Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses

This week, we continue our Getting Ready to Apply series by discussing senior-year courses.
Listen to the podcast to find out about…

Taking care of your GPA–but not just for college admissions reasons
Taking AP exams–but not taking the course first
Taking actual college courses during the senior year–but not through dual enrollment

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/19

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Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
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This week, we continue our series on Getting Ready to Apply by focusing on senior-year courses.

NYCollegeChat Episode 19 Senior Year Courses
Subscribe to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!

Some students think that it is all over by the time they get to the senior year. Everyone knows that it is the junior year grades that count the most. But wait! Senior year is important, and this is why: Virtually every college application asks students to list the courses being taken in the senior year, both semesters. And, virtually every college application asks students to indicate whether each senior year course is an honors course, an Advanced Placement (AP) course, a dual enrollment course (meaning that is being taken at a college or at the high school, but with a college’s staffing and/or supervision), or an International Baccalaureate (IB) course (for students in IB schools). So, taking just regular courses in the senior year could look like a bit of a cop-out to a prospective college. Therefore, if your child has the option of taking some more advanced or accelerated courses, it is worth thinking hard about that.

If your child’s high school does not offer any of these special kinds of courses, then just make sure that he or she takes the most rigorous courses available.

By the way, some colleges have minimum high school course requirements that they expect students to meet. They are much like your state’s course requirements for high school graduation. So, just to be safe, taking English, math, science, and social studies every year in high school is a good idea, along with a year of fine arts—art, music, or dance. That fourth year of math is particularly important—whether that’s calculus, precalculus, or statistics (preferably AP Statistics, if it is offered).

Let’s look at a few options for senior-year courses because it would be nice to be able to say on college applications that at least one senior-level course was advanced or accelerated in some way. Of course, taking advanced or accelerated courses as a freshman, sophomore, or junior also looks great on your child’s high school transcript, so your child need not wait until senior year to take advantage of these options if they are available earlier at your child’s high school.

1. Honors Courses

Your child’s high school might or might not offer courses designated as “honors” courses. If it does, entry into those courses might not be up to the student, because students might have to be chosen for honors courses by teachers, based on past grades or test scores. But, if your child does have the choice to take an honors English course or a regular English course, for example, encourage your child to take the honors course, assuming that he or she can get a good grade in it by working hard.

As you probably know, some high schools “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that students get more credit toward their GPAs for a grade received in an honors course than for a grade received in a regular course. In other words, getting a B+ in an honors course might be as good for your child’s GPA as receiving an A– in a regular course. On the other hand, some high schools do not “weight” grades in honors courses of various types—meaning that getting a B+ in an honors course will be worse for your child’s GPA than getting an A– in a regular course. So, that is something you will have to consider: Is it better to go for the higher GPA or to have honors courses on your child’s transcript and college applications? That is a hard choice, and colleges might not agree on which choice is better. The ideal, of course, is go for the honors course and encourage your child to get as good a grade in it as he or she would have gotten in the regular course. That’s the win–win.

2. Advanced Placement Courses

The weighted grades discussion applies to Advanced Placement (AP) courses as well. As you probably know, AP courses are designed to be college-level courses, taught at the high school by specially trained high school teachers. AP courses are a product of The College Board, which puts together both the syllabus, or outline, for the course and the test that is used at the end of the course to judge how well students learned the material. In addition, The College Board trains and certifies the high school teachers who teach the course. More than 35 AP courses have been developed, with multiple courses available in a variety of subject fields—in English, history and social science, mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences, world languages and cultures, and the arts.

The end-of-course AP tests are graded on a 5-point scale. Some colleges give college credit for high scores—for example, scores of 4 or 5. Some colleges let students who get high scores skip introductory courses in that subject field, but do not give students any credit. Basically, individual colleges can do what they want to do with AP test scores—including nothing at all.

Some high schools teach AP courses as senior-level courses; others teach them to younger students as well; others do not teach them at all. Whatever you think of AP courses—how good they are, how hard they are, whether they are really like college courses—it probably makes sense for your child to take one or more if your child has the course prerequisites and the ability to do it, purely from a how-it-looks-to-prospective-colleges perspective.

3. Dual Enrollment Courses

Many high schools do not have dual enrollment courses. But, if your child’s high school does, they are a fabulous option. These are college courses, which give students both high school credit and college credit at the same time because the students are dually enrolled—that is, enrolled in both college and high school at the same time for the same course. These courses are usually available in Early College high schools, though there are only about 300 Early College high schools across the U.S. We are lucky in New York City to have just over 15 Early College high schools now, with another two dozen or so statewide. However, other high schools that are not Early College high schools also can offer dual enrollment courses, typically in cooperation with a nearby college.

If dual enrollment courses are available at your child’s high school and your child is eligible to take them (that is, your child has whatever course prerequisites are needed), then make sure that your child takes them. These courses carry credits awarded by the cooperating college, which makes it more likely—though not guaranteed—that whatever college your child eventually attends will accept them. For that reason, these credits are likely more valuable than AP exam scores. There is really no downside to taking college courses in high school if a student is prepared for them.

4. Summer College Courses

We said in a recent episode that taking college courses in the summer—ideally after eleventh grade, I think—is a great way to make productive use of the summertime. We mentioned that one college application I had seen recently asked the applicant to account for his activities during every summer of his high school years. What better to have to say than, “I was taking a course at a college.” Whether the college is local or far away, big or small, selective or not, public or private, two-year or four-year—earning college credits during the summer while still a high school student is a wonderful idea. We also said that the only better idea is to study abroad and earn those college credits at an interesting college outside of the U.S.

Now, this is an episode about senior-year courses. So, the question is whether your child can list a course taken in the summer after the junior year as a senior-year course. I think that is a reasonable position, and I think that a college would find it acceptable.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Taking care of your GPA—but not just for college admissions reasons
  • Taking AP exams—but not taking the course first
  • Taking actual college courses during the senior year—but not through dual enrollment

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

 

Episode 18: Spotlight on Summers

This week, we’re putting a spotlight on summer activities as part of our Getting Ready to Apply series.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
More summer study programs for high school students
How to turn a part-time job into a rewarding internship experience
Getting high school credit for an internship

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/18

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
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Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
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Following us on Facebook

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we continue our series on Getting Ready to Apply with a spotlight on summer activities.

Subscribe to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 18 Spotlight on Summers

One college application I looked at recently asked the student I was working with to detail what he had done each summer while in high school. Somehow we knew that hanging around with friends and playing pick-up basketball or going to the local pool just wasn’t what the college was looking for. Knowing this in advance—we are speaking to you, parents of ninth graders—will help you work with your child to plan significant summer activities, which not only are useful when it is time to fill out college applications, but also help make your child’s out-of-school life richer and more meaningful.

If your child needs to work in the summer to help support the family, then that has to come first. But, hopefully, there will be some time when he or she can also engage in some of the activities we are going to discuss here. If your child is looking at a selective college, then summer should not be viewed as a time to rest, but rather as a time for your child to follow some interest or refine some talent or learn some new thing or do some good for others. While we cannot provide an exhaustive list of every possible summer activity, we can offer broad categories of the more common ones.

1. High School and College Study

Ever since high schools became a part of our public schooling in the U.S., some students have gone to “summer school.” Often, those were students who needed to retake classes they had failed during the school year. However, there were others who went to summer school to get ahead so that they could take more advanced or different courses during the school year. Accelerated or enriched high school study in the summer is a time-honored tradition and would be a very reasonable summer activity, from a college’s point of view.

But, even better, would be study at a college. U.S. colleges have more summer programs than you can count for reasonably bright and/or interested high school students. Some courses are part of full-time residential programs on the campus; others are not. Unlike taking free high school courses, courses at a college can be expensive; but, fortunately, scholarships are often available.

How do you find a college course? Look up colleges in your hometown to see what they offer. Or look up out-of-town colleges that your child might be interested in attending, because a summer course is a great way to get to know a campus. Or look up college courses for high school students by subject field—such as courses or programs in engineering, music, etc.

To take one example, Cornell University has a broad array of summer courses that high school students can take for three weeks or six weeks—and earn college credit for—in fields as different as veterinary medicine, social change, biological research, literature, government, computer science, art, business, and architecture. In addition to all those, Cornell’s College of Engineering runs two intensive one-week programs—The CURIE Academy for girls who excel in math and science and CATALYST for students of ethnic and racial backgrounds that are underrepresented in the fields of engineering, math, and science—as well as the six-week Cornell Engineering Experience for students who excel in math and science.

To take another example, if your child is drawn to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hampton University in Virginia offers about a dozen summer programs for high school students—some residential, some not. For students from New York, going to a summer program at Hampton is a great way to experience life at an HBCU in a lovely and very different geographical setting.

A final note: If your high school does not offer students the opportunity to take college courses of any kind during the school year, then a course taken at a college in the summer—especially one that earns college credit—would be a particularly attractive option for your child. Being able to say on a college application that you have already taken and succeeded in a college course somewhere at some time is, obviously, an advantage.

For families that are interested in sending students outside the U.S. to study in the summer, there are certainly many programs to be had, with individual colleges sponsoring many of them and offering college credit for the classes students take while abroad. While these programs are understandably pricey, scholarships can be had. This is almost an irresistible summer combination—college study and seeing the world. Great for college applications and great for life!

2. Family Travel

We have found that quite a few students in New York City have close family connections in other countries, often in the country that their parents emigrated from. Many of these students go home to these countries during the summer to visit relatives for several weeks or more, often making it difficult for students to engage in other kinds of summer activities set up by their schools or in their local communities. Students can take advantage of these family trips—for example, by keeping up with a native or second language, by visiting cultural sites, or by working in a family business—and find something interesting to write about on their college applications.

Other families might take a short trip to a different part of the U.S. or to a different country near or far. As always, giving students a close look at important historical sites or art museums or architecturally magnificent churches or geologic wonders makes it possible for them to write in more detail and more interestingly about these summer vacations on their college applications.

3. Internships and Volunteer Work

We talked a lot about internships and volunteer work in our last episodes. We made the case then that engaging in internships and/or volunteer work lets a college know that a student is responsible and dependable, takes initiative, and, depending on the assignment, cares about others. From the student’s side, an internship or volunteer assignment helps the student explore career interests and potential college majors.

As we said, summer is a great time to talk with local church youth groups about mission trips to nearby or far away urban or rural areas in or outside of the U.S. where teenagers can do a host of volunteer jobs for the young, the old, the sick, or the homeless—from cleaning up a park to repainting a house to playing games to serving a hot lunch to reading aloud. Having teenagers do work that helps others, while under the supervision of caring adults, is a win for everyone.

Summer is also a great time to think about politics. It seems these days that there is always an upcoming election, even if it is really more than a year away. Local, state, and national office-seekers can use plenty of extra hands to stuff envelopes, put up posters, and get signatures on petitions. Media-savvy teenagers can often reach out to voters in ways that older adults do not even entirely understand. It’s a powerful way to learn about American government and political science firsthand.

Summer is also a great time to pursue a volunteer assignment in a hospital or nursing home. Many high school students—and indeed college students—interested in attending medical school and pursuing a career in medicine look for these volunteer opportunities, so students should not wait too long to line up this kind of assignment.

Summer internships—in which a student has a chance to try out a future career field, under the mentorship of a successful individual already working in the field—are even harder to get than volunteer assignments, so students need to start looking for those in the early, early spring. Parents, remember that high schoolers will be in competition with college students for internships in many career fields, which makes an early search even more important.

4. Community Activities

In our earlier episode entitled “Activities, Activities, Activities,” we talked about the many kinds of community activities that students might engage in during the school year, but most of them are likely to be available in the summer, too—from community sports teams to community theater productions to programs at community centers or local museums. Some of these—like sports teams and theater productions—require some talent and skill, but others might be more educational and easier to join. All of them are productive uses of a student’s free time in the summer, and all of these would be good summer activities to write about on college applications.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • More summer study programs for high school students
  • How to turn a part-time job into a rewarding internship experience
  • Getting high school credit for an internship

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

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Episode 17: An Interview with Tanya Navas, New York State Director, National Academy Foundation

We share an interview with Tanya Navas, New York State Director, National Academy Foundation. Tanya talks with Marie and Regina about the career fields that NAF focuses on, the in-school and out-of-school components of a NAF academy experience, and the value of a paid internship for students.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Graduation rates and other success statistics from NAF Academies
The reactions of adult mentors who work with student interns in the workplace
How an internship can turn a student’s life around

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/17

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat: An Interview with Tanya Navas, New York State Director, National Academy Foundation

The National Academy Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports over 660 career academies in high schools in 38 states. NAF reaches over 81,000 high school students nationwide in its work of preparing students for college and careers. Tanya Navas, the New York State Director, is responsible for supporting the close to 60 career academies in New York State, with about half of those concentrated in New York City.

In the interview, Tanya talks with Marie and Regina about the career fields that NAF focuses on, the in-school and out-of-school components of a NAF academy experience, and the value of a paid internship for students. She also tells anecdotes about NAF students that make it clear why the program is a real plus for both school districts and for students.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Graduation rates and other success statistics from NAF academies
  • The reactions of adult mentors who work with student interns in the workplace
  • How an internship can turn a student’s life around

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Episode 16: Internships, Volunteer Service, and Part-Time Jobs

This week, we’re talking about internships, volunteer service, and part-time jobs during the school year as part of our series, Getting Ready to Apply.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
The reasons that working with adults outside of school is so important
The advantages of unpaid internships in small business
The right time of year to start looking for volunteer work

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/16

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re talking about internships, volunteer service, and part-time jobs during the school year as part of our series, Getting Ready to Apply.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 16 Internships, Volunteer Service, and Part-Time Jobs

Episode 15 delved into the wide-ranging topic of activities—both extracurricular activities that students participate in at school and community-based activities that students participate in outside of school. We talked about music, student government, school publications, public speaking of all kinds, theater, service organizations, subject field and future career clubs, and athletics. But, in addition to activities, many high school students engage in some sort of work—whether paid or unpaid internships, volunteer work, or part-time jobs. Depending on your child and your family circumstances, these work activities can play an important role in your child’s life and are all a productive use of your child’s free time, which is something that colleges like to see on an application. Some college applications have sections specifically devoted to paid and unpaid work activities. Having something to say in such a section of an application shows a college that your child is likely responsible, dependable, serious, and able to manage his or her time effectively.

Let us say from the beginning that there is probably nothing that students can do to get them better prepared quicker for the real world than to have actual work experience in high school or college. Whether that work experience takes the form of internships or volunteer work or part-time jobs, students learn a lot from being in a workplace and under the supervision of adults who are not teachers. Adults outside of the school environment have different—and likely higher—standards for student behavior and work-related traits, such as initiative, perseverance, self-discipline, flexibility, and gumption.

Let us also say that experiences like these, especially in internships and volunteer services, make great material for college application essays. But we will do more on that topic in a later episode.

1. Internships

Students who have internships in high school almost universally say that the internship was one of the most valuable learning experiences they ever had. Adult supervisors at the workplace almost universally say that having the student intern was a great experience for the organization as well. Clearly, some students might be unprepared academically or socially for an internship, and some organizations might be unprepared to use an intern effectively. But, when a student is prepared and the organization is welcoming, internships are a well-documented way of helping students acquire the skills they will use in real life when they are employed.

Unlike many innovative programs brought into schools, there is simply no downside to student internships. Almost 40 years ago, my nonprofit started evaluating internship programs that were funded by the federal government and operated in individual school districts. Every one we looked at offered great results for students and received high marks from the adults involved—both in the workplace and in the schools. We never evaluated any kind of innovative program that was more effective or more universally liked.

We can tell countless stories of high school students’ internship experiences and how effective they were—from working in a prestigious architecture firm in Manhattan to working in a small, full-service advertising agency to working in technology support at a CUNY college campus to working in a small children’s clothing store to working in a large engineering company, where one of our students actually solved a problem that the engineers were having trouble with.

Some high schools have programs that seek out and place their students into internship programs. One excellent program that does this is operated by the National Academy Foundation (NAF), a nonprofit organization that supports the programming of over 660 career academies in high schools in 38 states, serving over 81,000 students. We have an interview with a longtime NAF staff member coming up in this series.

But, if your high school does not have an internship program, you can still help your child seek out an internship on your own—most likely during the summer, but perhaps after school instead. Ideally, you would have your child look for an internship in a career field of interest and in an organization where a responsible adult would agree to supervise and mentor your child. We are not saying that this is particularly easy to do or that your child will not have to compete with college students—in the summer, at least—who are also looking for internships and who might be more qualified than your child to help the organization. However, we are saying that an internship experience with personal adult mentoring is priceless and worth the headache of trying to find one. Using whatever personal connections you might have at work, through friends, at church, or elsewhere might be your best chance of helping your child find an internship.

Just a note: Some internships are paid, and some are unpaid. For example, NAF strongly believes that internships should be paid. To be sure, paid internships are a better simulation of the actual world of work and increase the likelihood that the student will be taken seriously by the adults at hand. Nonetheless, internships are such a good experience for students that we would argue that an unpaid internship experience is definitely worth it and being able to accept an unpaid internship should make one easier to find for your high schooler.

2. Volunteer Service

Many future career choices could be informed by having students do some volunteer service in high school to see more closely what a career is like. Students interested in the “helping professions”—like health services, education, counseling, social work, or the ministry—would all benefit from a practical experience with adults in those fields. Students interested in a future in nonprofit organizations, which serve children and adults in the U.S. and abroad—might be able to get a look at the nonprofit world through a volunteer assignment while in still in school. Students interested in government and politics might have the chance to look at how local government serves its constituents—especially if it is an election year.

Three types of volunteer service are quite popular and relatively easy to work out. The first is in the health services, where students volunteer as aides of various kinds in hospitals and nursing homes. These assignments are especially useful for students interested in studying the health sciences in college and pursuing a career in the health professions after that. These volunteer assignments let a college know that a student who wants to be a doctor, for example, has taken the initiative to get a volunteer slot at a medical facility and has put in a substantial number of hours (at least 100 hours) being responsible and doing what was asked of him or her. Clearly, students cannot do actual medical work in a hospital, but they can help in the offices, work in the gift shop, and make deliveries to patients’ rooms. In a nursing home they can talk with the residents, play games with them, help in the cafeteria, work at the reception desk, and more. These volunteer assignments are available to students who go and ask for them in a respectful and professional way.

A second type of volunteer service is through activities provided by local churches and their youth groups. Some of these are short-term activities during the school year, like tutoring younger students in an after-school community program supported, in part, by the church. Some are more intensive activities during the summer, like going on a week-long “mission trip” in or outside the U.S. to provide help to a community in need—for example, child care, elder care, soup kitchen support, neighborhood clean-up, or home repair and construction. A series of summer and after-school projects like these tell a college that the student cares about others, believes in working for the common good, and behaves responsibly in a variety of situations, often away from home. Faith-based colleges, such as those we talked about in our first series Understanding the World of College, would likely be especially impressed with faith-based volunteer service on a student’s application. By the way, many students who go on church mission trips are not actually members of the church, but rather are friends of students who are members—so have your child ask his or her friends, if your family does not belong to a church.

A third type of volunteer activity is governmental or political in nature, ranging from a summer position in a local government office (this might even turn out to be a paid position if funding is available in your city or town) to staff work on a political campaign for local, state, or national office, even if it is just stuffing envelopes. A chance to meet local officials or staffers can be invaluable in making connections for future jobs. They can also write great recommendations for college applications.

3. Part-Time Jobs

Many high school students work during the summers, and many also work after school or on weekends during the school year—sometimes because they want to, and sometimes because they need to in order to help support themselves or their families. Regardless of what these jobs are, some college applications will ask students to tell how many hours for how many weeks they spent working at each one. Again, colleges want to see that students use their free time productively, and part-time jobs are certainly one productive use of time. If a student can keep a part-time job for a substantial length of time, that shows colleges that the student is trustworthy, dependable, and committed—all of which are important attributes of good college students.

Students who need to work must, understandably, take whatever jobs are available to high school students in your community at the best rate of pay possible—working in shops, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, or residential and recreational facilities and doing a variety of jobs, like waiting on people, busing tables, stocking shelves, doing light maintenance, assisting in the cafeteria, being a camp counselor, lifeguarding at a local pool, and so on.

Students who do not have to work might be better off looking for an internship or doing volunteer work that allows them to pursue a career interest or prospective college major. It is likely that internships and volunteer work would be a better source of lessons learned, which could help in writing college application essays later.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The reasons that working with adults outside of school is so important
  • The advantages of unpaid internships in small businesses
  • The right time of year to start looking for volunteer work

Check out these organizations and resources we mention…

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 15: Activities, Activities, Activities

Happy New Year! This week, we’re starting our third series: Getting Ready to Apply, by focusing on high school activities.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Inventing 21st century activities, like student-created online publications, blogs, and podcasts
Turning a hobby into an activity for college applications
Taking online courses instead of private lessons

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/15

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
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Following us on Facebook

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re beginning our third series, Getting Ready to Apply, by exploring some of the many activities your child may participate in during their high school career.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 15 Activities Activities Activities from Series 3 Getting Ready to Apply

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by 46 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will likely be a section that asks your child to make an elaborate list of activities that he or she participated in while in high school (though there are some exceptions to this, especially among community colleges and some less-selective colleges). Having something to say in the activities section of the application is important in showing that your child is a well-rounded individual, who is likely to contribute to the college community outside of the classroom.

You will hear advice of all kinds from consultants and from college admissions officers about whether it is better for your child to have a few activities that he or she participated in year after year or for your child to have an array of activities covering all kinds of interests (such as music and sports and debate and theater and student government), even if they do each one for just a year or two. It is doubtful that any ninth grader beginning life in a new high school can really plan to choose one path or the other and then execute that plan. But the more you know about the options available to your child in school, the better you can help your child take advantage of the activities that are offered—and you might decide that you want to supplement what the high school offers with activities outside of school, whether those are community activities or private lessons and whether they are free or expensive.

Let us say that many applications also ask whether students have had any honors or leadership roles in whatever activities are listed—like winning a regional speech contest or being elected president of the student government or serving as editor of the school newspaper or being selected as the captain of a city championship baseball team. So let your child know that trying for a leadership position is always a good idea.

Let’s look at some possible activities in and out of school and consider why each is valuable for your child—both in your child’s life generally and for college applications down the road. Some of them require talent or aptitude, to be sure, but not all of them. While this is not an exhaustive list of every possible activity, it offers broad categories of the more common ones.

1. Music

By the time students get to high school, you might think it is too late to start playing a musical instrument or singing in a chorus. You might think that musical talent has to be developed when a child is young. Undoubtedly, you have seen your share of Suzuki violinists and heard these pint-sized kids playing classical violin pieces. But even Dr. Suzuki himself believed that musical ability could be developed through proper training and that it was not a talent that children are simply born with. So, maybe it is never too late.

If your child has played an instrument in elementary and/or middle school or sung in school choruses, tell your child not to quit now. While that might mean taking music as a subject for a grade in your high school and/or attending early-morning or late-afternoon practices and rehearsals, it is all worth it. Furthermore, it is worth it to continue with music lessons and performance groups through high school even if your child does not want to continue with music in college.

If it is too late for your child to learn to perform well enough to be in the performance ensembles at school—the orchestra, band, show orchestra, jazz ensemble, string ensemble, chorus, choir, or whatever your child’s high school has to offer—you could still consider music lessons after school. While we could go on and on about the value of playing an instrument or singing well—the discipline, the culture, the camaraderie, and more—the fact is that music is a great activity to have for life and a great activity to have for college applications.

2. Student Government

Being a member of the student government of a school is automatically a leadership position because it means that your child was elected by his or her peers to represent a class, a grade, or however your child’s school sets it up. We are the first to admit that student governments in high schools are sometimes ineffective and not useful for the students or the school. Nonetheless, the idea of student government is an important one, and colleges know that. So, if your child can run for the student government—as a class representative or as an officer—that is a good thing and should be encouraged. Starting down that road in ninth grade is also a good idea while most of the students are still new to each other and no cliques have formed yet. Plus, being elected in ninth grade could lead to being elected in later grades.

3. School Newspaper, Yearbook, Literary Magazine, Etc.

Writing for any school publication is the kind of academic-flavored activity that can be impressive to colleges because it shows that a student is both competent in the valuable academic skill of writing and willing to take on extra work outside the classroom. But it is not only about writing. Artwork is also often needed on school publications; so, if your child is a talented artist or photographer, then school publications are also a good choice. Working on a school publication also shows that a student is organized enough to meet deadlines and is able to work reasonably well with others inasmuch as all publications require some teamwork. Rising to a leadership position—like sports editor or editor-in-chief or art editor—also gets students points on the leadership scoreboard.

4. Debate, Speech, Model United Nations, Etc.

This is another set of academic-flavored activities, all of which require public speaking skills, analytical thinking skills, and the ability to think on your feet. Many high schools offer students the opportunity to participate in one or all of these. They typically involve competition within the school and with other schools—locally, statewide, regionally, and even nationally. These competitions give students a chance to earn awards of various kinds, all of which can be detailed on college applications. For students who are relatively smart and have enough confidence to speak in front of others and argue persuasively in front of others, these kinds of activities are a great choice.

5. Theater

Who doesn’t love a school play—whether it is a traditional drama, like 12 Angry Men, or a classic musical, like The King and I, or a more modern, contemporary piece that most of us never heard of? If your child has any acting talent—or dancing talent or musical talent—then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. If your child loves the theater or movies or even television, then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. And remember that there are plenty of behind-the-scenes roles for students, too—stage crew, technical crew (like lighting and sound), set design and construction, costumes, props, even advertising the production.

Putting on a play is all about teamwork, and working on a play demonstrates that your child has those valuable skills. Theater activities can also be great practical experience for students who imagine themselves with college majors in theater, fashion design, architecture, interior design, art, music, dance, and even business. Putting on a play usually requires a substantial time commitment, which can be proudly noted on college applications that ask students, as many do, how many weeks and how many hours per week they engaged in each activity on the list.

6. Service Organizations

Many schools have various clubs and groups that serve others in the school community—peer tutoring, tutoring younger students, working in the library, maintaining school computers, working in the school office, volunteering in summer orientation programs for incoming ninth graders, and more. Doing this kind of volunteer work shows colleges that a student is responsible, dependable, caring, and concerned for others. It shows that a student can work well with classmates, with younger or older students, and/or with adults. It shows that some adult in the school thought a student was reliable enough and perhaps smart enough to do the work being asked of him or her. If these kinds of service assignments are available at your child’s school, they are a good way for your child to demonstrate lots of skills and traits that colleges are looking for, especially if your child does not do volunteer work in the community or have a paid part-time job outside of school time.

7. Specific School Subject or Future Career Clubs

There are many clubs that are focused on a school subject or a future career choice, sometimes sponsored by outside professional and nonprofit organizations—for example, the French Club, the Math Club, the Physics Club, the Robotics Club, the American Society of Civil Engineering Club, Future Farmers of America, and so on. These subject-specific clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know individual teachers better (which is especially helpful in the future when college recommendations are needed), and these career-oriented clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know professionals working in a field they are interested in (which is especially helpful in the future when a summer internship might be sought). As with all clubs, they give students a chance to form friendships outside of the classroom and, in some cases, such as a Robotics Club, give students a chance to learn how to work as a team.

8. Athletics

Some college applications have a separate question about athletics, and it is a shame not to have anything to say in that spot. Athletics includes club sports, intramural teams, junior varsity teams, and varsity teams; and, of course, athletics includes both individual sports and team sports. Students who are good athletes—or even great athletes—will, not surprisingly, have a lot to say at this point on a college application. They will often play more than one sport a year and may even be the captain of a team. As always, showing that your child played on a team throughout his or her high school years is the best case scenario, but that requires talent as well as commitment that your child might not maintain for four years. Participating on an athletic team indicates a lot of positive things to a college—even if your child is not pursuing an athletic scholarship and even if your child will not continue with the sport in college.

But what if your child is not a great athlete—or even a good one? What if he or she likes sports, but is not very talented? Then, encourage your child to play on intramural teams or on noncompetitive club teams.

Or consider getting your child lessons so that he or she is engaged in athletics, but not necessarily on school teams—for example, fencing, boxing, or karate, which are all individual sports likely requiring lessons outside of school and could all be started as late as high school. Summer athletic programs can also serve as an alternative to school athletic teams in some sports, like fencing.

9. Private Lessons

We have just talked about private lessons in various sports. And, of course, there are private lessons in instrumental music, vocal music, visual arts, dance, gymnastics, and more. If your child is taking any private lessons outside of school, they should be included in his or her list of activities. A commitment to some of these takes up hours and hours of a child’s time every week. For example, a student who is not serious about dance, but enjoys hip-hop, might spend an hour and a half in a hip-hop class once or twice a week; a student who is serious about dance is more likely to spend 10 to 15 hours a week in ballet, modern, and tap classes. Colleges want to know what students are doing with their time outside of school and whether that time is being used productively. Clearly, taking private lessons is one productive use of that time.

10. Community Activities

There are many kinds of community activities that students might engage in—from playing on competitive travel sports teams to taking classes at community centers to playing in community musical ensembles to participating in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to working with community theater productions on stage or backstage to going on service trips with church groups. All of these are interesting and valuable ways for your child to use free time, and all of these should be included in his or her list of activities on college applications. These community activities can be especially important for your child to seek out if your high school does not have an array of after-school activities or if your child’s commute to school or responsibilities at home, such as picking up a younger sibling from school, make it difficult to stay late enough to participate in many after-school activities.

 

Internships, volunteer work in the community, and paid employment will be discussed in our next episode.

One Final Note: Some college applications ask whether the student plans to continue each activity while in college. When filling out the application, your child should think hard about that. If there is an activity—and, hopefully, there is more than one—that your child has a continuing interest in, make sure that he or she checks that box. Colleges want to see that students are bringing more to the campus than what they bring to the academic classroom. That is part of what makes a college campus a great place to live and learn.

Remember that activities during the high school years are more important to have when applying to selective colleges. But because a child does not know in ninth grade what kinds of colleges he or she might want to attend or might be eligible for, engaging in activities can prove beneficial in the short run and in the long run. Besides, extracurricular activities make high school life a whole lot more interesting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Inventing 21st century activities, like student-created online publications, blogs, and podcasts
  • Turning a hobby into an activity for college applications
  • Taking online courses instead of private lessons

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