national recognition in volleyball is going to impress them the most, though – they love awards. Of course, NEVER sacrifice grades for extracurriculars – if your grades aren’t good enough they won’t even look at them. Remember, at the Ivy League level extracurriculars are mostly just a way for you to stand out from all the other national merit finalists and semi-finalists. Best of luck to you – keep up your grades and keep up with volleyball and your chances will be as good as anyone’s. Also, don’t neglect application strategy.


  3. Sam says:

    Hi, I was wondering instead of doing a sport could I be dedicated to several clubs and volunteer activities for 4 years and still get accepted to a Ivy League college? Also, I’m a freshman in IB and I wanted to know if there is something I should practice to become VP by senior year?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Sam,

      Yes, it is possible to get in without doing a sport. A sport is just another way to distinguish yourself from all the other applicants, but it is certainly not the only way. A number of my friends from high school were never involved in sports and still managed to get into Stanford, Rice, Yale, U Penn, etc. Remember that depth is generally more important than breadth when it comes to extracurricular activities. If you can stick with a few clubs for all 4 years of high school and obtain leadership positions in some of them, that’s great. Also, why aim for VP when you could be president of a club? Remember smaller clubs tend to be less competitive with regard to leadership positions so they can be good choices. If you can become president or vice president of at least one club and maybe have a lower leadership position(treasurer/secretary/etc.) in another that will be very impressive. The key with clubs is to stick with them, get leadership positions, and have specific accomplishments that you achieved while you were in those leadership positions (I raised X dollars though bake sales and car washes, sold Y t-shirts, organized an event with Z people attending, etc). Of course, academics always come first, and you should never sacrifice your grades for the sake of extracurricular activities. Keep up the good work and make As in those IB classes and you should have a good shot, even without sports. Hope this helps!


  4. rh says:

    You say never sacrifice grades for extracurriculars, but time and again, kids with near perfect GPAs and test scores get rejected from their Ivy of choice. And you don’t understand that sports means a lot more than being athletic – it means being able to be part of a team and dealing with adversity. Even if you are a swimmer or track star, you have to deal with being picked and bonding with your teammates. The athleticism is minor unless you are being recruited for sports.

    Commitment is hard to show, and I’m not sure how much it matters. Commitment before the HS years tends to be less important – do schools really want to know my kid has played soccer since the age of three, or was helping to take care of a sick family member between the ages of 5 and 10?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear RH,

      You are absolutely right: kids with perfect grades do get rejected, and sports are about more than athleticism (I did swim team all four years of high school, so I know). Ivy league schools want your child to have BOTH! And other stuff, too! I know it sounds impossible, but thousands of kids do it every year. And even then, some of them get rejected. What I mean when I say that your child should never sacrifice grades for extracurriculars is that these colleges weigh grades more heavily than they do sports. That may or may not be fair, but in my experience that’s just the way it is. I have many friends who didn’t do sports and got into Ivy League schools. However, even though they didn’t have sports, they did have some other extracurricular activity in its place: quiz bowl, art, debate, music, volunteering, etc. Many had multiple extracurricular activities in which they were involved. None of my friends who did not have top grades got into Ivy League schools, regardless of how good they were at sports, music, debate, or whatever. Grades alone are not enough, but you can’t get in without them. Extracurricular activities will never make up for poor grades.

      As for your child’s soccer and care-giving experiences, yes, they do want to know about those – admissions officers eat that stuff up. There will definitely be space on the application to list how many years and how many hours per week your child has done soccer and other organized activities. You might try to squeeze in the care-giving there, but because it was not done through a formal organizational structure it may be more difficult to fit in on that part of the application. It is, however, something that would be good to mention in an essay. Because they have so many straight A students to sort through, they are looking for anything unique about your child that will help him or her stand out from all the other kids who all have the same exact grades and test scores. Experiences like that are unusual and give your child the opportunity to show commitment and strength of character that grades don’t necessarily communicate.

      With elite college admissions, all your child can do is his or her best to jump through as many of these hoops as possible, and after that it’s the luck of the draw. My main advice to you is to relax. If your child is bright and hard working, he or she will do fine wherever he or she ends up at college. The elite college admissions process in this country has grown into a ridiculous circus that people take way too seriously. Your child can go to the honors school at a public university in your state and become an affluent, successful doctor/lawyer/engineer/computer programmer/etc. and do just as well as an Ivy League graduate. And it will almost certainly be much less expensive for you. A good friend of mine did very well in high school (although she was not in the running for an Ivy League acceptance letter), and she ended up going to the honors college at the University of Houston where she majored in accounting and did very well academically. Her senior year she got an internship with Deloitte, one of the top accounting firms in the country, and at the end of the internship they offered her a job. Unless your child wants to work on Wall Street or in Washington D.C., not having an Ivy League undergraduate education is not going to prevent him or her from pursuing whatever career he or she chooses (and even if he or she does want to work in the financial or public sectors, it’s still very possible to do so by going to an excellent public university). The Ivy League will not magically turn your child into a Nobel Prize winning scientist, a great author, or President of the United States. Basically, they admit students who are workaholics who know how to collect prestigious sounding credentials, and surprise surprise, many of them go on doing the same thing.

      I know the college application process can be stressful and frustrating for parents and students alike. Just always remember that even for the most qualified students, acceptance to the most selective schools always depends on an element of luck, and that the kind of life your child will one day have will be determined by your child, not by what college he or she attends. Just make sure your child does his or her best and everything will be fine.

      Best of luck,

      • Calvin says:

        P.S. – In addition to test prep, Test Masters also offers college admissions counseling upon request. Through this service we help students make sure their applications look their best by giving each student personalized attention. This often includes college research, discussions of extracurricular activities, and help editing essays. Most students wait until they start applying to use this service, but in my opinion the earlier you start planning for college applications the better. If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to call and ask about it. I myself often work with students on college applications and would be happy to help your child, too.

  5. YC says:

    Hi. I am a sophomore and actually I just came to America from China. So I spent my freshman year in China. I am wondering that does the extra-curricular activities that I did in China count in the application? And, it is hard for me to show commitment since I have just come here. I can only do something in a row for at most 2 and a half year for the reason that I spent the first semester of my sophomore year getting used to the new environment. I have been playing the piano for almost 10 years but now I dont even have a piano at home so I have to drop it. And this really makes me upset. Do you have any suggestions of what I should do for extra-curricular in the next 2 and a half years? Thanks a lot:)

    • Calvin says:

      Yes, your extra curricular activities in China certainly do count! You can show commitment by continuing the activities you did in China at your new school in the US. Admissions officers understand that sometimes students change schools (or even countries) during high school, and they won’t count that against you.

      Please don’t quit piano!!! Especially if you like it!!! Get an inexpensive electronic keyboard if you can’t get piano right now. Go to a local piano shop and tell them you can’t buy a piano now but you still need to practice. Maybe they will allow you to practice there for a small fee. They may be able to give you a list of local piano teachers who may have or know of pianos you can practice on. Music schools and universities often have practice rooms with pianos that may be available for you to use. I know my high school actually had two pianos in practice rooms (they were terrible, but better than nothing). The music teachers at your high school (if your high school has a music program) may also have access to pianos you can practice on or may be able to recommend solutions to you. Any true lover of music will try to help you out. I guarantee you there are lots of old ladies who have pianos that never get played sitting in their living rooms in your town, and I’m sure at least one of them would be happy to let you practice on her piano. Try putting an ad in the newspaper or craigslist if you have to (but be careful, of course). Music is a great thing to put on your application, and if you’ve already invested 10 years in playing the piano it would be foolish to throw it away by quitting. Also, you should know that every time someone quits playing piano a kitten dies. (Full disclosure – I was a music major in college.)

      If you need ideas for other extracurriculars, sports, newspaper, quiz bowl, speech and debate, chess club, model UN, student government, etc. are all classic choices. Clubs organized around volunteering are also good. Also, remember my advice about smaller clubs – it can be easier to become President or Vice President of these clubs if you have less competition.

      If you want more specific guidance with your application, Test Masters offers college admissions counseling upon request. Through this service we help students make sure their applications look their best by giving each student personalized attention. This often includes college research, discussions of extracurricular activities, and help editing essays. Most students wait until they start applying to use this service, but in my opinion the earlier you start planning for college applications the better. If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to call and ask about it. I myself often work with students on college applications and would be happy to help you, too. Best of luck, and keep music in your life!

      • Calvin says:

        P.S. – In addition to test prep, Test Masters also offers college admissions counseling upon request. Through this service we help students make sure their applications look their best by giving each student personalized attention. This often includes college research, discussions of extracurricular activities, and help editing essays. Most students wait until they start applying to use this service, but in my opinion the earlier you start planning for college applications the better. If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to call and ask about it. I myself often work with students on college applications and would be happy to help you, too.

  6. Ana says:

    Last year (freshman year) I moved and was in two different schools for semester 1 and 2. My school in semester 1 wasn’t the best and really didn’t offer that many clubs so I was only in Red Cross (my current school doesn’t have it). My current school is one of the best in America and it has so many clubs and activities, I’m currently in about 5-6 different clubs (I’m a sophomore right now). Would it harm me if I was in most of my clubs for only 3 years not 4?
    Also, I’m really not that athletic….at all, so what if I only did sports (tennis or ultimate frisbee) junior and senior year?
    Would I still hopefully still have a good chance of getting into an IVY (assuming that my grades were amazing etc etc)?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Ana,

      You shouldn’t worry too much about extracurriculars – you sound like you’re doing fine. 5-6 clubs is actually a lot, especially if you do all of them for three years. I’d advise you to pick your favorite two and focus on really participating and getting leadership positions in them. It’s great if you continue with the others as well, but you don’t have to be as committed. As for sports, you don’t have to do sports if you don’t want to, but I do think two years of a sport would be a positive addition to your application (and it would be good for you, too!).


  7. J says:

    Hi! I am currently a sophomore in high school and am working hard to get into various prestigious colleges, many of which are ivies. I am also interested in bachelor/md programs such as the plme at brown and the hpme at northwestern. I am involved in my school orchestra, choir, and student council.
    Here is what I have as of now.
    Orchestra: concertmistress of the highest level orchestra- this year and I assume I will be for the rest of high school
    District(9th and 10th grade) and state(10th) orchestras – within first three chairs at district and I haven’t had state seating auditions yet. I assume I will be in district and state for the rest of high school as well
    11 years of private violin lessons so far
    All 1 ratings at regional and state solo/small ensemble competitions
    Winner of school concerto competition and solo performance with the orchestra
    Choir: my choir’s president last year and this year + solo at pops concert, a supporting but large role in the musical
    Student council: started this year, elected by my peers as Vice President of my class. I plan on continuing student council as long as I’m elected. I am also in charge of a new campaign that student council is running.
    I am in AP Euro this year, and plan on taking AP classes in chemistry, BC Calc, us history, physics, government, lit and comp, and maybe biology during high school. I have had straight A’s so far and hope that continues.By the time I am a senior, I will have taken Spanish for 4 years.
    I am also in the gifted program and founded a college prep club.
    I volunteered at the local hospital last summer and plan on doing so every summer from now on, and I sing and play violin for my church on a regular basis (does that count as volunteering?). I also volunteer by tutoring a freshman in math regularly.
    I took the PSAT this year as practice and got an unfortunate 194, however I plan on studying a lot this summer and raising it by at least 30 points to have a chance at being a national merit semi finalist next year.
    Due to work loads and all, I think I will be dropping choir for the rest of high school. Do you think that’s ok? Will orchestra and student council be enough extracurriculars? And do you think my extracurriculars/classes are enough to have a chance at ivy leagues? I would appreciate some advice. Thanks!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear J,

      This all sounds great. As for choir, maybe instead of dropping it you could just do less of it. You could still sing, but not be president or have a solo role in the musical – that way you could still do it without dedicating so much time to it. It would just be a shame to drop it altogether if it’s something you enjoy. If it really is too much, though, don’t hesitate to drop it if you feel the time you spend doing it is necessary for keeping up your grades. All your other stuff is impressive enough, especially if you are able to keep it up and maybe even improve a little over the next two years (perhaps you might become class president? VP is still excellent if not). My main advice is to keep getting straight As, get 5s on your AP Exams, and get those PSAT/SAT scores up. If test prep is an option for you, at Test Masters we offer a 300 point score improvement guarantee with our SAT course (which is equivalent to a 30 point improvement on the PSAT). Becoming a National Merit Finalist would really help your chances of getting into one of these elite schools, so I definitely think you could benefit from the course.

      Besides grades, tests, and extracurriculars, you need to start narrowing down the list of schools you are interested in. If you are 100% sure you want to be a doctor, then one of those bachelors/md programs would be an excellent choice (also, you should definitely do AP Bio if you want to be a doctor). However, if there are other career options you might want to pursue, it may be wiser to try for something else. It’s hard to know what you want to do as a sophomore in high school – I have a good friend who double majored in biochemistry and art at Rice, thinking she was going to go to med school. Guess what? She decided in the end that med school wasn’t for her and started her own art lessons business instead and is having great success with it. Or maybe you are the rare type who has a strong calling to be a doctor, and you know that that’s definitely what you want to do no matter what (I’ve got friends like that, too). The point is, you need to start figuring out what it is you want out of college and then, through visiting schools and doing research, narrow down your list to maybe 4-6 schools (definitely no more than 10) based on what you want. Please consult the other blog posts in this series, especially the Application Strategy article. Until then, keep playing that wonderful music, and good luck!


      P.S. – Yes, your church musical activities count as volunteering. Also, what violin concerto did you play when you won the competition? I’m just curious because I’m a total classical music geek. :)

      • J says:

        Thank you! All of this was GREAT advice, and I’m glad to hear that my work other than choir is “impressive”. I played the Beethoven Romance in F Major :)

  8. Amelia says:

    I recently reviewed your blog and found it very helpful. I am in high school and my interest lies in studying medicine and I would like to travel to disadvantaged countries and help out in any way possible. I would like to get involved in organizations like “Habitat of Humanity.” I feel that volunteering at a local library or at school is a bit cliche. I want to do something that sets me aside from other applicants. I would appreciate your input in this matter.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Amelia,

      Being passionate about a cause is the best reason to get involved in a cause. If you are excited about organizations like Habitat for Humanity then that in itself is a great reason to get involved – volunteering to help people in other countries could be a very rewarding and productive summer project. As for what colleges think, sure, taking on a major project and going to a foreign country to volunteer might be more impressive than volunteering at a local library, but remember there’s nothing wrong with volunteering at a library – after all, there are plenty of people who could use your help right here in the United States and perhaps even in your own community (also, remember there’s no such thing as a disadvantaged country – only disadvantaged people. Even the poorest countries invariably have a few extremely wealthy people at the top). As Mother Theresa said, “Find your own Calcutta.” Also, there’s nothing wrong with doing both – maybe during the summer you do Habitat for Humanity and during the school year (when it’s harder to drop everything and fly off to the third world) you do something less grand but still important and meaningful. When searching for volunteering activities and projects, the most important thing is to find something that you genuinely care about. These are the activities that will in the end do you and the people you’re helping the most good. Since you mentioned that you want to become a doctor, you might consider volunteering at a medical clinic or doing something else related to medicine. This would show your interest in and commitment to this career path and would also give you a chance to learn more about it. Hope this helps!


      • Valerie says:

        Hi, i’m an African student at a small state uni in America. I plan to transfer to an Ivy league next year. I have a 4.0 GPA currently, doing honor courses . President of two clubswrote a bestseller and tutor less privileged HS students free for SAT. 2200 on SAT and 750 on two subject tests. Score 5 in 5 AP exams. Only problem is … I’ll be 17+ when I transfer and i’m not doing any sports. Do I still have a chance to get into Harvard or Stanford?

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Valerie,

          Yes, I’d say so! You have a very strong application – it’s okay if you didn’t do a sport. I have many friends who got into Ivy League schools without doing any sports. Sports are just one option among many for extracurricular activities, and while it is always nice to show that you are well-rounded by doing sports, it isn’t absolutely necessary. One thing I will say though is that Harvard and Stanford are very different schools with different cultures, atmospheres, and opportunities. Transfer admissions are often very competitive, especially for international students, so you really need to do your research and figure out what your top choice really is. Don’t just apply to an Ivy League school because it’s an Ivy League school – apply because there is something special about that particular school that you need to achieve what you want to achieve at college. There is always a question on applications that asks “Why do you want to go to our school (and not some other school)?” This question is very important to admissions officers, so make sure you know the answer.


  9. AleashaMarie says:

    I would really like to Yale, but I didn’t get a chance to have any extracurriculars. My mother couldn’t afford it most of the time, but when she could, I had to stay home and take care of my little brother and sister. This article really crushed my spirit and drained all hope from me. I only have my Senior year left. Is there any way I could still go without 4 years of extracurricular activities?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Aleasha Marie,

      Elite universities understand that not all students have equal opportunities to take piano lessons, go to soccer practice, and attend space camp. Helping your family in times of need can be just as valuable an extracurricular activity in their eyes, and you should definitely still apply and tell colleges about your experiences. If you will be the first person in your family to attend college, or if you have had to face significant hardships during high school, that can actually help you stand out more than a long list of extracurricular activities on your application would. If you are one of those rare people who beat the odds by getting stellar grades despite great challenges, chances are Yale, or any college for that matter, would love to have you as a student. That kind of life experience can actually mean more to them than debate trophies or being editor of the school newspaper, because it means that no matter what life throws at you, you will be driven to succeed and won’t give up, and that’s a rare quality few teenagers can prove they have.

      Hope this helps,

  10. Zoe says:

    This is some really awesome advice! I was wondering…. how does a job come into play here. I’m in 5 clubs, two of them are leadership positions, and I have a job; how does that look? Will it make me more of a standout that I have the job and I do all of these other things. Also, this year I was really having troubles in school, and I discovered I have ADD. I’ve been diagnosed by a psychiatrist. It brought my grades down this year, I don’t have any d’s but I will have 2 c’s and the rest A’s. Is that going to REALLY hurt me? (I’m a sophomore and I had excellent grades my freshman year, all A’s) I also did take two classes online on top of my class load, bumped up my math class by taking it online, and I’m getting my credit for a class next year in a summer school class that’s not remedial. Is this some how going to equal out if I get good test scores? I’m just really unsure and I need some direction! Thanks!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Zoe,

      A job can be just as good as any other extracurricular activity, especially if it ties in with your prospective major(s). For instance, in high school some friends of mine worked as techs in genetics labs over the summer since they wanted to major in biology in college. Having any job, however, demonstrates responsibility, maturity, and independence, and colleges recognize that all types of jobs can provide students with valuable work experience. In short, having a job as one of your extracurricular activities is great, and you should definitely put it down on your application.

      As for those Cs, they are problematic. There will probably be space on your applications for you to mention that you have been diagnosed with ADD, and colleges may take that into consideration. Remember though, that all other things being equal, if colleges are presented with two students with ADD and one got straight As and the other didn’t, then they are likely to go with the one with better grades. It all depends on your competition. High scores on AP or SAT subject tests in the subjects in which you got Cs can help you demonstrate mastery of these subjects and may help make up for the grades somewhat, and you may want to ask your counselor to mention that your aberrant grades were related to your struggles with your diagnosis when he or she writes your counselor recommendation. If you mention it in your own essay (which you may or may not want to do depending on how much you feel this struggle defines you as a person), paint it as a story of you overcoming adversity and triumphing in the face of circumstances beyond your control. A member of my family was diagnosed with ADHD, so I understand the impact that these kinds of conditions can have on grades and so much more. Know that you are doing an amazing job and keep up the good work! If you want to still have a chance at the Ivy League, straight As and high standardized test scores are a must from here on out.

      One good thing about your diagnosis is that students with ADD can get extra time on standardized tests; for instance, on the SAT I believe you should be given time and a half for each section. Make sure you get to take advantage of this! If you have to have ADD, you might as well get something out of it, right? Extra time on tests like the SAT can help you make sure you get the highest score you can and make you a more competitive candidate for admission to selective colleges. Remember, if you want help preparing for the SAT, ACT, PSAT, AP exams, or SAT subject tests, Test Masters can provide you with experts like me who can help you get the scores you need to get in to your dream school.

      Keep up the good work!

      • James Choi says:

        Hi Calvin,
        I am going to be a senior this fall, and I feel like my extracurriculars make me too well-rounded. I understand from reading online that Ivy Leagues and other elite schools actually do not want well-rounded students, but want a well rounded class. This concerns me because just like you, I go to an IB and AP school. As you know, to complete the IB diploma, one needs hours to fulfill creative, active, and service hours. I feel like my extracurriculars are my strong point in my application, but I do not know what elite colleges exactly want. Some of my extracurriculars include:
        1. Internship with a U.S. Senate Campaign, was given leadership position as regional student field director
        2.Internship at Ernst & Young Beijing Office, currently doing that right now
        3.WSMA Clarinet Solo Ensemble, each year in highschool, 7 years private lessons
        4.Co-chair of county’s Young Republicans
        5.Boys State and Businessworld camps
        6.Varsity Football and Varsity Wrestling
        7.Scholastic Writing Regional winner Silver Key
        8.Math League
        9. President and founder of FBLA at my school
        10. Community Service: Top Soccer, Peer Mentor, National Honor Society, International Outreach, Nursing Home, Thanksgiving Dinner, Humane Society, IB Diploma–All pretty consistent each year
        11.I also took some summer program classes through Northwestern CTD and Stanford EPGY
        Also, I wanted to know about grades because I know grades are the most important. During high school, I have taken the most rigor possible while taking both AP and IB classes. In some classes I recieved B’s, but our grading scale to recieve an A is very tough (95 and above) as I go to a college prep school (Top 50 Catholic in US). I still have a pretty good, but not outstanding GPA though. I really want to go into business and maybe minor in political science in college and just wanted to know my chances because I understand that the college application process is holistic.

  11. Jane says:

    I am currently in my sophomore year and i’m in a situation where i have to graduate after my junior year. This takes a whole year off where i could build on my extracurriculars and so this worries me a little. So far my grades have been good and my SAT scores are around 2300 to 2350, and because i’m graduating early, I can’t take the full IB course and my school offers only 2 AP courses. I’m planning to study the AP subjects like Bio, Chem, Physics and take them by myself and I’m worried whether i’ll get a good score just with the work from my sophomore and junior year. I’m a science kind of person but i also write really well so i’m participating in a couple of international writing competitions but don’t have any solid results yet. As for my extracurriculars, I kind of dabbled in a lot of activities in my freshman year because i wanted to see what i really enjoyed but now that i only have 2 years left, I’m afraid i might not able to really participate as a leader and show real commitment after i graduate. I’m just really worried about my future and how should i show my love for medicine through extracurricular activities? I just feel so short on time having to graduate a year early. What do college admissions think about graduating early? I have to so i don’t have a choice but does it look bad? I really want to get into an IVY League school and i can study my ass off but i just don’t have enough extracurricular skills to develop in time. I’m scared that all my extracurriculars would be kind of wishy washy and the colleges won’t like me. Also what SAT subject tests and AP tests do you recommend for students that have to study by themselves? Is buying a workbook and just looking through it enough? If I want to get ready for AP Chem or Physics right now in my sophomore year, will that be extremely hard cause i’m really short on time and i just have to hurry up if i want to take like 10 APs in 2 years. Please respond because i’m going out of my mind.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Jane,

      First, chill out! My mom has a favorite prayer, which goes something like this: “God, give me the strength to change what I can, the patience to accept what I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If it’s already decided that you’re going to graduate in three years, stop asking yourself “what if I had an extra year?” and just make the best of it. I actually had a friend in high school who had to graduate in 2 years in order to avoid being drafted into the Singaporean military. He ended up getting into Cornell, majoring in aerospace engineering, and now lives in California. So yes, while it is hard, it is possible to graduate early and still get into an Ivy League college. If you only spent three years in high school colleges will understand that it was impossible for you to be part of newspaper or whatever for four years. They do have some connection to reality, I promise. Your grades and test scores are most important, and they sound very good so far. As for extracurriculars, don’t worry. Leadership positions are nice but not required (I didn’t have any). If you want to pick up a medical related extracurricular, try working or volunteering in a lab, shadowing doctors, and working or volunteering in a clinic or hospital. As for taking AP exams without taking the AP classes that go with them, AP Psychology and AP European History were very popular with my friends, and a number of them got 5s. Some kids even studied for Physics 2 or Chem 2 without taking the class (but they were kind of nuts). They had already taken AP World History, which has a lot of overlap with European History, and I think they bought workbooks. You can also buy real past exams from College Board online that you can use as practice. Yes, it will be hard, and yes, you might go a little bit crazy, but hey, it’s all part of the fun! Just be yourself, do your best, and take all that time you spend freaking out and use it to study instead. You’re going to need it.

      Good luck!

  12. Huy.H says:

    Hi Calvin. Your articles really inspire me ! But my case is a difference . As English is my second language ( i’m from asia and i moved to the USA 1 year ago, during the fall of my sophomore year, now i’m having my Junior Year), do you have any specific advice for people like me to get in Ivy League ? I dream schools are Havard, Yale and Duke. Although one year ago i still had ESL class for 1 quarter , but now i’m taking Honor 11 Lit, 2 Ap classes and i’m also in Debate club. I’m in dance class and intending to have a Hip Hop performance next spring. My GPA has always maintained 4.0 since i come to the USA. I’m not doing any extra activities . Is there anything you think that i should do to improve my application next year ? Thank you so much

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Huy,

      It sounds like you are doing very well, and it is very impressive that you have been able to succeed academically even while making the transition to a new country. My main advice is to make sure that you are taking as many AP classes as you can. If your high school offers a full compliment of AP English, Math, History, and Science courses, you should take all of them at the AP level if you want to go to one of the schools you mentioned. If your high school only offers Juniors the chance to take the two AP classes you are already enrolled in, then that’s fine, just as long as you are taking the most challenging course load available to you. Another thing to consider is your class rank. You mentioned that you have a 4.0 GPA (I assume that all classes, including AP classes, are graded on a 4.0 scale). Do you have a chance at being valedictorian or salutatorian? If you do, that would be great, because being valedictorian is a major feather in your cap when applying to the schools you mentioned, especially if you go to a high school that doesn’t send kids to the Ivy League every year. Also, make sure you have excellent scores on all your AP, SAT, PSAT, and SAT II exams.

      As far as extracurriculars go, Debate and Dance will probably be your main ones. See if you can pick up some volunteering – something regular that would not require too much time each week. If you don’t have time for that during the school year, you might try doing it during the summer. Also, have you won any awards for debate or dancing? Have you held any leadership positions in debate club or dance club? These things aren’t 100% required, but they do look good. Of course, always remember: never sacrifice grades for extracurriculars.

      Your English seems very fluent, especially for someone who has been living in the USA for only one year, but there are, of course, occasional unidiomatic phrases and constructions (For instance, “But my case is a difference” should be “But my case is different.”). I would strongly advise you to complete your applications essays early so that you can have your English teacher proofread them. In fact, you might write rough drafts over the summer.

      You seem like a very bright, hard-working student, and I’m sure you will do well wherever you end up for college. In the mean time, keep up the good work, and good luck!


      • Huy.H says:

        Dear Calvin.
        Thank you for your advice . I have one more small question . Do you think college will look at my application differently since my case is different ?( I moved here 1 year ago) Will i earn any priority for that ?

        • Calvin says:

          Dear Huy,

          I would say that the progress you have made in English is likely to impress them, especially if you are able to take an AP English class senior year (and get a 5 on the exam – although they won’t know your score until after you are admitted). However, on the whole, you will be expected to achieve just as much as any other student – the bar will not be set lower for you (at least not at the most selective colleges). The only allowance they might make is they would probably understand why you didn’t take the most advanced English classes right away, but they would still expect you to work your way up to the top by the end of high school. Basically, your story is impressive, but they expect to be impressed, so if you keep up the good work I would say it won’t particularly help or hurt you: they will see you as an acceptable candidate (which in itself is very good). Just don’t think you can get away with doing less than a native born student. They expect the same high standard of achievement from everyone. Leniency is only shown to underrepresented minorities or first generation college students (students whose parents did not attend college), and even then the bar is still very high.

          One important thing you should research is how many international students each school accepts each year. These highly selective schools like to admit a certain percentage of students from each region of the United States as well as some international students. For instance, Harvard lists the following statistics:

          Geographical breakdown

          New England: 17.3%
          Middle Atlantic: 22.7%
          South: 16.8%
          Midwest: 8.7%
          Central: 2.3%
          Mountain: 3.2%
          Pacific: 17.9%
          International: 11.1%

          If you are a US citizen or if you are a permanent resident (you have a Green Card), then you usually count as a domestic student (call the university to make sure). If not, you count as an international student. Naturally, competition is higher if you wind up in the international pool, since you are competing with students from all over the world, not just, say, the American South. If you do not count as a US citizen or permanent resident, find out which schools admit the most international students and which schools have the friendliest policies toward international students in terms of financial aid, work-study programs, housing, etc.

          Hope this helps, and keep up the good work! You’re doing great!


  13. Elizabeth says:

    I am a freshman in high school, and am a student in a specialized learning center at my school, which consists of 32 students. I currently have a 4.85 GPA, and take all honors classes with the exception of geometry (I do plan to take honors algebra 2 next year) and one AP class (I am also taking another AP class sophomore year as a part of the learning center, and many more junior and senior years). I am currently conducting a yearlong service-learning project focusing on the importance of reading, in which I volunteer at the local library and read to children. I am also orchestrating a book drive throughout my community and school to benefit children who are less fortunate. As a part of the learning center, I need to complete a service learning project each year, in order to graduate. So far, I have about 40 community service hours since the beginning of freshman year, and am planning on volunteering at a day camp for underprivileged youth and as well as at local hospital over the summer. I am in the Red Cross Club, the Community Service Club, and the Mock Trial Club at my school, as well as the Varsity tennis team, JV track team, and JV lacrosse team. My dream is to go to an Ivy League school and become a doctor, but my biggest concern is my lack of leadership and my lack of “creative” extracurricular activities. I enjoy acting, drawing, and painting, and recently auditioned for a Shakespeare monologue competition, but the drama club at my school conflicts with sports and other clubs, and the school does not offer an art club. I was wondering if you had any suggestions of activities that would set me apart from the typical applicant. I am extremely concerned that my extra curricular activities will not be enough. I am trying to do as much outside of school as I can freshman year before my workload at school becomes even harder, but am worried I need to be doing much more than I am. If you have any other general advice for me it would be greatly appreciated! Thank you so much for your help!

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Elizabeth,

      You’re doing fine. You have plenty of extracurriculars, and it sounds like “orchestrating a book drive” counts as leadership. If titled positions (president, treasurer, etc.) aren’t available to you, than leading special projects like that is just fine (also, if you don’t have one you could make up a title for yourself – “Director of Book Drive,” “Book Drive Committee Chairperson/President,” etc.). Also, you are just a freshman! Normally, you don’t get higher-up leadership roles until Junior or Senior year. Pick whichever organization you like the most (or the one that is the smallest) and aim to get a leadership position each year. Sophomore year you might be Secretary or Historian or Treasurer, Junior year you might be something else or Vice President, and hopefully by senior year you will be President or Vice President of the club. Also, mock trial club totally counts as a creative extracurricular. Even if you don’t belong to any organizations for acting/drawing/painting, you can still put them down on your application. For acting, you might see if you can find something during the summer since that won’t conflict with your other activities or your grades.

      My main advice to you is this: NEVER SACRIFICE GRADES FOR EXTRACURRICULARS. You are doing plenty of stuff already, and you only need leadership in one thing (I guess if you have time you could try for two just in case one doesn’t work out), so just stay in the things you are doing now for four years and you’ll be fine. If you can win an award or two that would be great as well. However, always remember that your grades are the most important part of your application. If you are ever in a situation where you have to choose between grades and clubs, go with grades. It’s best not to overextend yourself in the first place. You have done very well so far, but your classes might get tougher in the years ahead and you need to keep your grade point average up. Keep a calendar, be organized, and manage your time well. Don’t let yourself be surprised when the day of the book drive is the day before a major test. If you plan ahead, you can navigate such conflicts successfully by getting work done ahead of time. When it comes to a packed schedule, procrastination is your worst enemy. Keep up the good work, and good luck!


  14. DS says:

    Dear justin,
    Thanks for the great advice. I am in my senior year and havent been too involved in any extra curriculars but have only realised the importance of these activities only recently. I just have a year before applications start. I have always been an exceptional student but am worried my lack of extracurriculars will hold me back in admissions. Would it be any use if i started now or is it useless? Please give me advice.

    • Calvin says:

      Dear DS,

      Something is always better than nothing! Picking up a few extracurriculars now would definitely be a good idea, as long as you don’t let your grades drop. While Ivy League colleges generally expect you to do a lot with extracurriculars, just about all selective schools and honors programs are looking for at least something, so picking up a few extracurriculars will help your application no matter where you apply. Plus, it should be fun! Just pick some activities you like and show up, participate, and see what happens. Keep up the good work, and good luck!


  15. Frances says:

    Dear Calvin,

    I just finished my junior year of high school and I have what seems like an unusual set of extracurricular activities, with respect to what the Ivy League schools are looking for. I’m wondering how I should present these, or if they pretty much rule me out for Ivy League consideration… I wish to study the sciences in college but I have played the piano and violin since ages 3 and 4, respectively, taking regular lessons, giving regular recitals, participating in competitions and so on. I started playing the violin in my junior high school orchestra when I was in 4th grade. My parents are musicians and so thus the initial impetus for all of this. :-) Well, my musical activities have taken a tremendous amount of time outside of school, considering that I practice each instrument at home almost every day, have private lessons each week outside of school hours, practice extra long and have additional lessons when it’s time for competitions and so on. (I have indeed won a few prizes over the years.) Consequently, I’ve never had much time for much else, when it comes to extracurricular activities. However, I managed to do competitive swimming when I was a freshman and sophomore, although I’ve stopped since, due to time constraints; I’ve been taken on extended trips outside of the country — Australia, Asia, Eastern and Western Europe, and Central and South America — once or twice a year since I was an infant, as my mother is from Asia and my father has lived abroad, and both of them strongly believe in multicultural experiences as part of one’s education; I flew to France by myself just after my 15th birthday, where I lived and worked on a volunteer basis on a farm there with several other local French high school students, run by a French family, i.e. the trip was self-organized, I was the only non-French person there and communication was exclusively in French; I’ve volunteered here and there, e.g., at a local retirement home, participated in “walks for cancer research” and so on, although such volunteer work has been only occasional and sporadic; and for this summer, I was fortunate enough to obtain an internship in a biology lab at a research facility at the local university here, even though the facility’s interns have always been college students in the past. In brief, I was thinking that I’d make myself most attractive to the Ivy League schools by demonstrating that I’m well-rounded, and by demonstrating a bit of “selflessness” by doing occasional volunteer work. I’ve taken a handful of IB courses in an effort to bolster my “well-roundedness” , and I starred in a locally produced short film, which took a lot of time and effort on my part. But based on what you’re saying, it seems that the Ivy League schools prefer a very particular set of extracurricular activities, some of which I haven’t really done. I’m a representive of the student council, a member of the math club and a couple of other school organizations, and although I’ve run for certain leadership positions in those organizations, I’ve never been elected. I’m afraid that my only explicit leadership position is first chair of the second violin section in the orchestra, which I’ve held for several years, by the way. What do you think? Are these extracurricular activities simply too “deviant”? If not, how should I present them?


    • Bill says:


      In fact, you have hit all of the expectations typically associated with admission to an Ivy League school. According to your post, you have been involved in athletics, student government, both creative and academic extracurricular activities and endeavors, and you are not just a regular volunteer but practically a global citizen! You should obviously avoid a narrative tone that makes you seem like you’ve “been there, done that,” but you have everything you need for a successful Ivy League admission essay. One method to learning how to do something successfully is to study what previously successful candidates have done. Given you background in music, I recommend you read Kwasi Enin’s College Essay. Kwasi Enin, by the way, was accepted to every Ivy League school. You can learn more about how he accomplished this tremendous feat here.

      Hope this helps!

      • Frances says:

        Hi, Bill,

        Thank you very much for your reply! It was very kind of you. I just read Kwasi Enin’s College essay and I have a few questions, if you could please indulge me a little further:

        (1) Calvin mentioned in one of his posts that it’s not a good idea to apply to too many schools and in particular to too many Ivy League schools, since it suggests not being truly enthusiastic about any particular school. As I recall, Calvin wrote that a friend of his applied to all of the Ivy Leagues and was rejected from every single one. Yet Kwasi applied to all of them. Is applying to all of them really a good idea?

        (2) Kwasi’s essay is all based on his musical activities, and although he explains how music taught him how to think, how to be a leader and so on, he didn’t mention any other extracurricular activities. Is this really a good idea? Given the diversity of my extracurricular activities, from working in a biology lab to music to traveling abroad, shouldn’t I mentioned all of them? I understand that I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I also don’t want to sound like a “music nerd”, if you see what I mean.

        (3) There is a very smart guy in my school whose father is from the States and whose mother is from Japan, and he did a research paper on the acceptance rates at universities of Asian applicants: he concluded that Asian applicants are held to higher standards and so it’s harder for Asians to get in. He’s worried that if the colleges that he applies to find out that his mother is Japanese, then he will have a harder time getting accepted. I’m in the same situation, because my mother is from China. So, if I am asked about my ethnicity on a college application, should I just check the “caucasian” box, since my father is American? I suppose I could check the “Asian” box too, but I’m afraid that if I do that, then it will reduce my chances of being accepted.



        • Bill says:


          Good questions!

          1) If you weren’t aware, the admissions officers for Ivy League schools are regularly in contact with one another in regards to their respective applicant pools. For this reason, Calvin’s assertion that applying to every Ivy League school impacts your chance of admission in as much as it demonstrates an apparent lack of commitment to any particular school is absolutely true. However, as evidenced by the example of Kwasi Enin, there are exceptions to this general rule. Note, though, that Kwasi’s example is just that – an exception. My advice would be to follow Calvin’s recommendation: if possible, narrow down your options to two or three top-choice schools and focus on your applications to these schools.

          2) If you read more about Kwasi Enin, you’ll find out that he was also an athlete, academic competitor, and volunteer, among other things, in addition to being a musician. His essay is remarkable, particularly for a student his age, in that it follows a specific narrative theme from start to finish. The most important advice I can give you in this regard is to remember that you should not use your essay to reiterate the bullet points of your resume. It’s okay to talk about yourself in your application essay (in most cases, that is the entire point of writing such an essay!), but avoid mentioning things that the admission officer already knows.

          3) It’s an unfortunate fact that discrimination exists in all walks of life. In the case of Ivy League admissions, it appears to be unintentional (or least not racially motivated malevolence) but nonetheless existent. As Asian students typically outperform their peers in terms of GPA and standardized test scores, the averages for Asian students accepted to elite universities tend to be higher than students from different backgrounds. This, in turn, makes admission to these types of schools more difficult for Asian students who are high-achieving when compared to the aggregate but may only be average within their specific demographic. If this is something you are concerned about, there should be an option allowing you to not disclose your race; although, Ivy League schools conduct truly holistic reviews of their applicants, so not disclosing this information may negatively impact your chances of admission more so than the demographic you will be compared to. My recommendation is to simply be honest on your application.

          Hope this helps!

  16. HJ says:

    Hi calvin,
    I am currently a junior and am still finding it difficult to decide with my extra curriculars. Considering that I have only about one year to get done with a lot, it seems a very short time to master any activity. Here’s what you could count as my extra – curriculars:
    I was in my school debate club from grade 7 but got a chance to participate in only one major outside school competition. Now that I have been admitted to a new school(for junior and senior years), i may carry on with debating but going on to participate in the national level is quite unlikely.
    I have also been into volunteering by working in a school for street children last summer, and several other single day activities.
    I am not very athletic, but I do take swimming lessons. Would it be worthwhile joining the swimming club in my new school considering that I may make it to the school team by the end of junior year, but then again would that be enough? I would also like to ask you if starting creative activities such as programming be wise because in my country there is no platform where young programmers can gain recognition. Oh! I almost forgot to mention, I am an overseas student (which seems to make everything harder).I could also start playing the guitar or any other musical instrument. I am comfortable with my grades and expect to do well in the SAT, but extra curricular activities are really giving me a headache especially when I learn’t that I had to do them for all the four years of high school. Hope you could solve my problems!

    • Bill says:


      Remember that your extracurricular activities are secondary in importance to your GPA and standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests). If you have a competitive GPA and correspondingly high test scores then you have done all the hard work already! Extracurriculars should be activities you find fun, so try not to let this aspect of your application worry you too much.

      My advice would be to do what interests you. If you enjoy debate, then debate! Accolades will follow success, and you are more likely to succeed at an activity you like (as opposed to participating in an something solely for the purpose of college admissions). Volunteering is an activity that can definitely improve any resume; try to volunteer in an activity that relates somewhat to the major you plan on pursuing. And, although there might not be a platform by which participants in a creative activity you enjoy are regularly recognized, you might endeavor to create such a platform or organization (that would certainly look good on an application and demonstrate a real commitment to your interest in such a field).

      The best advice is to simply do what you like; everything else will follow from that. I bet that you could surprise yourself with what you could accomplish in a year!

      Hope this helps!

      • Rese says:

        Hi, I am also a currently a junior in a public California high school and have a few questions on extracurriculars. I’ve been playing Waterpolo and have been swimming since before freshman year and have been on high school teams since freshman year. But I’ve recently been thinking of quiting waterpolo because this season I have been playing extremely poorly (which is unusual) and I dont consider myself adequate for the Varsity level in waterpolo anymore, even though the season just started. I do however plan to keep on swimming and I have considerably good times in my events (I hope on making and placing at regionals this year) and have been competing on Varsity since I started high school. My question is, would it be okay if I quit waterpolo now since I have been having such a dreadful time with it? My academics are prime and I am taking challenging courses this year with four APs and an honors class and plan to keep staright As, so I’m not worried about that. I havent started any clubs (sadly) but I do plan to take some up this year and continue them onto senior year, if that helps. I’m just really worried that after all this time I have put into waterpolo that if i quit now, what Ive done with it wil be obsolete and my chances of getting into a bright college are doomed with my decision. Can you give me some feedback? Thanks in advance.

        • Bill says:


          First, if you feel like you have been under-performing, or that you can perform at a higher level, that should serve as motivation to improve, not reason to quit. One of the reasons athletic success is something admission officers value is that it is not easy to achieve – it takes hard work, perseverance, and commitment.

          That said, you should remember that quality always trumps quantity. So, if you feel like you can achieve more in one sport by focusing on Swimming rather than Waterpolo, then you should do so. One sport should be sufficient to meet our recommended guidelines. If you do decide to quit Waterpolo, then you should definitely put that extra time towards other extracurriculars to flesh out your application (don’t forget that volunteering is always a plus too!).

          Hope this helps!

  17. Akshat Das says:

    Hi Calvin, I was wondering if I tended to get 2 B’s each semester of high school (only in AP Classes) but I had a perfect SAT score, and a really good internship as well as several leadership roles including president of debate and cofounder of a high school business publication that is read nationwide, am i in the running for UPenn?

    • Akshat Das says:

      Is there any way I can remove my photo and last name.

      • Bill says:


        You can change your photo provided you do so at least one week before the test. For obvious reasons, changing your name on your SAT registration is much more difficult – if you have to change your name, you will need to contact College Board directly and they will undoubtedly require some kind of legal documentation confirming your name change. Again, for obvious reasons, you will not allowed to remove your surname entirely from your registration ticket.

        Hope this helps!

    • Bill says:


      Absolutely! Those are solid credentials. Be sure not to neglect the other aspects of your application (SAT Subject Tests, volunteering/philanthropy, athletics, and admission essay) and you should be as competitive as any other applicant.

      Hope this helps!

  18. Amit says:

    My daughter has cleared grade 6 piano exam from ABRSM and learning piano for last 6 years
    she has represented school in various sport activities ( athletics and swimming)and get positions also. once she has represented district in stale level athletics event.
    what else she can do to enrich her profile in extracurricular activities.

    Amit Tandon

    • Bill says:


      A common theme in many of our posts about extracurricular activities is quality over quantity. This means that it is more important for students to excel at the activities they participate in than it is for them to participate in a plethora of activities. Earning district or state honors in athletics is a great example of how students may demonstrate success, excellence, and competitiveness to admission officers; likewise, passing the ABRSM exams is an excellent way to quantity your daughter’s progress and development as a musician. Generally speaking, when selecting which activities or clubs students should participate in, you should focus on three broad categories: Creative/Academic, Athletic, and Volunteering. You seem to have done a great job so far! Your daughter’s age may limit the number of activities she can participate in (for example, if she is not yet in high school then it is too early for her to join the National Honor Society); however, going forward, I would recommend she identify a volunteer program that she can participate in over an extended period of time. Ideally, this activity should tangentially relate to whatever professional career she would study for as an undergraduate (for example, if she wants to pursue a pre-med undergraduate degree path she should volunteer at a hospital). When she does reach high school, at that time she should also join and actively participate in at least one academic club. Remember though – the goal is NOT to join as many clubs as possible; the goal is to excel at the activities she does participate in. This means winning awards, earning recognition, and being voted to leadership positions.

      Hope this helps!

  19. Anna says:

    Thank you for this post and series-I found it very helpful! I’m a freshman right now, and have to pick out clubs, and was wondering about the volunteering. You see, I play harp(I’m the only harpist at my school) and plan to do math team (I’m good at math) and quiz bowl. And I’m wondering about joining my school’s key club, which would give me a chance to tutor kids(probably in math) and visit elders(and maybe play harp for them?) Problem is, do you think that I would ‘spread myself out too thin’ if I joined it? Plus, maybe there are more specific ways to volunteer? But I don’t know any other ways that would last 4 years. Could you please tell me your opinion on the matter? Thanks.

    • Bill says:


      The most important criteria when deciding which philanthropic or volunteering activity you would like to participate in is that it is something you can see yourself enjoying over an extended period of time. Of course, there are other factors that might influence your decision – specifically, we recommend doing something that will tangentially relate to whatever undergraduate degree path or professional career you plan on pursuing. So, for example, if you plan on pursuing an M.D., then perhaps you should volunteer at a hospital, if you plan on studying psychiatry, then volunteer at a shelter, if you plan on studying music, then volunteering to entertain the elderly is a great fit. However, in the context of admissions, this only matters if you consistently participate in this activity over an extended period of time, and you are much more likely to do this if you actually enjoy what you are doing.

      In terms of spreading yourself too thin, if your participation in extracurricular activities ever becomes detrimental to your GPA, then you should reevaluate the number of activities you are participating in. Only you will be able to determine what you can and cannot handle, but remember that the most important admission factor to any college is your GPA/Class Rank.

      Hope this helps!

  20. Zach says:

    Hello! This has been a great article so thanks very much for posting it! I have just started my freshman year in high school and am taking the most advanced courses possible to take at my school, 2 AP the rest honors except electives. I am currently doing robotics as a club after school and i plan to join other clubs such as Debate Team, National Honor Society’s and other clubs i may find intresting. However i also have previously played lacrosse and am thinking of joining the team but it is on the same days as my Robotics meets so I would most likely have to pick one or the other. I am also worried about overloading myself if i have too many things going on at once because in my next 3 years the amount of AP classes will increase significantly. My actual chances of making Varsity at some point in lacrosse are doubtful so an athletic scholarship is out of the question which is why I have been pursuing academics, so I am unsure whether I should quit Robotics if the two years of JV Lacrosses will just be a social thing not a career benefit. I appreciate any advice, thanks!

    • Bill says:


      Admissions officers prize versatile, balanced, competitive applicants. You should keep this in mind as you outline the next several years of your academic and extracurricular life. That said, the extracurricular that will most benefit your application is the one that you will excel at – if you feel like you are more likely to succeed or win recognition as a participant on a robotics team, then you should seriously consider pursuing that activity. As always, though, our recommendation is that you pursue the extracurricular that you feel you will most enjoy!

      Hope this helps!

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