Putting Your Personality on Paper
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How do college admissions officers differentiate between students?

One of the most common themes at ThinkTank’s Bay Area seminars is the Three Circle Philosophy. The idea is that there are three distinct areas for evaluation that college admissions officers take into account as they make their way through stacks of thousands of applicants: Academics, Test Scores, and Extracurricular Activities.

The first two (Academics and Test Scores) are pretty cut and dry: there is a particular number (4.0, 2400) that signifies a perfect performance, and each student is judged based on how close he or she comes to that number. ThinkTank’s stellar tutors, teachers, and resources enable many students to achieve close-to-perfect GPAs and SATs, which means that many students applying to college with us each year are nearly identical in terms of two of the Three Circles. So how do college admissions officers differentiate between these “perfect” students for a coveted spot in their incoming freshman class? By taking a close look at the third circle: Extracurricular Activities.

Extracurricular Activities are very important, especially when it comes to top tier colleges which already expect perfection in grades and tests. This is because there is no such thing as a “perfect score” when it comes to activities: they cannot be quantified, only qualified in the educated opinion of the college admissions officers. This makes it hard to compare one student to another, and forces the admissions staff to read more closely to find and understand the sum of a student’s parts. Additionally, the infinite combinations of sports, clubs, summer programs, enrichment classes, signature projects and leadership positions make it almost impossible for two students to be identical in terms of their third circle. Finally, unlike grades and test scores, the activities students choose demonstrate something very important that cannot be found in numbers and statistics: personality.

A student’s personality offers key insight into what he or she will accomplish in college. A student who is president of a community service club in high school, for example, would likely seek out problems, lead others to find solutions, and improve their college campus or surrounding area in some way. A student who was a reporter for the high school newspaper would be likely to take an interest in cultivating communication among students and distributing information to promote causes they are passionate about when in college. Though no single activity is more valuable than another, the lessons, skills and character traits students cultivate can be. Therefore, describing activities well and accurately makes a huge difference in an admissions officer’s interpretation of who a student really is.

In most cases, a student will never meet the admissions officer deciding his fate. Instead, he must rely on a form with limited character counts to demonstrate who he is, what he’s done, and what he plans to make or change in his future. Therefore, no matter how charismatic and unique and interesting a student is in person, if he cannot find a way to represent himself accurately and fully on paper, he won’t get very far in the admissions process. So how can a student ensure that his list of activities fully represents his capability and potential in a way that appeals to colleges? In my experience, what matters most to colleges is that a student’s activities exhibit three things: purpose, passion and persistence.

Students can demonstrate a sense of purpose through their activities by determining the career they would like to pursue in the future and seeking out involvements that are relevant. Someone who wants a career as a doctor, for example, might want to consider volunteering at a hospital or shadowing a family physician, joining clubs like HOSA or Medical Explorers, and attending summer programs in research or clinical studies. A student who is pursuing a career in law might want to intern for a local politician, take public speaking workshops, and join clubs like Mock Trial. The combination of activities will make it clear right from the start not only what the student plans to study in college, but also why they are qualified to do so.

Students can demonstrate passion by finding ways to use what they love to help others. Someone passionate about baseball, for example, could commit their volunteer hours to coaching little league. Someone passionate about writing might consider tutoring younger students, or starting a literary magazine on campus. Although the student might not plan to pursue baseball or writing in college, their commitment to expanding and capitalizing on their passion to grow as a person and help others would signify a lot of the positive qualities colleges are searching for.

Students can demonstrate persistence by sticking with the same clubs and involvements throughout high school. If students join six clubs in ninth grade, they should plan to continue with at least three of those and pursue leadership positions in at least two. Similarly, students should plan their summers so that they these commitments build upon one another. An academic enrichment program in physics, for example, might be followed up by a summer research experience in engineering, which might be followed by a student’s independent research project or an internship.

Perhaps the biggest thing I ask of my students is that they are able to explain why they have chosen to pursue their activities, and articulate what they have learned. As they create activity descriptions, students should be sure to highlight not only what their involvement was, but what it meant to them. That is how students can demonstrate their personality on paper.

By Katie Matlock, ThinkTank Learning Admissions Consultant/Academic Counselor