Episode 14: Beyond Academics — How to Show Who You Really Are on an Application
April 19, 2021
These days, your dream school will look at way more than grades. They want the complete package: someone who shows promise both inside and outside the classroom — not some computer who can ace any exam but does little else.
So how do you present that complete package to a college? Which out-of-the-classroom parts of your life are worth highlighting? Do some extracurriculars look better on a résumé than others? And what should you do if your after-school time is consumed by a single activity — perhaps a job or a sports team or taking care of a family member?
In this episode of College Admissions Insider, Candace Leake, Bucknell's associate director of Admissions for access and outreach, shares the best ways to show colleges who you really are through your application.
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Episode 14 Transcript
[00:00:07] BW: Hello and welcome to College Admissions Insider, where we talk to real college admissions counselors about every aspect of the application process. I’m Bryan Wendell from Bucknell University.
[00:00:15] BT: And I’m Brooke Thames also from Bucknell University. We know you're busy, so this podcast is all about dissecting an important, relevant admissions topic in 30 minutes or less. And our goal is to give you the best shot at getting into your dream school.
[00:00:29] BW: And that dream school, by the way, they're going to look at a lot more than just grades. They want the complete package —somebody who shows promise both inside and outside the classroom, not some sort of computer who can ace any exam but do little else.
[00:00:43] BT: And so how do you present that complete package to a college? Which out-of-the-classroom parts of your life are worth highlighting? Do some extracurriculars look better on a resume than others? And what should you do if your after-school time is consumed by one single activity? Perhaps that's a job, or a sports team, or even taking care of a family member.
[00:01:03] BW: Here to discuss all that and more is Candace Leake, who is Bucknell's associate director of admissions for access and outreach. She reviews admissions and scholarship applications, works with high school students from all over the country, coordinates the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within admissions, and does a ton more. Welcome to the podcast, Candace.
[00:01:22] CL: I am happy to be here. Thank you so much for the invitation.
[00:01:25] BT: Yeah, for sure. And so to start, let's start with extracurriculars. You could break them down into two different types. Those that are offered by the school, like a debate team, maybe, or a school choir, and those pursued outside of the school, like a club sport or maybe volunteering with a service organization. So do schools like Bucknell see one type as better than the other?
[00:01:48] CL: No. It's really just about what are the things that you are interested in that are outside of your curricular offerings. That's almost literally what extracurricular means, right? So that could be things that you are doing within school, whether it's clubs, organizations, different jobs or even internships that you may do in or outside of school. Or it could be a full array of activities or home responsibilities, as you mentioned, or other things outside of school that you can be involved in. So one is not better than another. It's really just about you finding things that you are interested in doing and making ways to pursue those things.
[00:02:28] BW: Now, Candace, I bet when you're reviewing applications you've seen the gamut. You've probably seen some students who have one or two activities they did for four years or more, and then students who have more of the quantity. Maybe they've done a dozen activities for a couple months apiece. When you're looking, do you prefer to see that the quality or the quantity?
[00:02:49] CL: Quality for sure. But with that, I would like to say don't be afraid to try new things, right? It might take you a little while to figure out what the things are that you do enjoy. And so, especially, we'll see this often you know ninth or tenth grade could be more exploratory years. So we might see a club, or an organization, or even a sport that maybe you were part of for the first year, maybe even the second year, and then maybe you shift gears and find some other things that you're more interested in. So I wouldn't say that that looks bad. Certainly, we can see the things that you end up sticking with or the things that you continue to do for a more sustained amount of time, but don't be afraid to try those new things.
The thing is though, on your college application, you don't necessarily have to list all of those things, because then that's where you get into more or less the quantity seeming to be what you're going for. So if it's something that you did for a couple of months one time and then you moved on to something else, and it wasn't necessarily something that you consider to be really important to you or something that you were really interested in continuing on with, don't feel the need to necessarily list that on your college application. You can certainly make reference to it at some other point if you find it relevant. But, really, we want to see the things that really matter to you, and those things that you really found some investment in, and that really sparked some interest in you, some passions, and we want you to write about those things and list those things. Again, it's not about having this long list or filling out all 10 of the spots on the application for those clubs and activities. It's really about you listing the ones that had some meaning to you.
[00:04:24] BT: Gotcha. And let's talk a little bit more about those kind of mechanics of listing on the application. Can you tell us how a student actually goes about that, listing those extracurriculars on the application? And does it matter what order they're in in terms of importance to least importance or most time to less time?
[00:04:39] CL: Sure. I would definitely not necessarily take the chronological approach, you know, where you're writing things just from ninth through twelfth grade in that order. But really start with the things that you are most passionate about, the things that maybe you spent the most time doing, or things that you are perhaps continuing even into your last year of school, and start with those. Put them in order of priority of what you want us to know about you in terms of maybe there's an organization that really speaks to a philanthropy that you are really passionate about, or a sport that you've played that is something that's really important to you. Or you maybe you started your own club or organization, and you'd really like us to know about that.
So I would say although you can list 10 different things within just the spaces allotted in the application, what if we could only see the first five? What are the first five that you would want to make sure that we saw? So maybe do it in that order of what has had the most, you know, significance to you. Put them in that order and say, “If you could only see these, these are the ones I want you to see,” and then you can fill in some of the others if space is appropriate.
You can also talk about these things perhaps in your resume section. If you decide to upload a resume, that might give you a little more space to write about it and less limitations in terms of formatting and how many characters you can input, that sort of thing. Sometimes we also learn about things that students are involved in through your recommendation letters and, honestly, you don't want that to be the place necessarily where we find out those things. It's better when you tell us about them because we might see a pretty empty section of clubs and extracurriculars for a student, and then we read a recommendation letter and the teacher is writing all these other things that you were involved in. And had they not done that, we wouldn't have known about those things.
So they can come up in other places like your recommendation letters. You could also choose to talk about it maybe in your essay if it's something that's really important to you, or if there's just some other space on the application that seems to make sense about where you might mention that organization or that extracurricular activity. But kind of the formal place is either submitting a resume, attaching that separately and/or utilizing the space alotted within the application for that specifically.
[00:06:55] BW: Candace, there's a number of organizations and clubs and extracurriculars that have that instant name recognition, but then there's probably a lot more that don't. And so a student who is a member of — I’m just making this up — the ABC club at their school and that's really important to them, should they still include that even though they know that Bucknell might not instantly know what that is? And if so, how should they go about kind of elaborating on what that experience really entailed for them?
[00:07:23] CL: For sure. Definitely assume that we know nothing, right? We know some things, but assume that your reader knows nothing, right? You don't know the extent of how much we know about your particular school, your school offerings, things of that nature. So you want to make sure that you are clear as to what does ABC stand for. Tell us what it stands for. Tell us what the organization or club does.
And there are a few characters within the application or within that section of the application where you can do just that and maybe even talk about what your role was. You can say I was the club founder or the co-president. You can also list the duration of that involvement. So you can say, “I do this three hours a week, 12 weeks a year,” or that sort of thing. So definitely make sure that you let us know what those things are so that we understand why it's something that's important to you.
And if you need to do so with beyond the confines of what the space allotted is, certainly there is an additional information section that's kind of a catch-all section for anything that you couldn't include anywhere else. But the nice thing about it is that it is a long format space whereas other sections might have more distinct character limits of what you can enter there. That additional information is a nice catch-all place, where if you really need to even write a paragraph about something you have the space to do that there.
[00:08:39] BT: Gotcha. Gotcha. And I wonder…I mean, students have space within all the activities that they're listening to talk a little bit about that experience, correct?
[00:08:47] CL: Absolutely.
[00:08:48] BT: And so I’m curious, do you have any advice in terms of the best way to kind of talk about that experience that like maybe demonstrate something that they've learned or presents them in a way to show why that experience is really lending to their application?
[00:09:03] CL: Sure. There are a couple of different ways you could do this. For example, if you are applying to Bucknell, there is a question on our application where we ask about your major choice. And so maybe this additional involvement is something that is why you're interested in your particular major. Maybe you've done some service, or volunteered at a hospital, or done some really amazing research that is more major related or potentially future career-focused. And so, naturally, there's a place on the application that asks about your interest, and maybe that's a place where you can say, “And by the way, I participated in this amazing thing, and it really helped spark my interest or increase my awareness about X, Y and Z.”
Some students feel so compelled about certain things that they might write their whole essay about it, or maybe it's a paragraph within their essay that they talk about that particular thing in a bit more detail. Also talking to…As I mentioned, not necessarily wanting to have the counselor be the one to reveal that you did this thing, but the counselor or your teacher recommendation could be the place where we do learn a little bit more about it. So maybe the counselor or the teacher is affirming yes that you did the thing, but they could also talk a little bit more about how big of an impact that was at the school, or why this was something that you shared with them was something that's really special to you and has really maybe had an impact on how you see life, or your potential career, or just how you might be as a student. Maybe it's an involvement or something that you wish to continue in college, and that would be a great way to show an interest in something that the school offers, or give us a sense as counselors on the college side of what you might be interested in, or what your contributions might be to that particular college as a future student there.
So definitely try to utilize, I guess, what makes sense for how much you want to elaborate on something. And certainly it won't be your whole resume, right? Everyone that's in your recommendation letters aren't going to comment on all 10 things that you were involved in. But if it's something that really meant something to you, make sure you share that with the folks that are helping you throughout the application so that they can help elaborate on those things a little bit more if appropriate.
[00:11:11] BT: Yeah. Yeah. That's great advice. And backing up a little bit to early on in the search process…We have quite a few listeners who are kind of freshmen, sophomores in high school, and when they're looking at schools, I’m wondering about the role that clubs and organizations and those kinds of interests play — in combination with academic programs — in how they rank or prioritize those schools.
[00:11:31] CL: Well, I think certainly when you are starting out the process, there are a lot of different things that are coming at you, a lot of different seeming priorities that might be arising, and maybe even makes you feel a little bit overwhelmed in the process of like, “Where do I even start in that search process?” What I like to advise students is really kind of thinking about your values, thinking about the things that matter to you and how those align with who you are as a student, who you are as a person, who you might be as a member of a college community. For some students it might be a particular major that's something that you're really passionate about, or a particular career path that you're really passionate about. And so a lot of your search is going to be about finding colleges that have these type of majors that maybe you're really interested in.
For others it might be, “Sure the major might be really important but study abroad is something that I’m super interested in, and I want to make sure that any college I’m looking into has a really strong study abroad program.” Or really just thinking about, you know, certainly the academics are super important, and while you want to make sure you're in a place, I would say, that supports you academically or that will give you the best environment for you to thrive academically, you might not necessarily know what your major is going to be, and so maybe that's not what you're focusing on. But focusing on the fact that it is an academic institution that can support you academically, yes. To that extent I would say yes. Focus on the academics.
But to be perfectly honest, if you're looking at just sheer numbers in terms of time and duration of how you actually spending your time as a college student, there's really a small fraction of the time that you're actually spending in the classroom. And so you want to make sure that the academic fit is definitely there for you. You want to be in a place where you are going to thrive holistically. So you want to make sure that you get involved — that you find clubs, organizations, community, things for you to be involved in. And for some students, they may already have some of those expectations or some attachments that they want to continue in college, and so that could certainly be a part of your process. If it's joining a Greek organization. Maybe you are a legacy from a parent that's maybe a member of an organization, and that's something that's important to you, etc.
So it's really just thinking about the total college experience. Certainly, the academics should be high on the list. But there might be clubs and organizations or just things outside of the classroom space that are important to you as well. And so it doesn't hurt to check those things out as well.
[00:14:05] BW: Now, Candice, we've been talking a lot about extracurriculars. In some cases, there might be an activity that a high school student has that takes up all their time and doesn't leave them any time for extracurriculars. And you've probably seen all the different reasons. It could be an elite athlete who's always practicing, or maybe they support their family with an after-school job, or perhaps they have a family member who they need to give that extra attention to. So how do you and your fellow application readers and counselors, how do you look at those circumstances?
[00:14:37] CL: I would say, you know, kind of alluding back to what we talked about before about quantity versus quality and that sort of thing, some students kind of over-list things, but a lot of students fail to list things. Maybe they think that because I’m not the president of this organization or I’m not the captain of the team, that my involvement is somehow less worthy of noting. Or my family responsibilities, like, “Oh, nobody wants to hear about that.” But, honestly, we do. We want to know about what you are doing outside of the classroom as well as in the classroom, and all of those things matter. Having a job, that shows a lot of different personality traits, and character building, of responsibility and just different things that could be parallel or even different from being captain of a club or being a sustained member in a particular thing. So don't feel like anything that's about you is not worthy of mentioning, or is not interesting, or something that you shouldn't bother to list.
And for some students, honestly, especially I think in the case of the home responsibilities, can sometimes really prohibit students from being able to do some of those fun things that maybe they would love to do. So my suggestion there would be if there's an opportunity somewhere within the application just to talk about, perhaps, what you look forward to doing once you get to college. When I look at Bucknell's applicants, there is a section where they can certainly list all the things that you've done and that they've done in the past, or may be continuing to do throughout high school, but there's also an opportunity to list things that I would like to be involved in. And so that's a great place for us to see, “Hey, maybe the student hasn't had a chance to be involved in theater or in the arts, etc., but they listed that as an interest.” And so you can also talk futuristically.
The college application process is not just about what you've already done, but it's about what you aspire to do and who you aspire to be. So definitely don't let that hold you back. Don't let that make you feel, again, less than because maybe you haven't had the chance to explore some of those things. But talk about the things that perhaps you would like to do. Definitely we see that as a positive. But, again, I think my big takeaway on that is really just don't feel that anything you've done is invalid or somehow less worthy. That whatever you've done is important and we want you to share it with us.
[00:17:04] BW: So let's zoom out a little bit, Candace, and talk about the application review process. Something you have a lot of experience in. Just overall, can you give us a sense of how much weight you give to grades and academic rigor and all that, and then how much weight you give to all the other stuff that isn't grades?
[00:17:23] CL: That's a great question. Actually, kind of the million-dollar question, right? What really matters is kind of the essence of what you're asking there. Certainly, I would say beyond just grades, I would say the academic review or the academic portfolio of a student certainly should have the most weight, but those other things really come by or come at a close second. And the reason I say that is because unless the academics are solid for a student — unless the student has shown past behavior, potential for future behavior that will put them in a situation to thrive academically on a college campus — then those other things really don't matter, right? Because if you're not being successful academically, then you won't have time to do this club, to do this organization, to do these other outside things. Or you shouldn't, rather, in terms of priorities. So focusing on what you've done academically, and how we think you could perform and fit into the academic space of campus, is certainly the most important thing. But also being a member of that community is also super important as well.
So once we kind of review the application, say, “Okay, can they do the work? Will they thrive academically?” Yes. Then the next question that we're asking is, “Who will they be within the community? Who will they be as a student?” If we only see you in class and then we never see you again, you don't do anything else on campus, that's probably not the best fit on a particular campus. So certainly, yes, academics, super important. But also important is who you would be as a person, as a member of the community, as a roommate, as someone that you would want to share a residence hall with, or someone that you would want to engage in in conversation in class, or be in line with at the dining hall. So don't skip over those things. Make sure that you’ve really utilize the full application. All of those elements are in the application for a reason, and they all should give you an opportunity to tell us different things about you. So make sure that you utilize all of them and don't set aside the extracurricular piece and don't think it's an important piece to include as well.
[00:19:37] BT: Sounds like it's essentially a pretty equal balance there in terms of, yeah, making sure you're painting a holistic picture of yourself on your application, but also in terms of what schools like Bucknell are looking for in a student. Speaking of balance, and a final thought here as we wrap up our podcast episode, in addition to having students who are very high-achieving academically, why is it also important to have students with diverse experiences and life trajectories when you build each incoming class at a school like Bucknell?
[00:20:05] CL: It's super important because that's what the world is like. You're going to have co-workers, you're going to have friends [and] associates who have different backgrounds, different perspectives. And for a school like Bucknell that really values the elements of what a liberal arts education brings to you…About being able to create a principled argument, how can you create a principled argument if you don't have other arguments or other perspectives to consider? How can you say that you are an effective problem solver if you've never had to deal with adversity or be able to look at things from different perspectives? And so it's super important as you're building yourself as a person to be part of a community that will foster growth and challenge you in many different ways outside of just the academic space, but also socially and just how you interact with different people.
So a place like Bucknell, for example, or many other college campuses, are really wanting to create diverse perspectives. They don't want everyone to come in with the same…Like everyone can't be the lacrosse star. Everyone can't be the prima ballerina, right? Like there needs to be a variety of folks that have different thoughts, different backgrounds, different interests, because it challenges you to become a better person, to be a better thinker, to be a better member of certainly your college campus but in greater society as well. And so it just contributes to the overall educational experience when you have students that really bring a lot of different things to the table. And that's definitely what we strive for here.
[00:21:41] BW: Well, thank you so much, Candace. This has been really fascinating, and it's interesting and inspiring just to see how much thought goes into when these applications are being read because I know the students put so much time and effort into their applications. And when they end up in the hands of an application reader and counselor like you, it's so cool to know just how much they're really thinking about in and really genuinely considering each application. So I just want to thank you for sharing some of your wisdom with us today.
[00:22:08] CL: Thanks so much for having me. It's been fun.
[00:22:11] BT: And thanks to all of you out there for listening. Please rate, subscribe and share this podcast with your friends. It really does help us reach a ton of more listeners.
[00:22:18] BW: And if you happen to be listening to this podcast through your web browser, we'd love for you to subscribe using your favorite podcast app. You can just search for College Admissions Insider on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio and other top podcast apps. Why subscribe? Well, you're going to get those new episodes right in your podcast feed.
[00:22:39] BT: And speaking of new episodes, we will see you back here for another one in just two weeks. In the meantime, if you have a question, comment or would like to be a guest on a future episode, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:22:51] BW: And finally, if you're interested in learning more about applying to Bucknell, head to bucknell.edu/apply. Our applications open August 1.
[00:23:00] BT: Thanks for listening. See you next time.