Summertime is one of the best times for high school students. Daily routine and structured days give way to sunshine and mostly empty calendars. Apart from taking a much-needed break from academics, students should use their summers to expand on their interests. Many students use this time to attend structured summer programs whose application deadlines typically close between February and April. Others forge their own path or enroll in summer classes, but whatever the route, plans should be backed by calculated decision-making that grows their academic profile year-by-year.
What do colleges look for in an application profile?
Apart from test scores, recommendations, and GPA, many colleges use admissions essays to draw out student perspectives on why they care about their intended major and the life experiences that contribute to the decision. Students who are able to explain how their academic interest developed, particularly over their high school career, greatly boost their college admissions chances.
Notice the following basic student explanation for applying to a computer science program at X University. The comments will illustrate important takeaways. How does it compare to what admissions officers have to say?
I grew up loving coloring books. Hours would pass and each month my stack of pages served as a curated gallery. By the time I was six I had a set of crayon sharpeners for each of my boxed sets (brand always affects texture and color intensity). The soothing sensation of the wax gliding across the page always spiked my imagination. Eventually I grew tired of the commercial coloring book options as cartoon characters and animals can only excite kids so much. I started designing my own patterns and landscapes, mostly with stencils at first but eventually with the help of a series of art courses starting in middle school.
(So far it's clear that a fascination with art stretches far back. Small moments like this can propel and add coherence to intellectual decisions later. This student may have never enrolled in introductory art courses without a fondness for crayons).
With each course my artistic skills expanded. Each sketch helped me tackle an art movement, pop art, surrealism, etc. The competitions I entered in high school served as an opportunity to proclaim that I could shape the page to capture my vision. All of it took series of drafts and eventually I needed a quick way to sort through the skeletal outlines. Paper can be lost but electronic copies last forever.
(Classes and competitions are tangible ways to demonstrate commitment to a topic. While placing at competitions is impressive, winning is far less important in the bigger picture. Notice that this student is more concerned with the creative process).
I had some experience with software like photoshop and illustrator, both useful for crafting the pages of my personal coloring book project, and started printing the black and white lines for the kids I babysitted on occasional weekends. By 11th grade I realized that basic computer programming could increase accessibility. I was lucky that my teacher agreed to mentor me and was able to start building an iPad app to allow kids to fill in white spots. Now they can save limitless versions without building stacks of physical books.
(Personal projects are the epitome of dedication. Not only do students have full creative discretion to mold to personal interests, but it also provides a way to tie together seemingly unrelated extracurricular activities).
I want to spread my art beyond my immediate surroundings and instill the same inspiration in young artists-to-be.
(Conveying this message with examples should be the goal of every student by the time they apply for colleges. Personal reflection and its connection to the future are two of the most undercovered aspects of the college admissions process but are the most important components of admissions essays).
How do extracurriculars refine student interests?
Schools do a great job providing extracurricular outlets through clubs, sports, and academic competitions. In addition to scholarly topics in class, student curiosity can flourish through personal endeavors. Extracurriculars can help students improve in three main areas: personal skills, intellectual depth, and project portfolio. Each activity should help students explore explore an interest or expand on an existing one. The relationship between them matters most for college admissions.
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