Examining Extracurricular Activities

Admit It! You’ve heard all kinds of urban admission legends about how committees evaluate a student’s extracurricular activities (ECs for short).  You may have even believed a few.  You’ve heard that if our band is looking for bassoonists and you play the trumpet you won’t be regarded as highly.  Or you’ve heard that admission offices really like “well rounded” students.  Therefore, in order to be competitive you should play a sport, participate in community service, be active in the fine arts, etc.  Or maybe you’ve heard you need to be so accomplished that you’re not getting in unless you’ve cured cancer or started your own non-profit organization.  All of these are in fact urban admission myths.  We do not go into an application cycle seeking out a certain number of bassoonists or the next great equestrian acrobat or only those students who appear to be well rounded.  Yes we want to build a well-rounded class but a well-rounded class is not made up exclusively of well-rounded individuals.  There’s a place in our class for those who are well-rounded and there’s a place in our class for those students who focus on one or two activities but who participate in those activities to the max.

So forget what you’ve heard and absorb what you read below.  This in fact is what we’re looking for.  When we review someone’s EC resume we are looking for two things – the first of which is demonstrated commitment or passion.  We want to see that you’ve sustained involvement in some of your activities throughout your tenure in high school (especially if you’ve attended the same high school all four years).  Students who join activities for only one or two years are less able to contribute to and take away from those activities than those who persist.  Furthermore, we want students who seem eager and engaged to be involved in W&M’s student activities.  The best way we have to gauge your future involvement is by evaluating your level of involvement to date.  The second thing we look for is any way you distinguish yourself in this area; maybe you hold a leadership position (or several leadership positions), maybe you’ve started an organization in your high school or community, maybe you’ve won a high-level award (such as being selected to Boys’ or Girls’ State) or maybe your commitment is above and beyond that which is typical of high-achieving students (maybe you’re a level 10 gymnast who practices 25 hours a week or maybe you’ve been an all-state violinist for the past several years).  These kinds of distinctions help set your application apart from the other strong and involved students applying to W&M.

So how do we give context to ECs?  One thing we do is determine whether or not you’ve changed high schools.  When students change high schools their opportunity to invest themselves in activities and to gain leadership positions is often stifled, so we try to adjust our expectations accordingly.  We also look at the size of the senior class.  In smaller classes, leadership positions, spots on the varsity team, etc. are generally more accessible because there aren’t hundreds of students competing for the same opportunities.  We look at the school itself.  Some schools, due to funding, locality, or policy do not offer copious opportunities for extracurricular involvements (international schools for example do not place as much emphasis on non-academic activities as American high schools do) and when opportunities are limited we do not penalize the students for not being as involved.  We also consider the student’s family situation.  Some students have family responsibilities (maybe for an ailing grandparent or for taking care of younger siblings) and are therefore not available after school when ECs take place.  Other students may need to work a part-time job which may limit or prohibit involvement (especially when the job has been held for several years and when the hours are significant).  Some students may commute long distances to school and thus cannot stay afterwards for all hours.  Any or all of these considerations are made if applicable to a particular student.

Now for the dos and don’ts of composing an EC resume.

  • Don’t include things that are not extracurricular involvements.  I paraphrase a Supreme Court Justice when I say I cannot define an EC but I know one when I see one.  Fantasy football should not appear on your list of extracurricular involvements.  Neither should reading, writing, jogging for personal enjoyment, dinners with family, or family vacations.
  • Do read the Common Application instructions which explicitly ask you to list your activities in order of importance starting with the most meaningful activity.  So don’t use an order that you think we like to see.
  • Do distinguish between honors and awards.  Some students list academic letters, National Youth Leadership Conference and Boys’ State as ECs.  These are honors you receive, but not activities with which you are involved.
  • Don’t feel compelled to fill all 12 lines that the Common Application provides.  It’s pretty obvious when you do that.  Don’t for example list each play you’ve acted in on a separate line.  Don’t list odd jobs like mowing the neighbor’s lawn or the occasional babysitting appointment.  Don’t make your activity list dominated by summer activities (we appreciate summer work, camps, conferences, etc. but participating in such activities is far easier in the summer when you’re not in class.  We’re more interested in what you’re able to balance along with your academic work.)
  • Don’t go overboard on the hours per week you list.  Some students tend to exaggerate and there have been instances when the hours per week they list, when totaled, add up to more than 168 (for those of you not in to mental math that’s the number of total hours in one week).  This sometimes looks foolish and desperate rather than accomplished and engaged.  This is not to say that we go around adding up all of the hours you put down.  We don’t.  But when every one of seven or more activities takes 20-30 hours per week, it’s fairly obvious that you’ve gone overboard.
  • Do feel free to send a resume in addition to completing the Common Application but don’t make that resume too long or overly detailed.  You are likely 17 or 18 years old.  If you send a five-page resume that’s one page for every 3.5 years you’ve been alive.  Probably a bit excessive.  And don’t feel compelled to list every single community service hour or every minor award you’ve won.  We promise that we are not adding up the number of services hours and comparing applicants based on those totals.  We also promise that being math student of the month in 9th grade has no bearing on whether or not you’re admitted to W&M.
  • Do be involved because you want to, not because you think colleges expect it.  We expect you to want to be involved outside of the classroom and for you to develop interests and passions.  It’s fairly obvious to us when someone is just going through the motions with ECs so find your passion and pursue it.  Even if you don’t get in to W&M (or other top choice schools) you’ll have had a fulfilling and exciting high school experience.

So there you have it.  Myths debunked.  Truths told.  Dos and Don’ts delineated.  Go forth and get involved!

Wendy Livingston, ’03, M.Ed. ’09
Senior Assistant Dean of Admission

Categories: Admission, Faculty & Staff Blogs

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