Expert: College preparation should start in sophomore year

July 23, 2014

By Danny Byun

Danny Byun is the president and founder of FLEX College Resource Centers.

Danny Byun is the president and founder of FLEX College Resource Centers.

The summer after sophomore year is a great time to set the tone for what a student will be doing during his final high school years. Sophomores should start talking to parents and counselors. Doing some research can help students identify opportunities that can be built upon — particularly one that might culminate in a capstone project during summer after junior year.

Before we delve into the case studies, I want to reassure those of you who are intimidated by the idea of extracurricular activities: not all of us are Beethovens or Einsteins. In fact, most of us, while passionate and gifted individuals, will not become the next Tiger Woods or Bill Gates. This discourages many students, who have the misconception that extracurricular activities must showcase extraordinary talent. Now if you are that talented individual, you have nothing to worry about. But for the rest of us, extracurriculars don’t have to demonstrate exceptional talent so much as good character. What do I mean?

Let’s look at a case study of Mark*, who currently attends the University of Pennsylvania. Mark was a bright, motivated student without any outstanding skills. Early on, Mark knew that he wanted to be a business major. During the summer following his sophomore year, he applied for a position as a teller at a major bank; he continued to work in this position year-round over the next two years, clocking 10 to 16 hours a week at his job while maintaining his GPA.

What did this extracurricular activity demonstrate about Mark, an ordinary kid without a brilliant financial mind or mathematical genius? It showed: 1) reliability beyond his years. A major bank would not have continued to employ a teenager who was less than dependable, 2) Perseverance and consistency. Mark did not just pick up and drop this activity. He spent a sizable portion of his week at his job and did it for two years, 3) The ability to balance school-work with his job, and 4) The ability to manage his own finances. In fact, what Mark demonstrated was good character.

Now if you were Mark, what are some other activities you might take up during your junior year? You might take an elective in business. You might become president of the Future Business Leaders of America club (FBLA) or — if your school doesn’t offer the club, start one. You might coordinate a Job Fair or Recruitment Night at the school and, through the process of contacting local businesses, strike up a connection with a University of Pennsylvania alumnus who could write you a recommendation. The options are endless.

Before we move on to another case study, I’d like to make another suggestion. Students should evaluate their school’s strengths when deciding on extracurricular activities. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say Rachel attends Bellarmine High School, which is nationally known for its speech and debate team. Becoming captain of that team has much greater value than becoming captain of a less-recognized team. Or let’s say Joshua attends a school with the No. 1 newspaper in the state of California. If he has an interest in journalism, he should position himself to run for the position of editor during his senior year. But he has to start strategizing now, during his sophomore year, talking to the faculty adviser and former editors. With a newspaper of that caliber, Joshua will need to have earned that coveted editorship come senior year.

But let’s say that a student attends a school that does not have any particularly strong program. In fact, I knew a student, Danielle, in just such a situation. Danielle was not satisfied with the caliber of her school’s newspaper, so she created a quarterly magazine that was designed to provide a forum in which students could express their political views. She also lobbied to have extra AP courses added to the curriculum. At a mediocre school, she demonstrated herself to be a true driver and left something behind when she matriculated into Harvard, where she is a current junior: a viable student magazine and a more expanded curriculum.

These are just a few examples of students who maximized their sophomore years. If you are in fact a sophomore, be optimistic. Now is the time for you to create your own path, make some decisions and find out what you’d really like to pursue in your high school career.

All parents want what’s best for their children. Now while I admit that thinking about extracurricular activities can be stressful, I encourage parents to view this process as an opportunity to seek out their child’s true interests and abilities. Here’s what I mean:

Extracurricular activities should reflect a student’s passions. As a professional college admission consultant who has helped thousands of students, I find it very easy to distinguish students who love what they do and those who are just looking to put something on their applications.

Why? Because students who truly enjoy what they’re doing find the time — in the midst of incredibly demanding schedules — to do that very thing. Think about it this way: everybody knows how busy high school students are. But no matter how little sleep they’ve gotten or how much homework they have to do, most students find time to chat online with their friends. Why? Because they enjoy chatting online.

Another thing: Students who love what they do see it through. They don’t start things and then quit just when school gets difficult or finals time rolls around. That just shows the admissions officer that you weren’t passionate about the activity to begin with.

When colleges evaluate extracurricular records, they are not deliberately setting out to make teenagers’ lives more difficult. They genuinely want to see the true colors of the particular applicant expressed in his selection of activities. The student who really loves to play water polo will wake up every morning to practice water polo. The student who loves to write will stay up all night putting the finishing touches on a poem or short story. In other words, extracurricular activities should not be a chore.

Helping a student find his or her true passion is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. This is different for each child. (In fact, I’d discourage students from participating in faddish activities just because “everyone else is doing it.” At the very least, it will make the applicant look virtually identical to all the others partaking in the fad.) Now when I give this counsel to families, many parents express concern that their student hasn’t really demonstrated any particular interest or passion. In fact, I believe that it is the parents’ job to put students in various environments where they can identify these interests.

Start by using your local school as a resource. Get a comprehensive list of all the clubs and activities that are offered at your child’s school. Chances are, there are opportunities available locally that you’ve never even considered. You can also seek out professional counseling services, such as those offered at FLEX College Resource Centers. The benefit to such programs is that the counselors have access to a breadth of information that you, the parent, may not be able to access on your own.

Next, be willing to send your child away from his comfort zone. If he qualifies for a gifted education program such as the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) or Stanford Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), send him!

But the opportunities don’t stop there. Did you know that most colleges — including elite universities such as University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, or New York University — offer summer programs for high school students? Admission into these programs, which usually run from three to six weeks, is not nearly as competitive as it is at the college-level. To the college admissions officer reading the application, participation in such programs reveal something very significant about the student. The activity may not be reflected in the student’s high school transcript and the student may not be an academic superstar, but participation in these summer programs illustrates the student’s intellectual curiosity. Colleges love students who love to learn.

A quick side note, for those parents reluctant to send their child away from home: Many colleges are less likely to accept students who are applying from different regions because they recognize that families are often unwilling to send their children too far for school. If you are a West Coast parent serious about sending your child to a school on the East Coast, it’s useful to demonstrate your intentions by sending him to a summer program or by taking him on campus visits before the application process.

Travel is another invaluable experience, whether the student is heading to Spain with his Spanish class, participating in a study abroad program or simply taking part in his school’s field trip to Washington, D.C. Not only will this be a cultural education, but it will also expand your child’s worldview and give him that global perspective that colleges have come to look for in its applicants. That word, “perspective,” is significant.

Colleges love students who are able to see beyond their own situation. They want to accept students who are going to add to their college community through their awareness of what’s going on both locally and globally, and their willingness to act on that knowledge.

Your child may not be the most talented pianist in her teacher’s studio, but she may be the one with the heart to motivate her fellow musicians to provide weekly lessons to under-privileged students. Your child may not be a brilliant biologist, but he may be the one with the passion and environmental awareness to organize a community recycling program. Sure the superstars, academic or otherwise, will always have a place in the elite universities. And if you have a child with a unique ability, by all means, give him every opportunity to develop that particular talent. But the vast majority of students who get accepted do not possess some rarefied talent — they are just those who are able to maximize the abilities they have for some greater good.

Finally, let’s look at how admissions officers view certain activities as a way of getting some insight into the evaluation process. Remember, extracurricular activities are not always valuable in and of themselves but rather for what they reveal about a student’s abilities and/or character.

For example, speech and debate. Achievement in this area demonstrates a student’s ability to think analytically and critically, skills necessary for success in college. Another: Model UN. Participation in this club demonstrates a student’s ability to partake in a global dialogue and to consider a broader perspective. (Both speech and debate and Model UN also evidence a student’s ability to do research.) And another: Working for a recognizable company in a field related to a major of interest. (For example, a student interested in law might try to find an internship at a law firm, or a student interested in business might try to find work at a reputable bank.) Consistent work in this area demonstrates a student’s ability to perform at a certain level and evidence the maturity and dependability necessary to hold down such a position.

Remember, none of the above is a specific course of action for your child. Again, I urge parents to take this opportunity to discover their child’s unique talents and passions. For some, this will take more time, encouragement and exposure. But that experience in and of itself can be invaluable.

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