“Colleges have gone from wanting kids to be well-rounded to wanting them to be specialists,” one Seattle consultant says. “Schools like to admit unique individuals who stand out.”

Share story

Remember when high school kids could count on their dazzling grades and brilliant scores to secure a spot at a respectable, if not top-notch college? Those days may be over. Schools now look beyond academic prowess when deciding whether to admit students, and attach sizable weight to the scope and breadth of an applicant’s extracurricular activities.

That’s why Roosevelt High School senior Tim Yeh considers the hours he spends engaged in after-school projects as time well spent. Yeh, who attends Shoreline Community College as part of Washington state’s Running Start program (students earn college credits along with their high school degrees), feels that committing to outside activities are a “big part” of getting into college.

Yeh, an Eagle Scout, designed and built an outdoor garden for his church, complete with a retaining wall that protects it from the neighborhood dogs. “Lots of students can get good grades, but not everyone goes beyond what a university expects,” he says. “Your activities show who you are. They can make an impact.”

Adam Miller, director of admissions at Whitman College in Walla Walla, would agree.

More On Course

Choosing the college that matches your needs can be a challenge. Visit On Course for guidance from school counselors, education consultants, students and colleges to help lead you through one of life’s biggest decisions.

“We want to see applicants demonstrate academic challenge, but also have rich and fulfilling lives outside of the classroom,” Miller says. “Applicants should pursue things that grab their interest and attention. We call that ‘passion.’”

What colleges want

Admissions committees consider a range of variables: GPA, standardized test scores, high school course selection and academic honors. So how much does “passion” — those extracurricular activities — really count?

They count a great deal, according to Daniel W. Lee, head counselor at Garfield High School in Seattle. “Extracurricular activities are a very important part of the college admission process,” says Lee. “They can give colleges acute insight into the mindset and priorities of a student.” David Montesano, owner of Seattle consulting service, College Match, notes that even students with enviable numbers can be turned down. “After grades and test scores, it’s all about the activities,” he says.

Public vs. private

While private colleges pay more attention to extracurricular activities than public universities do, many large, public institutions ask for them, too. The University of Washington’s admission website lists “personal achievements and characteristics” as requirements, along with “overall strong level of academic achievement.” The Common Application, the widely used college admission form that helps streamline the application process, also includes an activities section.

But just supplying colleges a list of extracurricular activities is not a smart strategy, says Montesano.

“Colleges have gone from wanting kids to be well-rounded to wanting them to be specialists,” Montesano says. “Schools like to admit unique individuals who stand out.”

How to be “pointy”

What’s the best way to stand out? Applicants should demonstrate commitment and involvement, says Ari Worthman, director of college counseling at Lakeside School. “Colleges now place a lot of value on ‘pointy’ students — kids who have one or two things they’ve really dived into,” he says. “These students might be community leaders or the kids who are really behind certain clubs.”

The pointy student could also be the one who is immersed in something very specific, such as the violin or robotics — particularly if the college is actively looking for a violin player or a robotics aficionado. But Worthman doesn’t advise students to spend much time trying to figure out a school’s needs. One year a college might be in search of a dancer, another year a soccer player. “What a college wants can change,” he says.

Searching for commitment

In past years, many applicants vied for leadership positions at their high schools, knowing that admissions committees often favored innovators and leaders. That changed, says Worthman, after savvy students began finding creative ways to amplify their résumés. “There were parents who would start a nonprofit organization and make their student president and founder,” he says. The fall-out? Worthman claims there’s been a “devaluing” of leadership.

Today, schools place greater focus on the depth and quality of a student’s involvement, he says. “Maybe a student isn’t the lead in the play every year, but he’s on tech, behind the scenes, cleaning up at all the plays. That student shows he is committed.”

What if there’s just no time?

Leadership, says Adam Miller, can show up in nontraditional ways. While “it’s a good thing to be president of the drama club,” applicants can shine even if they have responsibilities that prevent them from participating in extracurricular activities, he says.

“We consider things like pitching in at home, taking care of a sibling, getting a part-time job. We ask, what opportunities are available to this student?” Miller says.

Most 16- or 17-year-olds have not yet evolved into leaders, Miller says. “Part of our job is figuring out who that child might become.”

Interlake High School senior and college applicant Ethan Soloman might become a musician — he plays French horn in the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra — or an engineer. This year, he won an internship in a University of Washington electrical engineering lab.

Sam Cao, a Bellevue Christian School senior, could become a diplomat, instructor, chef, or even an historian. He created Global Club at his school to teach his peers about Chinese culture, cuisine and history after arriving from Beijing in 2014.

Or maybe these students will become something else entirely. After all, selecting high school activities isn’t a science — and neither, says Miller, is selecting a freshman class.

“We are operating with a series of imperfect variables,” he says. “We don’t know everything about a student, and the process is not the final word of who they are as a human. It’s a college doing the best it can.”