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Extracurricular Activities

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20-04-01 09:06

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The importance of extracurricular activities, in general, applies most to private, top-ranked US universities: The eight Ivy League universities*, those universities as exclusive as the Ivies like Stanford, Cal Tech, MIT, and what I consider the most competitive four universities aside from those universities (Duke, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Chicago, Northwestern, Washington U St. Louis). The other private colleges down to about rank 35 or so, right about at New York University and Tufts University, and the Seven Sisters** and the Little Ivies*** still consider extracurricular activities quite important, but in a different way, which I will explain at the tail end of this writing. In short, to those universities, strong extracurricular activities can be very influential even if grades and test scores are somewhat not adequate, or extracurricular activities not quite so important, if the basic academic, recommendation, and test score profiles are strong.

Strong extracurricular activities are critical for the above first list of universities, because most all students applying there already have quite strong academic records and strong test scores. Strong extracurricular activities are then the determining factor in looking into the inner potential of the applicant. We'll talk about recommendations on another post, but in short, recommendations can hurt a student very much, but not help a student get into a college or university that the application profile does not allow.

Extracurricular activities can be classified into five types: 1) arts and sports, 2) community service, 3) co-curricular activities, 4) outside-school co-curricular activities, and 5) internships.

As a general rule, arts, sports, and community service are important to have, but are not usually the deciding factor for admissions at the most competitive universities. However, having no community service activities, especially, can make applicants seem uncaring about their civic duties and seem immature emotionally as the youth to lead the future. Arts and sports, while damaging if applicants have no such commitments at all, do not also have the deciding factor into the most-competitive-university admissions. Community service are extremely consequential if they happen to have quite meaningful or important impact. I've seen students volunteer to tutor students at juvenile delinquency centers, basically jail for minors, to help them to pass GED degrees, which cannot have been easy nor welcoming of the students in many cases. I've seen students coach sports to disadvantaged kids at community centers, and the students really learned a lot from such experiences and they seemed to have matured much and seen much in their effort.

Therefore, the strength of applications to the most competitive universities often lies in the co-curricular activities, outside-school activities, and internships. Co-curricular activities are those school clubs, commitments, leadership positions that reinforce and are related to academic subjects, like the school newspaper, student government, debate or forensics club, Model United Nations, young Republicans or young Democrats (or other political student groups affiliated with US political parties or their officers and politicians). The previous list include activities for the most prestigious clubs and organizations within most high schools. Outside-school activities are volunteering for campaigns for the 2020 Presidential, Senate, House of Representatives elections, or local office elections, attending professional seminars as legitimate delegates or aids to delegates, working in state or county government part-time or as summer internships, volunteering at activist organizations like PETA, Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, Freedom Watch, The Heritage Foundation, or The American Conservative Union, for example. Internships are working at companies or governmental organizations as high school students, usually for no pay or very little pay, as apprentices or aids. However, and strangely enough, I have not seen students gain much advantage with internships at banks, law offices, or brokerage houses. This is strange, but I will not get into my theories here, as that is outside the scope of this post. Working as professor or researcher aids, as translators at embassies, as interns at publishing houses, newspapers, magazine publications seems to be very effective at boosting student profiles.

Now, many students and parents will wonder how applicants can be involved in such wonderful activities at all. This will all seem very daunting. My point is that these activities are for the most competitive of universities, like the Ivy League universities, and their like. However, participating in such activities, even one or two, can help most all other students applying to private universities in general, right about to the rank of NYU and Tufts University, inclusively. Public universities will like such activities too, but for such universities, having such activities is helpful, and not as important how much or how significant the activities were. Therefore, for all other private universities up to NYU and Tufts, having a somewhat weaker academic profile, weaker grades (maybe a 3.0 GPA in a 4.0 system), and somewhat weaker SAT I or ACT scores (as low as 1200 SAT or 26 ACT) can benefit very much from having such an important activity in their profile too. Usually a 1200 SAT I score or a 26 ACT score is not nearly enough to get into NYU or Tufts, but applicants with such an important activity, and a base 3 or 4 of other minor activities, could get in to such a relatively higher ranked private university.

As a last point, admissions officers are not robots and calculating machines and their work is not an exact science, so my above recommendations will have exceptions, although the profile of a specific student applying to a specific university will generally have 9 out of 10 admissions officer professionals making the same judgment, and the one admissions officer who voted against the tide will have good and justifiable reasoning for that dissenting decision. Therefore, most all senior-year teachers or high school guidance counselors have the same radar of insight into whether student A will be accepted into university B, so meeting with such counselors with an open mind and no arguing against or for a specific decision will offer students and parents the most insight.

*Harvard, Princeton, Yale, U Penn, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown
**Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Barnard (a college within Columbia University), Radcliff (part of Harvard since 1977)
***Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan, Swarthmore

Steven Huh is currently president of Steven Academy in San Francisco. He graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign as an English Literature major, taught at Daewon Foreign Language High School English expository writing, SAT I writing, SAT I Reading Comprehension, and served as its Director of College Counseling from 1998 to 2002. He also was president of Steven Academy in Seoul, Daechi-dong from 2003 to 2018. He is currently a member of NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) and International ACAC (International Association of College Admission Counseling).