Having read the title of this post, you probably believe that it will give you all of the information you need to ensure your extracurricular activities will impress even the most jaded Ivy-league application reader. You would be wrong. If you believe that a blog post can give you that, I’d like to sell you this bottle of magic oil that can cure any ailment. That’s because pursuing extracurricular activities that set you apart from the rest requires—above all other things—uniqueness, not just from others, but to you. What I can do, however, is put you on a path that will help you come up with a plan—by yourself or with the help of parents, friends, or trusted confidants—to unlock your achievements and reach the upper echelons of awesomeness.
Activity Awesomeness Level 1: Unique Activity
Let’s start with an example of an interest and talk about ways to turn it into an activity that will impress: crocheting. I like this activity because it’s not exactly common among seventeen-year-olds, so already it wins points for originality. That’s great. You could stop here, add it to the Common App’s activity list, and be done with it, and you’d still have an activity that helps you stand out—at least a little. But it could be so much more, and if your activity is more commonplace than crocheting, then you definitely need to read on.
Activity Awesomeness Level 2: Leadership and Recognized Achievements
I’m assuming, for everyone’s sake, that you really, truly love crocheting (or whatever your activity happens to be). You should. Don’t do activities just to impress admissions officers, because you won’t do them well and your plan will thus backfire. And in order to succeed at higher levels of awesomeness, you need to have passion. That’s not to say that you should not step outside your comfort zone a little—you definitely should, and I’ll have more to say on that later. There are a couple of ways to reach AAL2, and by no means are they mutually exclusive. The first is to bring others into the fold of your activity by (continuing with our example) starting a crocheting club where you share and teach your activity. The second is entering crocheting contests where others will recognize the high quality of your work. The key here is outside recognition that underscores the unique skill or creativity you bring to your activity. Getting recognized with a prestigious prize or even with money, as in The Paradigm Challenge, makes that recognition even more valuable by quantifying the dedication with which you pursue crocheting (the scholarship doesn’t hurt either!). In the case of starting a club, it also demonstrates leadership qualities. But true leadership is about more than just taking others along for the ride. It’s also about enriching their lives, growth, and passion for the activity or cause at hand.
Activity Awesomeness Level 3: Lifting People Up
Your nascent crocheting club could just be that: an hour a week when you and a few peers get together and crochet. Many clubs are little more than that, and admissions officers have seen thousands like them. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but why not take it further? Bring your group to the World Famous Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree, California (it exists!). Write to the country’s foremost expert on crocheting and invite them to join one of your meetings, demonstrate techniques, and share stories. Don’t think they’ll come? You might be surprised—the more niche the activity, the less likely it is that the expert in question will have an agenda overflowing with university speaking engagements and invitations to the Oval Office. But even if the activity is more mainstream, you never know, and there’s no harm in asking. When they agree (or perhaps refer you to someone else who can take you up on your offer), speak to local businesses about sponsoring their travel expenses. Later you can brag about how you raised money for your cause. (Did someone say “cause?”)
Activity Awesomeness Level 4: Making the World a Better Place
Speaking of causes, reaching AAL4 requires that you use your activity in the service of one (consider the “Circles of Influence” referenced in the above-linked post, or this post about Impact Projects). Conveniently, you recently heard about the plight of your local Domestic Yak farmers, who despite generations of providing sustainable wool products, are being driven out of business by the advent of synthetic materials and increasing property taxes. As an aside, no one expects you to solve systemic problems, but that doesn’t mean you cannot do your part. Now is the time to drive your band of merry crocheters into action. Raise awareness for the plight of the farmers by leading a crochet drive to make blankets for the local homeless population. Bring your group to a home for at-risk children and teach them to crochet. Call the local newspapers (really!) and tell them about what you are doing and how they can help. Now you are not only crocheting, you are also helping a cause. Did I say one cause? I meant three: the farmers, the homeless, the at-risk children. And perhaps this may sound far-fetched, but the more far-fetched, the better. Look at where you started—with a simple hobby—and where you landed—making a difference for your peers, your community, and the world.
Some Notes for the High Achiever
I often work with students who have few activities to show for themselves and need help finding productive ways to spend and maximize their non-academic time. Other students, however, have an extraordinarily full extracurricular life. Even for them, though, there is always room for improvement. Let’s say, for example, that you are an aspiring doctor. You’ve shadowed physicians, volunteered at an emergency trauma center, interned at a cancer research facility, helped discover a novel molecule with promise in treating Zika virus, and co-published a paper on the potential of CRISPR in cloning artificial pancreases with a professor at John Hopkins. Yes, I really have students like this, and I know it sounds impressive. It is. But it’s also exceedingly one-sided, and it does little to set you apart from the 50,000 or so other qualified pre-med applicants to college this year, many of whom boast similar achievements.
If this is you, you may be thinking, “You can’t possibly be serious! With everything I do, it’s not enough?” I get it. But as with all things in the admissions game, success isn’t always about being great at what you do. It’s also about setting yourself apart.
And how can you do that? Well, have you considered crocheting?