Getting yourself into meaningful extracurricular activities, obtaining great grades and test scores, playing in school sports, and earning awards can all be considered the collective “hard part” of high school. Getting all of these things done means you’ve significantly boosted your competitive advantage over your peers when the time of college applications comes around. Even so, it’s important to remember that filling out college applications is a competitive task of its own; just because you have the right content doesn’t mean you can just plainly list it all down into the application and hit submit. Learning to give your experiences meaning and depth will help you and your application reviewer(s) gain insight into what exactly your achievements indicate about you.
Many college applications will give space to write a few words explaining your activity — what specifically you did, how often you did it, and so on. Although the word limit tends to be tight on these, carefully condensed writing can turn this short space into a great method of providing the implications of your many activities.
A quick note: things like test scores and grades usually don’t need any extra wording to describe them. They’re often self-explanatory and your score/grade can stand on its own. If you had certain circumstances (such as prolonged illness, death/conflict in the family, legal issues, and so on), then you definitely should explain them somewhere on your application. College admissions officers definitely consider these kinds of things, so elaborate so that they know if you had to undergo any special circumstances that may have hindered your performance.
Step 1: Create a rough outline of ALL of your major activities/awards
Jot down anything that comes into your head about the kinds of things you did while in high school (or earlier, if they’re important) — sports, volunteering, academic competitions, awards & recognitions, jobs, etc. Write down a brief description of each to help you better remember everything associated with this event. What did you do? Did you have to meet certain requirements to join? Did you have to maintain certain performance to keep/win this activity? Out of how many total applicants did you win this award? How many hours did you put into this each year, and how many years were you involved? Jog your memory by asking yourself these kinds of basic questions; it may seem unnecessary, but getting the details laid out in front of you will help better assess each individual case (even if you think you can hold it all in your head).
Step 2: What was your takeaway?
As mentioned before, simply listing your activities onto your college application won’t do it. That’s analogous to putting two pieces of bread together and calling it a sandwich. Figure out what the “meat” of each activity is. Which of your capabilities/skills were highlighted, and which of your capabilities/skills were further developed? For example, if you were a soccer referee during high school, you could say that your ability to lead and communicate in high-pressure situations was developed (side note: colleges love leadership qualities). If you won a high-level spelling bee, you could say that your practiced ability to consistently develop and retain the functions behind spelling was displayed and officially recognized at a meaningful level (thus giving insight into your excellent mental ability). Everything has a takeaway, so don’t shy away from putting things like volunteering at the homeless shelter on your application; even that shows a demonstrated passion and strong work ethic, especially when the material rewards are minimal. Learning an instrument may seem too common to be important these days, but even that shows a desire to work outside of school to learn new skills.
Step 3: Which activities/awards matter, and which don’t?
Some students don’t exactly have a big list of things to choose from, and in cases like that it’s probably ideal to just put everything you can onto your application. Just remember not to push it; it might be better to leave certain parts of your application blank if your only other choice is to list an honorary award you received in sixth grade (you don’t want to appear desperate to pad your application, it becomes obvious). If, however, you’re in a position where you need to parse down your list of activities and awards into something smaller (some college applications only allow a set number of different entries), there are some things to consider. For one, don’t just put all your “best” things on your application if they are all too similar. For example, if you won four awards at the state level in mathematics, it might just be a good idea to list all four awards under one category (which you could simply label “Four Awards in Mathematics”, and briefly describe the merit of each). Why? By saving space, you have more room to show that you’re not just a math whiz, but a well-rounded student. Supplementing your mathematics awards with further evidence of you being a great student, such as varsity high school sports and 100+ community service hours, will make for a robust application, whereas simply using all the space to elaborate on the mathematics competitions may have limited this.
Secondly, ask yourself whether a given event is both significant and whether you were involved in it long enough. For significance, things like honorable mentions and 4th place in a track race aren’t important enough to be on your application, and could just imply to your admissions reviewer that you’re grasping for random things to throw onto your application. Similarly, how long you pursue a certain activity is also important. If you volunteered at the homeless shelter only twice in four years, or you played on the school soccer team for three weeks, you’re actually making your application worse by showing a lack of commitment. Find the right balance between duration and importance, and you’ll gradually be able to come up with a list of your best experiences.
Step 4: Fill in your application!
You’re almost done! Using the same mentality you applied in steps 1-3, describe your experiences in your applications, providing insight into what your takeaways were from each event and how they’ve improved your character. Use words like “leadership, intellect, communication, and perseverance” to highlight the parts of your personality that were affected by your various pursuits. A brief summary of each award/activity coupled with the benefit that you received will give a brief yet thorough explanation to your admissions reviewer that will make you a lot more competitive than if you had just listed your experiences down without description.