Experiential Learning: A College Prep Perspective

Quality overrules quantity when it comes to activities.

It goes without saying that high school students must ‘do something’ beyond attending classes, completing homework, and taking exams. The academic transcript may be the most important piece of any college application, but admissions officers are seeking multidimensional students – young people who engage in their learning and the world beyond the classroom in meaningful ways.

All too often I have seen parents and students approach ‘building a resume’ from the wrong perspective. They seek to fill the page (and sometimes two or three) with a smorgasbord of clubs, community service, sports, employment, summer programs, awards, and accolades. They possess the false belief that quantity will outshine quality.

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When admissions officers make their decisions, they are not seeking well-rounded students – they are constructing a well-rounded class of undergraduates. That is why doing a little bit of everything is only slightly more favorable to doing nothing. How can admissions officers distinguish these students who ‘have it all and do it all’ from a sea of applicants with near identical credentials?

But what exactly does that mean?

More importantly, how can admissions officers truly understand an applicant if they cannot figure out who exactly the student is?

Whenever I speak with families about the college prep process, I ask them this question: “What is an admissions officer?” Most of the time I receive blank stares and puzzled looks. The answer, of course, is more simple than people expect.

“An admissions officer is a person.”

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This idea, the human element, is amazingly lost in the present college prep process. Admissions officers are people. People accept (and deny) other people. People want to understand other people – they want to understand motivations and passions, hopes and dreams.

If an admissions officer cannot make sense of an applicant from their resume, essays, and recommendations, then it is impossible for an admissions officer to envision what that student can add to the university.

All of this is not to say that high school students should be specialists. But there are ways for students to embrace their passions in multifaceted meaningful ways.

Take the musician, that teenager who spends endless hours in a garage with his or her friends, jamming out and writing music. To most parents, unless their child is going to go platinum, this seems to be a pointless investment of time – an activity unworthy of a college resume.

But imagine the possibilities! The student forms his or her own band – that shows initiative and passion. That same student assumes the role of band leader (leadership and organization) and writes the songs (literary and musical talent). Then that band starts playing gigs at charity events around town – there is community service. After recording some tracks, the band even starts selling CDs (business acumen), maybe even to raise money for charity (more community service). And in the band leader’s spare time, they make some extra money teaching an instrument to students in the neighborhood (work ethic). 

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There are countless opportunities for high school students to embrace and express their passions in personal and meaningful ways. If a student thinks they are interested in environmental advocacy, there are more solutions than the Environmental Club that meets once a week after school. If a student wants to travel, there are abroad programs that aim to educate and engage (like Chill Expeditions), as opposed to simply serving as tours for teens.

Admissions officers are insightful. They know when a student is not authentic, and they know when a student is fudging a resume just to appear more accomplished.

Students do not need to be maestros or all-stars or revolutionary thinkers to be attractive to colleges – even the country’s most elite institutions. And high school does not need to be an endless list of unfulfilling commitments that burden a student to the point of constant stress and unhappiness.

Whenever I sit down with a student who is working on their college essays, I ask them, “What do I need to know about you?” After all, that is what admissions officers are wondering. I always hope that my students are excited and invigorated by this question, that they can reflect on their high school experience and be proud of what makes them who they are.

Every student has a story. They simply need to embrace it.


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