This will (hopefully) be part of a series of posts ranting about the college admission process. Keep in mind that some of these criticisms are merely my opinions, and that I’m most likely being overly harsh. Also keep in mind that if people found a better method for the process, I’m sure there would have been quite a bit of discussion surrounding it.
(Side note: I might not talk about standardized testing, as betaveros covers it fairly well here.)
Most of the talk surrounding colleges before essays seems to be about these mysterious extracurriculars, even though they are only allegedly 50% of the college application process.
The actual definition of extracurricular itself is somewhat muddled. While the Common App and many applications for different schools separate activities (ex. swimming) and honors (ex. chess trophy), but others (at least those in my school) will tend to lump these two categories together into one. The app fails to note the fact that typically with honors comes quite a bit of preparation for these various awards. My honors section (with the exception of the National Merit Scholarship) was effectively listed a 2nd time on the activities section. With some colleges I applied to, an AMC score is even specifically asked for, thus appearing 3 times on my app. For the purposes of this discussion though, I’ll be talking about both of these sections defined by the Common App.
Academics are straightforward in the college app process. Get A’s, take X AP’s, get 5’s on all of them, etc. As soon as you start delving into extracurriculars, however, multiple contrasting opinions start popping up. The most popular of these opinions are: Do a large variety of things to show your interest in multiple activities, and, do a couple of things in depth to show your deep interest in a few activities. Or in other words, Breadth vs. Depth. I fall fairly deeply into the Depth category, as I only participate in a few activities, but sink a stupidly large number of hours into each of them. I personally have no regrets with this, as I was able to do what I enjoyed during the course of 4 years.
The problem with extracurriculars seems to lie on the other side of the line though. While some people who sample from a wide variety of subjects simply do so out of curiosity, other people will simply be participating for the sake of showing a diverse profile to colleges. Stuedents in our school, being of the competitive nature, will not only find random activities to participate in (such as a math student in drawing class), but also participate in as many competitions as possible. The AMC’s are a perfect example of this effect. Quite a few years ago, the school would have somewhere around 100 people actually taking the AMC 10/12, with a significant portion of these people making it into AIME. Starting from last year, due to the ever growing number of test takers (around a fourth of the school), we have a special schedule on the day of the A form. Its also fairly obvious that not all of these new participants are actually interested in math, as the number of AIME qualifiers have only slightly increased.
I’m not completely exempt from this behavior. My competition focus is on the AMC’s and various programming competitions. I also participate in the physics and linguistics competitions (F=ma and NACLO respectively). I pretty much burned out on physics, and do not enjoy the subject at all anymore. I don’t study for linguistics at all (well, I do logic puzzles, cause linguistics is logic…).
This is considered to be a fairly small number of competitions participated in (at least among those who engage in these activities). There also exists the chemistry olympiad, biology olympiad, physics bowl, science bowl, quiz bowl, and don’t forget the research competitions, Siemens and Intel. Especially as the competitions become more and more obscure (Have you ever heard of JETS? No?), these achievements simply become padding for the app.
Beyond competitions, students are now expected to demonstrate interest as well in as many other fields as possible. Those who would normally not do sports are now encouraged to participate in 4 years of golf, in order to show how they are not only an outstanding academic student, but also perform in sports. Community service is a more prominent example of this, with a constant focus on seeing how potential applicants will “benefit our college community.” As I mentioned in the previous part, people are expected to choose activities demonstrating their interests in various areas of life. While I was initially talking about the transition between middle and high school, the same applies when choosing such activities throughout high school as well: The chances that one will maintain the same interests by the time they reach college is minimal.
For now, the last point I have to mention is the role that the schools have in the propagation of the idea that everyone should be broad in their interests. For our school’s junior questionnaire, we were asked to list 5 things that we participated in and write a paragraph for each describing why. Putting aside the fact that I turned my in absurdly late, I was not able to come up with 5 points to put on my paper. I had my various competitions (repeated 3 times for math, computer science, and physics), robotics, as well as orchestra (which I wasn’t particularly fond of). This in my eyes, is really only 3 “activities”. Do they want me to list something like fencing (participated in for at most a month)? Its even worse when they describe how the activities should be distinct from each other. I would love to find someone that does sports, performing arts, academics, community service, and lead a club all at the same time.
And no, being the leader of a 1 person club isn’t actually being a leader. Neither is being co-leader of a 2 person club.