by Ashley Brookshire, Regional Director of Admissions for the West Coast
It’s a question I hear often – mostly from families at college fairs who are frantically trying to absorb every available nugget of information available to them in the tight time frame of the event: “But… what do colleges prefer?”
“My daughter has the opportunity to take classes at our local community college this summer or do an internship – which one do colleges prefer?”
“My son is thinking about going on a mission trip or finding a job for the summer – which one is better?”
“I can either stay with band or debate for my senior year, but not both. What should I do?”
Students, and parents, are hoping for a concrete answer – a guaranteed road map to get in to the college of their choice. If an admission counselor says it, then it must be truth, and should be followed to a “t” (trust me, we wish we had that kind of all-knowing power!). But if you’re reading this in hopes of gaining a paint-by-numbers insight into the college admission process, I’m afraid you’re going to be terribly disappointed.
The better question to ask is “why do we ask students to supply an activity record with their application?” Is it to count the number of hours you spent volunteering at a local hospital? Do we tally the number of times you were elected into an officer position for a club at school? No, on both counts.
We are looking at three things: your experiences, the talents you possess, and the skill sets that you’ve developed throughout your high school career. These three items help us gauge your fit and potential impact on our campus.
Your experiences inform your beliefs, passions, and ambitions, and ultimately, this is what we want you to bring to our community. What types of opportunities did you opt into (or in some cases, stumble into by chance) and how did they differ from your initial expectations? Have you stepped into a club, trip, or commitment that was outside of your comfort zone? The beauty of a college campus is its ability to offer a more robust list of experiences than most high schools can provide. What experiences are you bringing to the table? I’m not just talking about the stamps in your passport. When we look at your application, we want to see the behaviors that make you open to experience life with new people, places, and activities.
A talent is an innate ability to do something, whereas a skill set is learned and developed. Many of the families I speak with seem to focus on talents, but in the admission process, skills sets are equally as insightful (more on that in a moment). I haven’t been a powerful force in a music classroom since learning to play the recorder in 5th grade. I can appreciate that some people have inherent abilities that I do not. If you have talent in art, music, dance, athletics, or public speaking, then you’re likely drawn to these types of activities. What students usually overlook is that you determine how your talents are utilized and ultimately captured on your application. Are you part of a club, company, or team that allows you to hone your craft? Have you created opportunities for others to engage in this activity? From an admission perspective, we’re not looking to fill a class of individuals who were born with special talents. We are looking for students who are motivated to share their unique talents in impactful ways.
Skills, on the other hand, are developed. They are practiced, trained, and learned. These can be hard skills (programming, marketing, or painting) or soft skills (networking, time management, perseverance). Sometimes students apply so much effort to developing a skill set that it appears as a natural talent to others, leaving them unaware of the work going on behind the scenes. The skills you’ve cultivated by balancing your time outside of the classroom and working with others will make you a powerful member during the many group projects you’ll work on in college. Enrolling in a summer academic program or college course will sharpen your academic prowess and allow you to accelerate your coursework in college. The leadership skills you’ve gained as a club officer at your high school will embolden you to step into pivotal roles in one of the hundreds of organizations that contribute to our campus culture. As a volunteer, you’ve stayed mindful of those around you and connected more personally to your community. All of these experiences, talents, and skills bring positive value to a college campus, yet all cannot be pursued at the same time. Even in the summer, there are a limited number of hours in the day.
So, back to the original question: “which (insert activity here) do colleges prefer?” We prefer that you use your time intentionally in whichever way you feel best engages your interests, utilizes your talents, and allows you to grow as an individual. These are the types of students who will join a college community and thrive both inside and outside the classroom. At the end of the day, we want to enroll a well-rounded freshman class. This is quite different than every student in our class being well-rounded. It means that, as a whole, our class is filled with philanthropists and athletes, musicians and researchers, leaders and employees, and their collective experiences, talents, and skills create dynamic, thought-provoking interactions on our campus. But before you schedule every free moment of your summer, remember: summer should bring reprieve with it. Enjoy the additional time in your day – days are longer and summer doesn’t normally hold the same time commitments as the school year. Take a deep breath, celebrate your achievements over the course of the last year, and catch up on that book or tv series that you set aside during the school year. After all, senior year and college application season is just around the corner.