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How Does a Student Do Standout Extracurriculars During a Pandemic?

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I am the mother of a high school junior. Many of her extracurriculars have been cut off, and I know everyone else is in the same situation. But she really wants to stand out on her applications and she needs to make up for some of the extracurriculars she was planning to get this spring and summer (a job, a volunteering opportunity, teaching flute to some neighbors, running races competitively and some other things). Do you have any tips on how we can get creative with extracurriculars now that a lot of places are closed? I assume there are people (like home schoolers) who have figured this out, but we aren’t sure what to do.


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced high school students to abandon their beloved extracurricular activities — and college application fodder — “The Dean” had long been a fan of encouraging teenagers to come up with creative endeavors, not to supplant typical adolescent undertakings, but to supplement them. After all, how many Spanish Clubs, Key Clubs, cross-country teams and Model UNs can an admission official read about on any given evening without falling dead asleep? Of course, now is the ideal time for teens to be doing that sort of outside-the-box thinking — not only for college admission purposes but also to avoid going stir crazy at home.

For instance, if your daughter was planning to teach flute to neighbors, can’t she do the same via Zoom? Or perhaps she could write a little guidebook on beginning flute that housebound parents could use to introduce a child to the instrument. She could also organize virtual “races” — marking a course in your area that she and other runners can tackle individually. There are lots of ways to go with this. She could create a website where the runners would report in and share times; she might set up charity runs benefiting local coronavirus victims or providing restaurant take-out meals to front-line workers, or she can map out a series of local routes and supply wry comments (“If you trip on the crack at the corner of Summer and Elm, you won’t be the first” or “When it takes you more than seven minutes to get past the Pizza Hut, you’re off pace!”)

Nearly a decade ago I started this College Confidential thread on “Hidden Extracurriculars” to point out that sometimes the activities that interest admission folks the most are not the predictable, organized ones that students or parents assume will push an application folder toward the “In” pile. And it’s more apt than ever today since so many activities are now taking place in living rooms, rumpus rooms, or behind masks, and they are “hidden” indeed.

It sounds like your daughter has many interests already, so it shouldn’t be a big leap for her to figure out how expand or adjust at least one of them to sync with these crazy times. And she may actually land on ideas that will help her applications “stand out” even more than if school were still open.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you’d like to submit a question to The Dean, please send it along here.

By: Sally Rubenstone
Title: How Does a Student Do Standout Extracurriculars During a Pandemic?
Sourced From: insights.collegeconfidential.com/how-to-do-extracurriculars-during-pandemic
Published Date: Mon, 11 May 2020 13:06:28 +0000

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Former Georgetown AO Demystifies Elite Admissions in New Book

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No matter how much research you’ve done, you’ve probably encountered unanswered questions about the elite college admissions process, which is often shrouded in mystery. One former college admissions officer aims to demystify that with her new book, Hacking Elite College Admissions: 50 Surprising Insights on the College Application Process.


Gaelle Pierre-Louis read thousands of applications during her time at Georgetown University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and decided to take some of the insights she gleaned there and put them into book form. Her new release also features tips and strategies from people who have worked in the admission offices of schools ranging from Harvard to Johns Hopkins and beyond.

College Confidential sat down with Pierre-Louis to ask some questions about how students can best position themselves for success during college admissions season.

Here’s How Admission Officers Read Your Rec Letters

College Confidential: In the book, you note that admission officers not only read every line of students’ recommendation letters, “but they also read between the lines.” Can you explain to applicants what that means, and what types of things admission officers like to see in rec letters?

Gaelle Pierre-Louis: We read between the lines for two reasons: To tell if the person actually knows you and to evaluate what that person actually thinks about your candidacy. I highly recommend meeting with guidance counselors and sending them your resume and a brief paragraph with your accomplishments. Make it easier for your recommenders so that they can, in turn, make your life easier as well.

We review thousands of recommendation letters from teachers and guidance counselors every year. When you read so many letters, you will inevitably be able to identify trends over time. Not only that, but we are able to see the letters and compare them with what others from your school are getting. Some guidance counselors will have seven kids applying to a certain college, but six of the letters will say the same generic information and then the seventh one will include certain phrases like “this student is one of the best within my 23 years of college counseling” or “this student will receive my highest recommendation.” There will be key words that differentiate that recommendation letter from others. It is important to put your best foot forward when meeting with your guidance counselor so that they can write a great letter on your behalf.

When evaluating your recommendation letters from your teachers, we want to see one from a rigorous course in which you performed well. You do not necessarily have to get an “A” in that class to get a great letter. For example, if the teacher says you might have struggled in your first exam, but you took opportunities to stay after class and you did extra homework to eventually get a “B,” that tells us a lot about your grit and tenacity, which are skills that we want you to have in order to survive college. We want to know how you will do in the classroom based on the rigorous courses you took in high school.

Low Stats? Here’s What Might Move the Needle

CC: The book describes the holistic admissions process that Georgetown and other schools use. Can you share a tip on how students can offset lower-than-average stats by highlighting other aspects of their applications?

GPL: Yes, schools tend to be truly holistic when evaluating your application. To be honest, for students who have below-average stats, usually an essay or recommendation letter is not going to move the needle on their application. From my experience, it is the depth of their extracurricular activities, timeline of the application (meaning early or regular decision) and their interview that weighs more in those cases.

Check How Your Extracurriculars Are Viewed

CC: When it comes to extracurricular activities (ECs), are admission officers drawn to unusual or interesting ones? Or is it more important to show a several-year commitment to the same ECs, no matter how common they are?

GPL: It truly does depend on the institutional priorities set by the university for that application cycle. One year, we might need more students on our debate team and another year, we might be seeking students who play percussion instruments for the orchestra. If it is something we need and you are involved in it and someone can vouch for you, it matters!

Make the Essay About You

CC: Are there any essay topics that you would advise students to never, ever write about?

GPL: I feel as if most essay topics that students think are original, we have seen them so many times. So there is not anything that I would advise students not to write about. This year, due to COVID-19, I do believe that students might choose to write about COVID- 19 and how it has affected the student, which is great, but it will not help you stand out since everyone will be doing the same thing. I would write about it in a supplementary essay and not the personal one, but it truly depends on the situation.

The most important thing with essays is that it concerns you. You would be surprised how many students talk about other people in their college essays. That does not help us understand who you are as an applicant. As far as topics, you could truly write about anything. We have probably seen the topic before, but it is more about the perspective you bring with the topic.

Share Your Thoughts

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Check out our forum to contribute to the conversation!

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By: Torrey Kim
Title: Former Georgetown AO Demystifies Elite Admissions in New Book
Sourced From: insights.collegeconfidential.com/elite-college-admissions-tips
Published Date: Wed, 12 Aug 2020 16:06:10 +0000

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Tackling The Common Application Essay

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Rising high school seniors, we haven’t forgotten about you! The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the realm of higher education. It seems as though all we have been hearing and reading about the past five months or so is how the coronavirus has affected, is affecting, and will affect almost every aspect of our lives. Many of us have sought ways to escape the onslaught of bad news.


If you are about to begin your senior year of high school, whether in person or online, and you plan to go to college, your focus may have been more on the college process instead of the COVID process. Colleges and universities across America have been fully sidetracked, trying to make sense out of how to continue providing higher education to their student bodies, while wrestling with an increasing burden of safety precautions, virus testing plans, unexpected expenses, teacher and student protests, and virus outbreaks among staff. That’s just a short list of their pandemic-related woes.

However, the college process cycle continues, and this year’s high school seniors will be applying to colleges and universities just as they have every year, even during world wars, depressions and other major national concerns. So I won’t be writing about the novel coronavirus today, but rather, about one important aspect of your college application process: the Common Application essay.

In addition to your academic record and recommendations, the essay can push a borderline applicant into the “Admit” column if executed properly. So it’s time to start thinking about this, if you haven’t already started.

You will most likely be using the Common Application for at least some (if not all) of your target schools. Chances are, even if you don’t end up using the Common App (unlikely), you will still need to write an essay on a general topic such as those that the Common App requires.

Get to Know the Common App Prompts

Here are the 2020-2021 Common Application essay prompts. They are the same as last year’s:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Check These Resources for Guidance

To help you get started thinking about how and what to write, I’ve listed a dozen of my College Confidential articles about writing application essays. You don’t have to read all of them, just find several that appeal to you, then read and learn. (Note that some of the articles reference older Common Application prompts, but my advice also applies to the current prompts.)

1. Great Common Application Essays

“There are myriad topics in your world … right under your nose. Use them!”

2. Using Humor in Your College Essay

“Titles can lend heft to an essay if they are carefully thought out …”

3. More about Essays

“Those are just three examples of great college application essays.”

4. Thoughts on Application Essays

“Keeping all this in mind, construct a list of “little known habits, hobbies and other weird stuff ” about yourself. Then, work to shape an aspect (or aspects) of that list into a winning statement.”

5. More On Essays

“You should be able to see the advantage of using not only picturesque imagery but also one of my favorite essay elements: humor.”

6. More Essay Insights

“Do you have some kind of challenge in your life that you have worked to overcome, like Cheryl? If so, give some thought to writing about it in your college applications.”

7. Adventures in Essayland

“As always, remember: Don’t write what you think they want to hear; write what you want to say!”

8. The Application Essay: Think About It

“Essay ideas are everywhere; we just don’t see them.”

9. Essays with A Smile

“Even the brightest students many times have difficulty conjuring decent topics and gathering their compositional forces to put together a winning set of sentences and paragraphs. So, what’s a frustrated essayist to do then?”

10. Application Essays

“The lesson here for essay writers is to look around your everyday lives carefully. Scenes like those immortalized here in “Banana Girl” happen all the time.”

11. Applying You to Your Application Essays

“What you can see in these entries is the contrast between writers who write what they want to say (the winners) and those who write what the contest judges want to hear (the losers).”

Make Sure Your Voice Shows

What you’ll see in the samples I posted in the above articles can show you the natural style incorporated by the writers. Their essays flow smoothly and don’t have an “academic” feel about them. When you read them, you can almost hear the writers speaking. In other words, their “voice” is natural and not at all affected by formality or overblown usage. They don’t use big words just for the sake of impressive vocabulary. Big words don’t impress admissions committees. A natural voice, convincingly presented, does.

The best essays help you to stand out in a crowd and reveal who you are and how you think. Sure, you can write a good essay about anything, but an essay often has the most impact if it highlights something that is unique or unusual about you.

Finally, try to have some fun with this. I know that “fun” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think about your college essays, but you may find that once you get into it, you’ll actually enjoy expressing yourself!

——————

By: Dave Berry
Title: Tackling The Common Application Essay
Sourced From: insights.collegeconfidential.com/how-to-write-common-app-essay
Published Date: Thu, 13 Aug 2020 12:24:38 +0000

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