In the following article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert Julian Zambrano (University of Pennsylvania ‘23) shares tips for how to approach extracurricular activities in relation to the college admissions process. For more guidance on extracurriculars, the common app, and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
The college admissions process is daunting. Throughout high school, students work to fill their resumes with amazing extracurricular activities in order to improve their chances of admission into top universities. When it comes to extracurriculars, there isn’t a clear cut formula that will get you into college. You can objectively say that a 1520 on the SAT is better than a 1300, but how can you compare volunteering at a soup kitchen to participating in boy scouts or starting a small business?
Throughout my own experience with the college admissions process and working as an advisor for CollegeAdvisor.com, I’ve learned a lot about how you can use your extracurricular activities in order to set your applications apart. I hope that my story can help you as you create your own narrative around your extracurriculars.
My Interview for Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania
When I got the call to interview for Wharton, I was ecstatic. I went to meet my interviewer in person in New York City.
“Holy cow! You do a lot of community service,” he exclaimed as he looked over my resume. We shared a laugh.
After a few moments, he looked up at me. He said, “Now, you have a lot of amazing things on this resume. But I know I did a lot of baloney in high school just to get into Penn… so I’m going to ask you, what things on this resume have you done just to get into college?”
I was slightly taken aback by this question. I never saw myself doing these things to get into Wharton. Instead, I had only done activities that I genuinely enjoyed.
Some general advice - as you prepare for college applications, it can be tempting to select extracurriculars based on what you think might improve your admissions chances. However, don’t choose activities for how they will look on your resume — instead, find extracurriculars that mean something to you.
Sports and the CommonApp Essay
At the beginning of high school, football was a major component of my life. I spent much of my time improving my skills, developing bonds with my teammates, and monitoring my physical health. I learned valuable lessons about perseverance, which translated into my school work and other extracurricular activities.
Unfortunately, I injured my back the summer before my senior year, which prevented me from participating in my final season. Until this point, my life had revolved around football. Leaving it behind was alarming to say the least. However, my injury gave me the opportunity to explore my other interests.
In my CommonApp essay, I wrote about coming to terms with the fact that I would not be able to play football my senior year. Throughout high school, football had taught me many valuable lessons. However, my injury taught me an important lesson as well — that I am not defined by one thing. Your CommonApp essay can be a great opportunity for you to showcase your extracurricular interests and reveal how you have grown as a person, teammate, and leader throughout your participation in those activities.
Music and the Supplementary Essay
Before I began playing football, I found solace in playing the guitar and participating in various music organizations. I played at many exciting venues, including one gig on the same stage as Bruce Springsteen. I also composed and performed my own work.
Once I got to high school, however, I shifted away from public performance. During my recovery from my back injury, I decided to start recording my original compositions for the first time. Most colleges allow (and encourage) applicants with interest in the arts to submit artistic supplements along with their CommonApp submission. I took this opportunity to showcase my musical talent by submitting recordings of my compositions.
Some students worry that their art submissions won’t be taken seriously if they’ve never had formal training or if they never participated in organized, institutional programs. However, my introduction to the guitar was rather unconventional. In fact, I never learned how to read music, as I could decipher songs just by hearing them. When I first started, I noticed various patterns in the fingerings for different modes and scales. Over time, I began to develop a geometric understanding of music theory for guitar.
By explaining my atypical relationship with music in one of my supplementary essays, I was able to express both my artistic creativity and my critical thinking skills. Admissions officers are looking for students that can think outside the box. If one of your extracurricular experiences helped you think in an unconventional way, highlight it. These experiences can greatly strengthen your application.
Community Service, Volunteering, and Work
Through local parishes, I volunteered regularly at the Samaritan Center, which distributes food, clothes, toys, and other household items to less fortunate families. I spent my Saturday mornings filling bags for clients, stocking shelves, processing the trash, organizing the back rooms, and bringing supplies to local churches. Seeing frequent patrons, including some that I knew personally, made me more grateful for my circumstances. My work at the Samaritan Center made me realize that small organizations can make a huge difference for many families.
Volunteering at the Samaritan Center granted me valuable experience and gave me a greater perspective of the financial struggles that many people face. Additionally, being able to see how my contributions actively helped my community taught me that even small actions can go a long way.
If you have the time and resources, I highly recommend getting involved in community service throughout high school. Not only will it help you broaden your appreciation for your community, but it will also help college admissions officers gain a better understanding of how you help serve the communities that you are a part of.
That being said, not all students have the ability to volunteer, as they may be working part-time jobs or taking care of family in addition to school. These commitments are also important to showcase on the CommonApp application, as they also demonstrate to admissions officers your impact on your community.
Applying this Advice
The college admissions process can be daunting. As you develop your interests and begin your applications, keep in mind these three things:
- Everyone’s extracurricular experiences are going to be drastically different, so don’t compare your resume to someone else's.
- On your application, express why your activities are meaningful to you, what you learned from them, and how they shaped you as a person.
- And, most importantly: DON’T do activities that you have no interest in. Colleges can see right through resume builders.
This informational essay was written by Julian Zambrano, University of Pennsylvania ‘23. If you want to get help writing your Penn application essays from Julian or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.