Highly competitive colleges have very low acceptance and admission rates. High school students increasingly turn to extracurricular activities to differentiate themselves. But even with that, they must apply to more and more schools to diversify their risk. Without an extracurricular focus, that work can go to waste.
In this cycle of ever-increasing competitiveness, what should students actually focus on? It is easy to say focus on what you love to do or do something you are good at. Those concepts, however, are often tied together. On top of that, helicopter parents, over-competitive peers, and over-stretched high school counselors do not offer unified advice for a busy high school student. In fact, you can work smarter–not harder–by finding a proper extracurricular focus.
The Shotgun Approach
At Empowerly, we have assembled a team of college counselors to think through how to develop your extracurricular focus (also known as a theme or hook). One solid answer is the shotgun method: trying 3 different activities in various fields and reflecting on them after 3 months. In this way, we create a “rotational” program to help students realize their own interests, strengths, and weaknesses. As a result, students can navigate the college admissions process and stay true to themselves in their extracurricular activities.
In this article, we will lay out the steps of the shotgun approach: engaging, reflecting, and iterating.
Step 1: Engaging
The first step is to frame the activities, your mindset, and game plan.
In the shotgun approach, students take ownership in finding and participating in activities. Students themselves reach out to professors for internships, local clubs for officer positions, and competitions. In this way, students can take ownership for their plan and learn time management and long-term planning. They also will be more engaged.
These activities should span across different “buckets,” or types of activities. There are four buckets in the framework: out-of-school, in-school, social work, and competitions. The actual number in each bucket is flexible and dependent on the student and available activities.
After an initial reflection, students devise a 3-month plan of activity management and tangible metrics they will use to measure each activity. Keeping a weekly log of reflections is helpful.
Step 2: Reflecting
The second step is to think deeply about each activity.
After 3 months, the student should have a good sense of the activity. This includes the people, the work, and the scope of each activity. Reflecting is just as important as doing: it can take the form of a journal, a brainstorm, or even conversations with parents or peers. In fact, discussing thoughts with a school counselor or teacher can be a way to get to know them. Of course, deeper relationships eventually reflect well in letters of recommendation.
Students should think critically about the experience. For example, what they enjoyed most about each activity, and how that connects to their personality or their previous experiences. Merit and happiness correlate, as a result of passion. We often find our students using these exact methods again when they are finding a focusing in college.
Step 3: Iterating
The third step is to use these experiences to inform future actions.
Thinking is not enough – it is important to make those thoughts into a reality. After reflecting, develop next steps that can be measured by time span or achievement. These goals vary from making your own “dream” activities to starting again from scratch with three very different activities. You may iterate on the shotgun approach many times, and often with great results.
The Dangers of a Narrow Mind
In order for the shotgun approach to work, two things must exist: an open attitude and a willingness to persevere. An attitude to try new things is essential to the shotgun method and to expanding one’s horizons. Some students are focused on just one school or a set of schools (usually Ivy League). Although it is good to have an overall extracurricular focus, sometimes being narrow-minded removes students from what they actually would enjoy or excel at.
We have used the shotgun approach with 7th-12th grade students and it has worked wonderfully. Some students realize they actually enjoy robotics and pursue that, winning VEX competitions and other related competitions. Others realize that medicine was just a dream their parents had for them, and they pursue dance, turning that into a series of performances and focusing on specific styles. Our 1-on-1 college admissions help and college application help targets students needing help in these areas.
The beauty of the process is that life is a rotational program. We view the shotgun approach as just the start to a series of experiences that young adults take themselves. Students take responsibility for finding these activities, following through, and ultimately reflecting. When students use these tools, they will be equipped to find their focus. And that interest often changes in college itself. About 80% of college students end up changing their major at least once.
This long-term view of admissions is what leads to success. Empower your child to explore, and give them the energy and perspective to do so. That is often easier said than done. Hence, many parents approach us as a third party with experience and a passion for helping others.
Understanding and evaluating a student’s core strengths and areas of interest are valuable and often underestimated. Using our shotgun approach and carefully selecting different activities across a spectrum is one way to create your own rotational program. At worst, you explore interests. Some of those may even turn into professions. We stay in touch with students over the years and found this to be true. When a student uses this approach and finds their passion early on, that budding interest sometimes turns into a fully-fledged profession.