What colleges look for in extracurricular activities

by JonahS1 min read27th Mar 201440 comments

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[Edit: The post below gives the impression that our conversations with admissions officers are our only reasons for believing the claims. We've also consulted with other sources such as How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) which corroborate the admissions officers' remarks]

We spoke with admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Williams, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore, Brown, Northwestern and Caltech, about how they evaluate student participation in extracurricular activities, for 15 colleges total. Some things that we found based on college's statements are below.

Kawoomba suggests that colleges' statements on the first point below can't be taken at face value. What do you think? 

  • Colleges generally don't prefer some extracurricular activities over others: Seven of the colleges indicated that the nature of the extracurriculars doesn't matter, as long as the student shows passion. Two of the colleges indicated that they have a preference for students who are involved in at least some activities with other people. Beyond this, no colleges indicated a preference for some extracurricular activities over others. In general, the colleges indicated that they define "extracurricular activities" very broadly, as anything outside of coursework, which could include work, sports, participation in online communities, etc.
  • Colleges generally prefer depth of involvement over breadth: Six of the colleges indicated that they have no preference for whether students engage in lots of activities or a few activities, as long as they show serious involvement in their activities. Seven of the colleges said that depth matters more than breadth. None expressed a preference for many activities.
  • Commitment can be important: Six of the colleges indicated that continuity of involvement and commitment matters. None said that these things don't matter.
  • Achievement level can make a difference, but appears to be less important: Five of the colleges indicated that achievement level doesn't matter as much as depth of involvement. Two of the colleges indicated that higher achievement helps.

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This seems to be the kind of question for which the answers shouldn't be taken at face value. Imagine they'd given concrete preferences for certain extracurriculars -- the potential trouble that could get them into. Anything from outcries of "discrimination!" (as soon as there are social or racial discrepancies in activity participation, "They did not recommend religious clubs, damn liberals!" / "They mentioned clubs supporting minorities, which may contradict affirmative action regulation 27-B!") to putting young people in the difficult position of choosing between what they'd actually like to do and what best furthers their chances of admission.

No, regardless of their actual preferences (or lack thereof), from a public relations and legal standpoint it's obvious they had to answer this way, and as such only weak evidence in and of itself.

(I'd be very surprised if there wasn't some systematic ordering over extracurriculars in the actual admissions data.)

This seems to be the kind of question for which the answers shouldn't be taken at face value. Imagine they'd given concrete preferences for certain extracurriculars -- the potential trouble that could get them into

I agree, but even if it did not cause them trouble, they might reasonably decide to keep the details of their selection criteria vague -- so people are less likely to game the system. Imagine what would happen if they announced that they really like lacrosse and field hockey players.

And that's even assuming they are consciously aware that they favor some extracurriculars over others.

And that's even assuming they are consciously aware that they favor some extracurriculars over others.

Individual admissions officers have biases, but many of these are washed out when one considers them in the aggregate (one doesn't know ahead of time which admissions officers will be reading one's application), though Gwern points out evidence of systemic bias on at least one dimension.

Individual admissions officers have biases, but many of these are washed out when one considers them in the aggregate (one doesn't know ahead of time which admissions officers will be reading one's application), though Gwern points out evidence of systemic bias on at least one dimension.

I would guess a lot of important biases don't wash out in this way. For one thing, some biases are pretty much universal. For another, it is likely that most admissions officers, particularly in elite schools, generally belong to the elite liberal sub-culture. So if you do extracurriculars which go against that subculture, one can expect to be at a disadvantage, all things being equal.

I agree with this. But applicants are often from the elite liberal sub-culture, too, and if one restricts consideration amongst the activities that they would plausible engage in, there will be less systematic bias.

if one restricts consideration amongst the activities that they would plausible engage in, there will be less systematic bias.

That may be so, but it doesn't really change the bottom line --- you can't trust what admissions officers say about which extracurriculars they prefer and there's a good chance that admissions officers suffer from subconscious bias. Probably it's worth mentioning to your advisees that they should be careful about extracurriculars like riflery.

one doesn't know ahead of time which admissions officers will be reading one's application

At one East Coast university I'm familiar with, this is not true. Admissions officers are assigned geographic territories so the location of your high school determines which particular admission officer will be reading your application.

It's true that admissions officers are assigned geographic territories, though I don't know that the admissions officer from the territory is the only one to read one's application. One would have to go to heroic efforts to determine the biases of that particular admissions officer.

though I don't know that the admissions officer from the territory is the only one to read one's application.

In the system that I'm familiar with, the admissions officer to whom the school "belongs" is the primary reader of the application. Whatever he rejects is briefly scanned by a second reader and whatever he passes goes to the admissions committee for the offer-or-reject decision.

Admission officers also travel fairly extensively in the fall, visiting "their" high schools and holding orientation sessions. A high school senior from one of the schools visited can meet and talk to the person who will be reading his/her applicaton.

Thanks for the comment!

Ok, maybe I should reframe that point as "there's a uniform prior over the signaling value of engaging in different types of extracurricular activities, subject to basic common sense (e.g. joining the KKK has negative signaling value)." If there are preferences, they're nonobvious, and it's not clear how you would go about discovering them. (I haven't found anything more than students' speculation by Googling around.)

I also should have given more context. When talking with the admissions officers, I had the subjective sense that what they were really looking for was a good story, as conveyed by the student's essay about extracurricular activities, and that this is more a matter of being able to craft a good narrative than the topic of the narrative chosen.

If there are preferences, they're nonobvious, and it's not clear how you would go about discovering them. (I haven't found anything more than students' speculation by Googling around.)

Here's one: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/19/opinion/19douthat.html

And some of the hits in http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=college+admissions+odds+extracurricular look promising. ('odds' is there to help weight towards quantitative studies which would be using odds ratios as their effect size, since you're either admitted to a particular college or not, and a binary effect size like odds ratio is what most statistical approaches would use.)

Very interesting, thanks.

this is more a matter of being able to craft a good narrative than the topic of the narrative chosen

This is vaguely irritating. Life tends not to follow a clean narrative. Such a preference rewards people for presenting their life as something it is not.

(Full disclosure: I'm well past school and glad of it)

This is vaguely irritating. Life tends not to follow a clean narrative. Such a preference rewards people for presenting their life as something it is not.

Well, you just plan the narrative in advance and make decisions about activities accordingly :). Some people really do go through high school and college like this. In fact, one college admissions guide I read suggested that you prepare a "fantasy resume" before you start high school. How irritating is that?

Yes, but it's also reassuring that the topic doesn't matter (so much), corresponding to freedom to choose one's activities without needing to optimize for signaling.

Kawoomba suggests that colleges' statements on the first point below can't be taken at face value. What do you think?

I find it alarming that you assumed honesty on the part of the admissions officers. It reduces my confidence in everything you wrote that you assumed honesty from people whose job it is to be gatekeepers to the American elite class.

I find it alarming that you assumed honesty on the part of the admissions officers. It reduces my confidence in everything you wrote that you assumed honesty from people whose job it is to be gatekeepers to the American elite class.

Well you can't assume honesty from anyone about their preferences. Unless they are talking about a completely innocuous quirk, e.g. that they prefer strawberry ice cream to vanilla ice cream. For one thing, people are often not fully aware of their preferences. For another, when people talk about what goes in in their head, they have a tendency to spin so as to put themselves in the best possible light.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/jys/what_colleges_look_for_in_extracurricular/aqp9

See also

[Edit: The post below gives the impression that our conversations with admissions officers are our only reasons for believing the claims. We've also consulted with other sources such as How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) which corroborate the admissions officers' remarks]

The whole collegiate emphasis on extracurricular activities is a tragicomic example of Goodhart's Law. In the old days, when innocent high school students decided whether or not to participate in Key Club or Model UN based on their own intrinsic interests, seeing extracurricular activities on a college application was probably a good predictor of lifetime achievement, success, and leadership abilities. Now that everyone knows that colleges look for such activities, kids sign up for those things to impress the admissions boards, and so the predictor probably no longer has any power. It's also a bit anti-progressive, since kids from wealthy backgrounds are going to have more time and logistical support to participate in these kinds of activities, while kids from poor backgrounds are probably going to be shut out because they need to work a part-time job and they don't have their own cars to get around.

The whole collegiate emphasis on extracurricular activities is a tragicomic example of Goodhart's Law. In the old days, when innocent high school students decided whether or not to participate in Key Club or Model UN based on their own intrinsic interests, seeing extracurricular activities on a college application was probably a good predictor of lifetime achievement, success, and leadership abilities. Now that everyone knows that colleges look for such activities, kids sign up for those things to impress the admissions boards, and so the predictor probably no longer has any power.

I think there may be a little usefulness left. Everyone knows that it helps for college to achieve a position of leadership like captain of a sports team or student body president. But it's somewhat competitive to achieve these positions. So there is still some information for colleges. It shows that you are more likely to be more committed or Machiavellian or personable, or something.

But anyway I agree with you to a large extent. It's depressing how much system-gaming goes on. And if you refuse to game the system, you are at something of a disadvantage in college admissions. For an interesting read, check out "What High Schools Don't Tell You," a college admissions guide which basically goes over the top in telling parents how to game the system so their children can get into Harvard or whatever. For example, one of the things the author suggests is having your child start an organization or club at school and set things up so that he can be president of the organization.

As a couple of people already pointed out, you see to have believed what you were told. That's generally not a good idea, at least not before you consider the constraints, incentives, and biases affecting the people who tell you things.

Calling up the admission office and asking which extracurriculars are better OF COURSE will lead to a canned zero-information answer. It's like asking a college whether they prefer any particular kind of people and hearing in response "We prefer all kinds!".

If you actually want to know what affects the admission process you will need to find an admission officer who will trust you enough to talk (off-record) about what really drives the process which decides who gets an offer of admission and who doesn't.

As I said in another comment, I didn't give enough context. The conversations were substantive, and there were little hints that I was picking up on that gave me a holistic sense that they were telling the truth on this point. I may have been reading the wrong connotations into what they were saying, but it wasn't simply a matter of literally taking what they said at face value.

Pure conjecture here, but, is it possible that the admissions counselors are so saturated with the "right" activities, that their worldview is situated within that context so deeply that when you ask the question, "Which activities are acceptable?" and they reply, "Any of them!" they are simply polling their local mental space of activities which only includes acceptable activities?

It's kind of like asking, "What kind of music do you like?" And hearing the answer, "Oh, all kinds." Really? You like experimental funk and digeridoo and tuvan throat singing and thrash metal and Bach? Oh, you meant "some pop and hip hop and some classic rock."

Again, I have no idea at all how granular your conversations got and how specific these counselors were, so maybe I'm totally off base.

"Which activities are acceptable?" and they reply, "Any of them!" they are simply polling their local mental space of activities which only includes acceptable activities?

Well let's do a thought experiment. Suppose a college applicant is president of the Dungeons and Dragons club. He is so passionate about it that he sometimes dresses up as his character -- a 5th level Elf fighter. He writes his application essay about how he likes to fantasize that he really is an Elven fighter with his trusty sword. Another applicant is similarly passionate about firearms. He's the president of the hunting club and the shooting club and he's interned for the NRA.

First of all, I think it's fair to conclude just based on common sense that both of these guys will be at a big disadvantage compared to the captain of the lacrosse team or the editor of the school newspaper. Even though they have shown a lot of passion and commitment.

The next question is what is going through the admissions officer's mind when he says that all activities are acceptable even though that's pretty clearly not true. I would agree with you that the example of the gun nut or the D & D fanatic probably aren't leaping into his mind. Why not? Well I think your hypothesis is part of it. But also, I think that there is a human tendency when asked about the working of one's mind to subconsciously look for ways to give more socially acceptable answers. Saying "I enjoy all different kinds of music" is a pretty safe response to a question about musical taste so your subconscious probably is not going to strain very hard to think of examples of music you hate.

[-][anonymous]7y 3

Suppose a college applicant is president of the Dungeons and Dragons club... Another applicant is similarly passionate about firearms... First of all, I think it's fair to conclude just based on common sense that both of these guys will be at a big disadvantage compared to the captain of the lacrosse team or the editor of the school newspaper.

I disagree with you there. Unique activities are almost certainly advantaged over common ones. If there are 100 editors of the school newspaper, 1 rifleman, and 1 kid who founded a group for mentoring inner city kids, they may like the last kid more than the rifleman. But chances are both of them getting in anyway, along with only 10 of the school editors. The rifleman is much better off doing that than doing an activity already saturated with top-flight kids. Now it is true that the same probably doesn't apply to the passionate D&D-er because the activity is coded as too low-status to count or something. But while unique-liberal > unique-conservative, unique-conservative definitely > generic-liberal in terms of admissions.

Unique activities are almost certainly advantaged over common ones.

Well that's a different issue. All things being equal, passion for dungeons and dragons or firearms will put you at a disadvantage compared to passion for activities which aren't so stigmatized.

It's kind of like asking, "What kind of music do you like?" And hearing the answer, "Oh, all kinds." Really? You like experimental funk and digeridoo and tuvan throat singing and thrash metal and Bach? Oh, you meant "some pop and hip hop and some classic rock."

What an excellent example for demonstrating your point.

In that other comment you said "If there are preferences, they're nonobvious, and it's not clear how you would go about discovering them."

Well, there is a large and well-developed industry of getting high school seniors into colleges. There are a lot of people who gave a lot of thought to the issue of how to present the best image of an applicant to the admissions office. These people write books, give seminars, offer consulting, etc.

The issue of "correct" extracurriculars is extensively discussed. Some of the people discussing them used to be admissions officers and now work in the college-advice industry. As far as I know the general consensus is that extracurriculars matter. Not enough to compensate for bad grades or low SAT, but if you're applying to a college that's in the right range for your grades/SAT, the extracurriculars matter a lot.

You seem to be ignoring what is, basically, existing literature, and putting out your own recommendations on the basis of several conversations that you -- as a member of the public -- had with several admission offices. Are you quite sure that you understand the issue in sufficient depth to give advice to other people and maybe even charge for it?

Well, there is a large and well-developed industry of getting high school seniors into colleges. There are a lot of people who gave a lot of thought to the issue of how to present the best image of an applicant to the admissions office. These people write books, give seminars, offer consulting, etc.

I don't think that what I wrote is out of sync with what these people say about extracurricular activities. For example, the founder of AdMISSION POSSIBLE writes

"When it comes to extracurricular involvements, it doesn't really matter what the content is. Anything from doing a major DNA research project to volunteering at a school that serves low income students to excelling at fly-fishing is legitimate fodder for college application grids. No matter the activity, colleges look for quality of involvement rather than quantity of activities."

As far as I know the general consensus is that extracurriculars matter. Not enough to compensate for bad grades or low SAT, but if you're applying to a college that's in the right range for your grades/SAT, the extracurriculars matter a lot

This is my understanding as well.

You seem to be ignoring what is, basically, existing literature,

How? What does the existing literature say that contradicts what I wrote in the post?

Are you quite sure that you understand the issue in sufficient depth to give advice to other people and maybe even charge for it?

It's possible that we should investigate in more depth, doing a more thorough review of what others have written, but we've already done some of this.

(I'll add that posting to LW is one way in which we're vetting our research and advice.)

I mentioned in a recent comment that there is evidence for a systematic bias against applicants with conservative/rural/working-class-white cultural signifiers. Espenshade found that most extracurriculars were positive factors for admission to Harvard, but 4H, Future Farmers of America, and ROTC are all negatively correlated with admissions when controlling for test scores and GPA.

I mentioned in a recent comment that there is evidence for a systematic bias against applicants with conservative/rural/working-class-white cultural signifiers.

And no admissions officer is ever going to say "By the way, if you do anything which reminds me of Sarah Palin, you're NOKD" Either because the admissions officer is unaware of his bias, or because he is embarrassed by it and does not want to admit to it.

For these sorts of things, I recommend Cal Newport's blog. See for instance this post.

(Vipul had read Newport's book, and we'd discussed it (back when we were researching extracurricular activities), and noted that it agreed with the general points we made here. But Newport also made other claims that I didn't want to discuss here because they'd take the discussion too far afield.)

The Failed Simulation Effect is a great name, and brings to mind this comment of Eliezer's.

There's another reason the admission officers might not want to be honest with you, even if they have everyone's best interests at heart.

Maybe they think that extracurricular activities are (good) proxies for the hard-to-measure personal qualities they're really interested in, but not really valuable in themselves: the correlation isn't a causation. Then letting applicants know about the proxies would lead only to reducing the proxies' value as more people adopted the 'right' extracurriculars.

Yes, I agree. I kinda touched on this above when I argued that specifics about which extracurriculars are preferred would result in more people trying to game the system.

When you think about all the system-gaming which goes on (and it does seem to be rampant), it would be surprising if any elite college would share specific, useful information about what it looks for in applicants' extracurriculars.

Even if that's what admissions officers want now, how sure are you it's what they'll want four years from now?

[-][anonymous]7y 1

Cal Newport has actually done far more work and research in this field than you have, so I'd recommend just taking his advice until you're at baseline smarter than he is. So far, you've gone possibly halfway towards his thesis in So Good They Can't Ignore You.

We're not claiming that we have better advice on this point than Cal Newport does, and we recommend his books to students. We haven't vetted all of his claims, which is why I didn't discuss him in more detail. The vast majority of our advice is on topics other than what colleges look for in extracurricular activities – it's not something that we're specializing in.