First off, let's toss some conventional wisdom in the dumpster where it belongs. Most people pick activities based on what looks fun or what they think will look good on a resume. My contention is that you should work backwards, first determining personal or career skills that need to be developed, and then finding (or, better yet, creating) activities that will facilitate that development. In some cases a skill area is strong but needs to be extended, in others it is weak and needs to be brought up to par.
Top colleges are faced with huge numbers of strong applicants who have good test scores, solid academics, and many activities. To successfully compete, students need to prove that they are truly exceptional. This can be accomplished in any number of ways, such as by an outstanding commitment to an activity; by demonstrating unusual intellectual, artistic, or entrepreneurial ability; by overcoming a major setback; etc.
Admissions officers care about how applicants spend their time. Most of us spend it doing some combination of the following: academics, co-curricular activities (academic things outside of school like debate or science competitions), extracurricular activities (nonacademics such as music, baseball, etc.), community service, and work experience. Basically, colleges are looking for excellence in 2-3 areas that fall within these categories.
Because of the flexibility homeschooling offers, we have unparalleled ability to become the exceptional people that top colleges want. But even more importantly, we can each reach our full potential by picking the right activities in which to hone our strengths and overcome our weaknesses.
Beating the Stereotypes
In order to be effective in the application process, a student must understand himself: strengths, weaknesses, desires, and goals. That knowledge will help you carefully plan your activities. A good first step is to read How To Get Into the Top Colleges by Richard Montauk and Krista Klein, especially chapters 6-7, and fill out the Personal Profile Worksheets.
One important reason to "know thyself" is to understand in what areas admissions officials will see you as potentially weak. Any student will fit one or more basic stereotypes, each having probable strengths and weaknesses in the eyes of admissions staff. Keep in mind the difference between perceived weaknesses, which admissions officers think are likely based on your profile, and actual weaknesses, which may or may not be associated with your profile but could prove to be detrimental in college and in life.
My particular set of stereotypes involved being "rural," "homeschooled," and "academic." When these were considered as a sum, my perceived strengths revolved mainly around a strong work ethic and advanced academic ability. My perceived weaknesses were poor interpersonal and communications skills. True to form, I suffered acute shyness and a severe speech disorder. To combat these, my parents found a speech therapist to help me deal with my stuttering. To overcome the shyness, my mother started a public speaking class when I was 8 and helped me stay involved in speech and debate until the age of 18. Since I had difficulty interacting with people, my parents prompted (and sometimes pushed) me to practice interpersonal skills in Boy Scouts. We might have stopped when I mastered "getting along" with people, but Mom and Dad encouraged me to go further, to become a leader. My main training ground for this was involvement (both as a student and later as an administrator) in TeenPact Leadership Schools. By doing so, I was eventually able to overcome my deficits, even to the point of demonstrating that formerly weak areas had become strengths.
Unfortunately, many homeschooled parents have difficulty confronting their children's shortcomings. Since most of us spend our time at home, it's easy just to ignore the problem, be it academic underachievement, social ineptness, a learning disability, poor manners, or the like. That may work while your children are at home, but one day they will have to face an unforgiving world. While you may be able to look past rough edges to see the good, most people won't. Help your children overcome their weaknesses. You aren't doing them any favors by ignoring them. Doing the right thing won't be easy because no one likes operating outside of their comfort zone. Expect some resistance, but persevere. If it weren't for my parents and their almost two decades of persistence, I wouldn't have made it very far at all.
The Myth of Well-Roundedness
Contrary to popular belief, colleges are not looking for the "well-rounded" student who does everything - especially if he does not excel in anything. I've seen too many people run themselves and their families into the ground (and often into mediocrity) by frantically chasing activities in pursuit of a flawed ideal. It isn't worth it, to the student or their family. Pick a few activities and do them well.
The need for activities varies from case to case. Some students, if they have been spending their time in community service, working to support their family, or laboring on some other worthy endeavor, can get away with fewer traditional activities. Those with exceptional academic ability can count academics as one area of excellence so it usually suffices to have 1-2 other areas of involvement. If you're not academically gifted, it is advisable to be stellar in one area (e.g., art, music, business... ) as well as developing 1-2 secondary areas. Note that secondary activities need to exercise a substantially different skill set. If you are an outstanding computer person who writes software and works as a technician, don't think that building databases for Habitat for Humanity will earn you extra points with MIT. Grab a hammer and build a house.
I won't kid you. Skill development is a long, difficult process. If you are anything like me, you will sometimes wonder why you didn't take the easy route. The only thing that helps is to realize that the process of preparing for and applying to a top college isn't artificial or useful only for "getting in." You are building a person, preparing for whatever life and work the student has been called to. Think of college application as additional motivation for what needs to be done anyway.
On the other hand, don't idolize "getting into Harvard" or any other goal. Focus and hard work are good things, but don't lose perspective and forget what your ultimate goal should be (namely glorifying and serving God). It's easy to say, "I'm doing the Lord's work," and promptly get so busy that you push Him right out of mind.
I've made this mistake many times, and it always leads to being cut off from Divine strength and running on my own resources. It's a guaranteed recipe for unhappiness and failure.
The first time I took the SAT, I obsessed about a high score. In spite of months of frantic work, test day wasn't pretty and the score wasn't the one I had worked to get. When I relaxed and told God that I would accept whatever He gave, I took the test again and met my original goal. God has a way of breaking your idols, so don't create them in the first place.
Redeeming the Time
Time is a precious resource and careful management of it is critical. I hope this column will help your student get the most mileage out of his daily allotment by providing guidance in picking the activities to develop the skills needed for his calling. Life is short. Make your high-school activities count.
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