Which Things Are Most Worth Spending Time On?

Fall discussions with my junior and senior students often contain variations on the following question: “The club fair is coming up. I should join three or four clubs, right? I’ve heard that colleges like that.”

As the kids say, allow me to throw some shade on that assumption.

Yes, colleges want to see students getting involved in extracurricular activities that are meaningful to them. But it doesn’t have to be many – it can be just one activity. In fact, it’s better to be one activity sustained over time than multiple activities added toward the end of high school.

Even better is an activity that helps a student mature, discover his/her likes and dislikes and get some feedback from others. This can be a club, a sport, music, art or drama involvement (all inside or outside of school), not to mention a job, volunteer participation, a role in a religious or scouting group, and more.

Sure, if there is just one activity that involves a minimal amount of time (one hour per week, for example), then yes, there is likely time for a high school student to be involved in more. But even then, it’s worth letting a college know that the student may have had to watch younger siblings after school to help parents who work (for example).

In addition to participation, colleges tend to place a premium on leadership. Not everyone can be a club officer or a team captain, of course, but there are other ways to demonstrate this trait. Students can figure out what they like and take some initiative to help start a project in a group they are part of or volunteer to be a coach or tutor of younger kids. That is leadership also.

An additional benefit of extracurricular involvement is that by exploring interests in high school – real interests, not just things that look good on an application – students can make better college choices. Do they like to take photographs, make movies, write poetry, play in a band, ride horses, play a sport, etc.? The more they know about themselves going into college, the better a fit when it comes to making a final decision.

Finally, if they have some sense of the kind of career they hope to pursue, it’s worth finding ways to observe, volunteer or intern in those professions. Nothing shines a light on what it’s like to do a particular job like watching other people do it for real!

Remember, when it comes to admission, colleges still care the most about the level of classes a student takes and the grades they receive. Some schools care about test scores quite a bit too, although many are now Test Optional and then there is always the option of not sending SAT or ACT scores if a student is not at the average level at a school to which they are applying.

So yes, activities matter, but less so than schoolwork itself. Students who are too overscheduled also run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, falling behind in sleep and underperforming in academics.

Encourage your child to pick and choose activities carefully. It is quality, not quantity that counts!

Avoiding the “Summer Slide”

Unfortunately, the “Summer Slide” is not a dance. It's a term used by educators to describe the very real phenomenon of students losing academic ground over the summer as they use their brains less vigorously. For students who plan to take the SAT or ACT later this summer or in the fall, or who want to start off strong in their classes, the Summer Slide can put them at a disadvantage.
So here’s an easy remedy: Read! 
Encourage your children (of all ages) to read as much as they can. Some may already have assigned reading from school, but reading can also take the form of pleasure novels, magazines, etc. What matters is that they read regularly.
Some students may also benefit from starting up with math or writing tutoring later in the summer to review what they learned last spring and preview what is coming in the fall. Those who struggle with organization and study skills may benefit from work with an academic coach as well.

For those motivated to work on their own, here are a few ideas/resources:
Khan Academy: You may know that Khan Academy now offers free SAT prep. It’s also a great place for students to work on various topics in math, science, computing, humanities, art, and economics.
Free Rice: Free Rice is a terrific site that also covers a wide range of subjects (math, vocabulary and grammar, sciences, humanities, geography, foreign languages, etc.). It is fun to use and correct answers donate grains of rice to third world countries!
Explore Interests: Summer is a perfect time to have your child try something new and discover what they are good at, what they like, and what they hate. Whether it is a part-time job, volunteering, or a home-based project, everyone should be doing something in the summer that will help them learn more about themselves as well as build responsibility, independence, and self-confidence. Your child may need your encouragement if they have not yet found something to dive into on their own.
Job shadow: Summer is a good time to have discussions about what your child finds interesting and then seek out an opportunity for them to do some shadowing to learn about a particular field. Try asking friends and neighbors if your child can spend a few hours at their workplace.
Finally, for rising seniors, there is college prep work to be done!

  • Complete a list of colleges to apply to in the fall / winter
  • Schedule additional college visits as needed
  • Prep for and schedule interviews as appropriate
  • Decide if additional testing is needed (if so, schedule fall tests and continue test prep)
  • July – Complete the personal statement for the Common Application
  • August – Fill out the Common Application and upload the personal statement
  • August – Look for any supplemental essays that your colleges have posted.

Believe me, come this fall, your child will be very happy to have completed this work in the summer! (You will be too.)