Ah, the always tricky student resume.  The part of college applications that make students question whether their innate interests are worthwhile.  I get endless questions about not only how to design a student resume but more specifically what activities students should be sure are on there.  It seems crazy that we’re willing to model what are meant to be ventures of personal enjoyment to a mold designed by colleges; that we can’t even allow students to have the freedom to spend their time doing things they love, but alas, that’s where we are.

Yes, there are certainly factors colleges evaluate about a student’s extra-curriculars but I would argue that those can easily be satisfied while also allowing the student to do what they love (imagine that!). 

Let’s start with what is widely regarded as the most important factor on any student resume: leadership.  I have seen some really intriguing debate on this issue amongst my colleagues about this recently that can be boiled down to this:  there are a lot of different ways to “lead.”  Sure, the Team Captain and Student Body President are leaders, but so are the fundraiser organizers, new club creators, or student mentors.  And don’t forget about on-the-job leadership!  Being given increased responsibilities, like training new employees or locking up at night, are great examples of leadership.  The point is students shouldn’t feel compelled to run for office if that’s not where their passion lies.  When they’re doing what they love “leadership” comes naturally!

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This leads me to factor #2: passion.  Colleges would so much rather see a student participate in things they care about than have a sparse list of activities that are clearly only there to check off the boxes they think a college wants to see.  The most common culprit here?  Community service.  Tell me if I’m right: Mom says, “You need some community service for your college application so I signed you up for (insert one-day commitment here).”  This makes just as small of an impression on a college application as it does to the student participating in it.

Before putting your name on the list for the first charitable event you see, take some time to think about how you can actually contribute to your community.  Love playing football?  How about volunteering to referee a peewee league?  Like to sing?  Maybe you can help with the choir at church. Even though they’re longer-term commitments they won’t seem like such a chore because (gasp!) you might just find yourself enjoying what you’re doing!

To circle back to the factor of passion, there’s a sure-fire way to prove to a college that you genuinely care about and enjoy what you’re involved in: your commitment.  A student with four activities listed with extensive involvement is absolutely preferred over a list of 10 that each only take up a few hours for a year or less.  Commitment not only achieves the obvious of proving your ability to be committed but also shows that you think purposefully about how you spend your time and, even if you’re applying undecided, that you have started to think about the things that you are skilled at and enjoy.  These types of students are much more likely to be strong contributors to the campus community and successful alumni!

Two final notes before we wrap this up.  First, unlike the essay, it isn’t as necessary to shy away from religious or political affiliations.  Tell colleges all about the mission trips you went on and the political campaigns your volunteered for!  These are wonderful ways to tell a school what makes your tick and are hard-working hours you should get credit for. 

Finally, regardless of what’s going to be on that list of extra-curriculars once application time is finally here please start taking notes early!  It’s very hard to amend your application when you remember that award you got Freshman year three days after hitting the “submit” button.  The Common Application (and most others) are going to be looking for:

  1. The name of each organization and your position
  2. A brief description of your involvement including any awards or distinctions
  3. How many school years you participated
  4. A rough estimate of your time commitment reported as hours per weeks and weeks per year.

If there’s one take away here it’s to love what you do.  Don’t be afraid to explore different interests but do your best to whittle it down to the things that are truly important to you and make a real-time commitment there.  Colleges will react positively to your genuine enthusiasm for what you do and you won’t have to spend high school selling wrapping paper for…wait…what were we selling wrapping paper for again?