Previously Published in Hindustan Times Education Supplement
The application season is officially upon us. As students prepare – some late, some far ahead – most seem to worry about the extracurricular component of the application.
In my experience, extracurriculars are not something you can easily fabricate or embellish. And extracurriculars are not something that can overcome flaws in your academic or testing record. The only exception is if you are a recruitable athlete or musician, a rare situation for most Indian applicants. But even in the case of the amazing squash player who is recruited on an athletic scholarship to a top ranked college, his or her marks will also be very competitive.
Some students think they should publish a book to demonstrate extracurricular interest. However colleges can see through this. They realize that you haven’t done anything significant through 11th grade, but suddenly in the summer before 12th you are such an expert on something (e.g. hindi films, yoga, traditional markets, etc.) that you can convincingly publish a book. Colleges and universities understand how to evaluate published materials – after all it is the criteria on which their faculty are hired and retained. So fooling them with a quickie book that nobody has read or bought (was it distributed free to needy children?) is not going to be easy.
Another extracurricular activity that will put your admissions file reader off is the story of your foray into China/Africa/Khazakstan to discover/help/understand something there. Whether this was a 2-month long immersion or a 2 week holiday, it stinks of privilege. It is really hard to make a compelling case how much you understood and appreciated the natives while you slept in an a/c tent with fresh water and toilets. Such exotic forays only manage to impress admissions committees when they were achieved through competitive application or your participation was sponsored because you are the most active youth member of a local charity with which you have been involved for years.
The above advice may sound cynical, but actually it’s not meant to – writing a book or going on a cultural exchange can be an enriching and maturing experience. Many students will learn a lot from such experiences, so engaging in them for your own edification is a great idea. Doing these activities to impress an admissions committee will not work.
So then what might work? Typically the best advice for students trying to plan their extracurriculars is to find something that demonstrates your passion and dedication and gives you opportunities for leadership. No activity is better than another – but what you do with it can make you stand out. If you participated in your school MUN but you don’t really have anything interesting or insightful to say about your experience and you cannot articulate how you contributed to the team or led other people then it really will not matter. But if you were involved in a small initiative to help revive a tribal dance form and you led the troupe from a remote village to New Delhi to dance for the Prime Minister, that is a much bigger contribution and experience that shows what you can offer to a community.
Some possible extracurricular activities can include (in no particular order): Student council (e.g. head boy/girl, vice captain, prefect, etc.), Debate or MUN, internships/research opportunities, club leader (can be any club or group of students with common interests), performing or visual arts, community service, school publication contributor, part-time job, sports.
If you have participated in any of these activities, brainstorm what they have meant to you, what you have learned from them, how your involvement contributed to your school community or how you grew through these activities (e.g. they gave you responsibility, taught you organizational skills, showed you how to manage people, etc.). Make sure you understand what you have gotten out of your extracurricular activities so that you can articulate it to others in essays or interviews when the time comes.