How many Amazons or Apples are there in the world? How many Kanye Wests or Lebron Jameses are there? You can count them on your fingers. That’s why they’re renowned at the world level: there are very few of them so you remember them.
Now how many valedictorians are there just in the US? (there are nearly 40,000 high schools in the US, so there are at least that many valedictorians). How many perfect SAT scores are there?
The real battleground state
In the former scenario, there is no restriction on the direction and upper limit of how great you can be. In the latter, even if you are truly the strongest academic student in the country, you still can only have a 4.0 unweighted GPA and 1600 SAT score (or a 36 on the ACT). It’s like in business, where there is a finite limit to how much of your costs you can cut (i.e. all of them and no more), but there is no upper limit to how much revenue your business can generate.
So why do people continue to think that grades and test scores will be the deciding factor on how to get into college? Without them, your overall resume for college application is at a significant disadvantage. They are necessary (a “good enough” score will suffice) but not sufficient. It is your value outside of the classroom that will determine which colleges will accept you. It is in this arena that we need to be focusing on competing. These are the “battleground states” of the college admissions race, the criteria that truly make a difference in whether or not you get accepted into college.
How to compete and be special
So how can you be special outside of the classroom? Is it just about figuring out a formula to “get in” (as many college admission coaching services focus on), gutting it out, and tolerating an activity you don’t enjoy in order to get colleges to notice you?
When shooting a basketball, good shooting coaches teach their players to flick their wrists and follow through upwards in their shooting motion. Even though the basket is in front, you still aim upwards instead in order to make the ball go through the hoop.
When driving on the highway and trying to cut off the car in the lane next to you, do you speed towards where they are currently, or ahead to where they will be in two seconds?
Apply that same idea to participating in extracurricular activities and becoming a better version of yourself.
Those who do things just to list them on their resume for college application end up looking like people who did exactly that. Just look at how many applications admissions officers review each year. It’s not their first rodeo and you aren’t fooling anybody.
Those who do things because they actually are interested in them (and show that via sustained, genuine commitment) accomplish more, and the difference is apparent.
What’s the common denominator between all the world-renowned people in their fields mentioned at the beginning of this piece? They all were dead set on the legitimacy and importance of their vision, even when no one else believed.
Here is the part that many college admission coaching services don’t tell you. You don’t get to that level of accomplishment without true internal motivation, especially if you’re primarily motivated by and concerned about how to get in to college and not much else. It’s also a heck of a lot easier to put in the hours during the days you don’t feel like it when you believe in the inherent value of what you’re doing.
How college admissions officers think
Think about it from the colleges’ perspective. They’re admitting students that (they hope) will bring them future money and fame, and they construct a well-rounded student body in order to do that. Who’s more likely to reach the top of their field (and accumulate fame and riches along the way)? The same people who reached uncommon excellence in their extracurricular activities, i.e. those who were truly in it to make a difference.
(1) Beyond being interested in something, you also have to be GOOD at it. In life, you don’t get a trophy for participation. Just like on the SAT, you actually have to prepare and be talented in order to get a high score. It takes more than just showing up. It’s not just about working hard and the number of hours you put in either. It is about what you accomplished and the value you created for others.
(2) You know what those extraordinary individuals didn’t do? They didn’t copy others. When one of your peers got in to Yale or Columbia University last year, it is tempting to jot down every extracurricular activity he did, as well as a list of all the classes and standardized tests he took. But you’re not him.
Also, what a university needed to construct their freshman class last year is likely different from what they need this year. What worked last year for him isn’t what’s going to work this year for you, so don’t bother copying others. If everyone's resume for college application is the same, then no one is special, and that particular accomplishment just becomes glossed over like good grades and standardized test scores have become.
Your unique differentiator
So to be truly unique, you have to bring a unique strength to the table. To be able to do that, you have to do something you truly like and are good at, and you have to hone that consistently over a long period of time. You truly have to develop as a person. You can’t just hack it by relying on traditional college admission coaching services to always provide you the answer. It won’t work in the long run.
What are you good at, that you like, and that can be used to benefit others? That is the answer to the question, “What extracurricular activities should I do to get into a good college?”
If you can’t answer that question, then you must figure out what your long term goals are. It all starts with self-awareness (you’ll also need to have a lot of it to write great college application essays, too).
To hit target A (how to get into college), aim for target B (how to develop an exceptional strength to accomplish things that leave a meaningful mark on society). The helpful approach works.