These are the questions that I often get peppered with from my students. Whether you're just staring out as a freshman or trying to round out your resume as a junior, activities are a hot topic in college admissions. Let's cover what you need to know as it relates to extracurricular activities.

How important are extracurricular activities for college?

For most schools, extracurricular activities are 'considered' in the admissions process. To understand how important they are to specific college you are interested in, simply google "college name" + "common data set". The Common Data Set will provide and list out the importance of different factors they consider when making a decision.

How many do I need to do?

There isn't a correct number, necessarily, but just know that there are 10 spots for activities on the Common Application. Some students have less than 10, some have more than 10. The number of activities isn't important. When college admission officers review your activities, they are trying to figure out what your interests are, where do you spend your time, and what do you value. When reviewing your activities, colleges are looking at the hours per week and weeks per year to understand your commitment. If you are a student who plays a sport or plays music in school, it would be difficult to be involved in many other activities, as sports and band require a lot of time.

What activities should I do?

Depending on your social circle, you may hear that you "have to play a sport" or "have to play an instrument" or "be the leader of debate club", etc for college. Another common misconception is that you have to be "well-rounded" and therefore need to do a little bit of everything. The truth is you should pick activities you genuinely enjoy spend time working on. There are no "right" activities. Pick activities that either help you further your intellectual or personal interests. Activities can be done during the school year, during the summer, or all year round. Lastly, schools are looking to create a well-rounded community of students, which consist of students that are passionate about different things. Therefore, think about having your activities focused on two or three main interests.

How important is community service?

I've had a few students who have received certificates for achieving 100+ hours of community service. The point of community service isn't the total number of hours achieved. Again, its the consistency in which you dedicate yourself to bettering your community. Community service matters in that colleges are looking for students that care about others.

So, what kind of community service should you do if you want to do it?

Ideally, you want to pick community service activities that are again aligned to your intellectual, academic, or personal interests. I once interviewed a student who loved music and created an organization in which she would collect used instruments and donate them to schools that couldn't afford instruments in their music program. I loved seeing how her interest in music flowed into other areas of her life as well.

You don't have to go halfway around the world for an activity.

Whether it be volunteering or participating in an internship, you don't have to spend a lot of money for it to matter. In fact, colleges would much rather see you volunteer and help your local community rather than one that's thousands of miles away.

Does an activity have to be in school to count?

Nope, not at all. Some students don't have time to participate in school activities sometimes, because of family obligations or because they work a job. These count as activities too. Remember, admissions is just trying to get a picture for where you spend your time, because that's usually correlated to what is important to you.

So why do them?

If anything, I hope you've taken away that they are another way for you to have fun and explore your interests! As you try different things, be sure to jot them down as you'll eventually need to drop them into your college applications, so its great to start keeping a resume as soon as you can in high school.

What other questions do you have as it relates to extracurricular activities? Let me know in your comments below.

While many people focus on prepping for the SATs and/or ACTs and essays, a critical part of the college application gets overlooked: letters of recommendation. In today's post, we're going to cover everything you need to know about letters of recommendation.

What are letters of recommendation and why are they important to the college application?

Letters of recommendation are typically a page in length and are provided by your guidance counselor, teachers, and any other people that know you well. They are typically required by most colleges and universities, with the exception of some large public universities, who often do not have time to read this information as part of the holistic review. They are important, because they give admissions an opportunity to understand your character and performance as it compares to your peers. In fact, they are so important, that a poor or generic letter of recommendation can severely hurt your chances of getting in, because recommendations highlight everything from intellectual curiosity to your relationship with your peers and teachers.

Now, who should you choose to write it and how many do you need?

While your application will indicate how many you need, a good rule to go by is one guidance counselor and two teachers in your high school. In most cases, you only have one guidance counselor, so that shouldn't be hard to procure. For the two teachers, ideally, you should pick teachers that know you well (both inside and outside of school), or teachers that are related to your future interests. Ideally, they should be junior year teachers, since they will have had you most recently and for a full year before your application to college. It varies by school, but some schools prefer you choose teachers that are in core subjects: math, science, social studies, and English.

Some schools will also give you the opportunity to submit supplemental recommendations by people outside of your academic teachers. For this, you can consider asking someone who knows you really well through your passions such as a sports coach, music teacher, or community service activity adviser.

You should also keep in mind that each recommender should each be able to highlight something different about you, so that you are not providing recommendations that do not add anything to your profile.

What if the teacher that knows you best happens to be for a class you are not getting the best grades in?

This is a question that often comes up. In fact, I had a student who was pursuing health sciences and wanted to ask their biology teacher to write their recommendation, but they were concerned, because they weren't exactly acing the class. However, the teacher knew them the best, because they saw them frequently for extra help outside of class. The teacher responded, "I'd rather write a recommendation for someone who is trying their best in my class and working hard to understand the material, rather than someone who is just getting A's and not participating." I think that sums it up perfectly. Think about the relationship. It's not about the grades when it comes to recommendations. We recognize that oftentimes, your deepest relationships come from classes you are struggling in, because you're mature enough to seek help.

When should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

This varies based on how competitive your high school is and how popular your teacher is, but typically I recommend asking for letters of recommendation between March and April of your junior year. Some teachers cap how many letters of recommendation they will write, so if there is a teacher you really want to make sure you ask, do it sooner rather than later. It will also give them more than enough time to write it.

How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?

It is best to ask for a letter of recommendation in person. Try asking your teacher after class or before class one day and provide them with why you are asking them to write your letter of recommendation for college. For example, "Hi Ms. Smith. I'll be applying for college in the Fall and it would mean a lot to me if you would write my letter of recommendation. I really enjoy your class and I feel like you know me best, especially through our after school discussions about trends in environmental engineering."

Also ask them what you need to provide them to help them write an effective letter of recommendation for you. Sometimes they may ask for a resume of activities or a brag sheet that may cover questions like, Tell me about a project you enjoyed most working on in my class, or What are you interested in studying and how does my class relate to it. If you feel nervous asking for the letter of recommendation, feel free to practice what you're going to say beforehand with your parents or a sibling.

Now that we've covered everything there is to asking for a letter of recommendation, what remaining questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below.

It's that time of year again. You know what I'm talking about...picking classes to take next year with your high school counselor. Depending on what grade you are in, you may have different questions. Let's tackle some common scenarios I see from my students at my process to help you as you pick a schedule you can thrive in and enjoy.

I should take easier level courses because it will help me maintain a higher GPA.

While it is definitely important to maintain a high GPA, it is equally, if not more important in some cases to take courses that challenge you. If you are getting A's in a class and it is fairly easy for you, you may want to consider taking a class that is a level up. It could be an honors or AP class depending on what you are currently taking now. Not only will you hopefully be more engaged and interested in learning more challenging material, but colleges will also recognize your efforts. In fact, colleges may wonder why you didn't take a more challenging level if you were getting really great classes in it. I often advise that if you can get away with a B+ or higher in a more advanced class, then take it.

How is taking AP/IB classes viewed by college admissions officers?

To further expand on our point above, let's also cover how colleges view those challenging classes you take through your transcript. Taking more challenging classes not only demonstrates your desire to challenge yourself, but if you perform well, it is reflected in your weighted GPA, which may also result in a higher rank within your school (if your school ranks). These are all factors that go into the admission decision.

What's the difference between weighted and unweighted GPA?

While we're on the topic of GPAs, let's clarify the difference between the two GPAs. Both are an average of the grades you receive throughout high school. The unweighted GPA is out of a standard 4.0, meaning if you receive an A in a class, regardless of the level, it would be a 4.0. A weighted GPA takes into account the difficulty of the courses you are taking and "rewards" you accordingly. For example, if you get an A in an honors class, you might get a 4.5 and an A in an AP class might be a 5.0. Throughout your years of high school, all your final grades are averaged out to yield either or both of these GPAs and submitted to colleges on your transcript. Click here for CollegeBoard's GPA conversion resource.

I have C's and D's in my current classes, but I want to take honors and AP because everyone else is doing it.

We also need to discuss the flipside. While it is "cool" to take challenging classes, know your limits, which can also mean time management and organization limits. If you are not doing well in a class, especially if it is a more challenging level, you should talk with your guidance counselor about what the options are to take a less demanding or challenging class for the following year. College admissions would much rather see you thrive in classes that are suitable for you than get C's and D's in classes that are too hard for you.

Is it better to take math, science, English, social studies, and foreign language every year or double up on areas I’m interested in pursuing in college?

This is one of my favorite questions and it can be difficult to answer as it depends on the student. In most situations, it is better to make sure you at least satisfy 4 years of those basic classes. Some students consider dropping a foreign language, but many colleges will consider students that have taken 4 years of a foreign language to be more competitive than those who do not. Similarly, try to pick electives that enable you to explore your academic and personal interests. For example, if you are considering pre-med in the future, it might make more sense for you to double up on science and take anatomy (if offered), rather than take a history class, once you’ve already satisfied the requirements. To learn more about the required and recommended classes and the years you should take, you can check out the Applying section for the college’s CollegeBoard profile.

I don’t have enough room in my schedule to take everything I want. What should I do?

I always recommend that students understand the requirements for graduating from their high school. Oftentimes, required classes can be taken online or over the summer. You can check with your high school guidance counselor on the different options to try and optimize the schedule you want. If you are unable to get a class you really wanted and you are a senior, consider leveraging the additional information section to explain that you had tried to also fit in the additional class but that it conflicted with your schedule. Lastly, consider taking the class elsewhere if that is an option.

Were these the types of questions you had? Did this help? Let me know in the comments.

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