A (New) Look at Extracurricular Activities

It was not that long ago that students looking to get into college pushed themselves to be involved with everything from the school paper to the hand bell choir. The popular idea at the time was something like this: The more crowded the schedule, the more appealing the applicant.

No longer.

Today everyone from deans of admissions and college counselors and consultants to parents and pediatricians are challenging the idea that getting into college is a matter of scheduling a child to his or her ears and are offering an alternative: A path as unique and different as each child herself that emphasizes less pushing, more passion.

In the past, colleges wanted students who were well rounded. Now they want students who are more 'angular' - outstanding at one or a few things. As a result, it is crucial that children find a passion that drives them.

It's an idea that Jill Tipograph of the New Jersey-based consulting firm Everything Summer takes very much to heart. For more than 15 years, Tipograph has specialized in helping children teenagers, and young adults find their passion and pursue it through organized summer activities.

"Finding out early what you like -- and what you don't -- can really impact a child's entire future," says Tipograph, who says it is important to work with the child, not the parents.

Though Tipograph's work is all about what happens during the months between school years, how the student spends his or her time from September to June is still very relevant.

"I always encourage students to widen their views during the summer," Tipograph says. For instance, a girl between her sophomore and junior year in high school may say she loves to act and wants to pursue that as a career. While Tipograph speaks to her, she may encourage her to try something more technical over the summer, such as lighting or stage design. "Summer is a wonderful time to experiment and try new things," says Tipograph.

For parents looking for ways to help their children discover their interests, Tipograph tailors her advice based on the child's age. For a freshman in high school Tipograph might recommend "real experimentation" -- trying out new skills and really exploring new interests. An older student might do better to specialize.

West Chester independent college consultant Monica Reinhard-Gorney, a former public school guidance counselor who has also worked in admissions at Westtown School, tells us that, "College admissions committees love to see a kid who has developed a passion, whether it be for playing the oboe, making his or her own films, or becoming an expert on butterflies or Egyptology... They'd prefer to see you dig deep into fewer activities and make a real commitment to those - and possibly earn a leadership position by junior or senior year - than just be a member of lots of clubs, but with minimal commitment or leadership."

She goes on to add, "It is nice to be well rounded, but a three season athlete doesn't need to then have a bunch of other extracurricular activities, or the kid in band and the marching band who is in the musical every year doesn't need to add sports."

One activity Reinhard-Gorney says students don't always consider is volunteer work. This is a place where many students can discover an untapped potential and expand their commitment.

But helping a student develop a passion is not a simple task, says Tipograph, who very often sees her students learn negatively by process of elimination. She encourages them to keep trying and to explore as many aspects of an activity as they can. For example, the girl who loves theater may not get chosen for lead roles, but through her summer exploration of technical aspects of the discipline, may come to develop real skill and talent at lighting or set design that can be in high demand and open new avenues for her in college programs.

Meanwhile Reinhard-Gorney gives similar advice -- "I tell them to go with what they enjoy -- admissions committees love to see a kid who is into the bass guitar, perhaps has worked to save money to buy a nice one, and then plays in the school band or has his own band outside of school with friends. Maybe he has gotten into writing his own lyrics or gives music lessons to younger kids. Another kid might be into Egyptology and has gone to many exhibits at various museums, has read a lot independently, and can speak to that through essays; or he may have earned Eagle Scout rank and has learned a lot about the environment, or has taken computer programming courses at a local college each summer." Regardless of the specific activity, it is the passion and dedication that counts.

The students who discover and pursue their personal passions will be ahead of the game in college. They will have a clear idea of what they want a college to offer them, and have clear credentials about what they can offer to a college community. This results in finding the best, personal fit for their education, and gives them the direction to make the most of it once they are there.