Applying to, and getting into, a selective university is not simply a matter of having great grades or test scores. Those are undoubtedly the most important criteria, but other criteria matter as well. Extracurricular activities, community service, sports, and internships can all make a difference. A compelling college application portfolio (or résumé) explains to a university admissions official what a student is passionate about, and the ways in which they have shown leadership and dedication.
For parents of high school students, the goal isn’t to encourage your child to maximize the number of activities they do. Instead, starting as early as freshman year, help them focus their attention on a few areas of interest and aptitude, keep track of accomplishments, and tell their story effectively. That makes it easier for students to build an outstanding college application portfolio without overwhelming themselves.
Build a Great College Application Portfolio
1. Focus On Your Interests
Too often, kids build a college application portfolio by accident, doing activities just because a friend is doing them, or because a parent pushes them into something. By ninth grade, students are developing a distinct set of interests. If they focus on these, they will start building their portfolio effectively. Colleges (and employers) care a lot about understanding what you’re passionate about. Taking an interests test can help. If your interests are investigative, you could do science projects or attend science camps. For students whose passion is more artistic, it makes sense to work on painting or music.
2. Create Connections
If you love science, it makes sense to take a lot of science classes in high school, and even some science electives. You can even take dual-enrollment classes at a community college nearby. These can help you win admission into a top university for your subject. If you love art, perhaps you’ll take electives in sculpture or painting. Then you can use your extracurricular activities and community service to enhance and build on those interests. For example, one student who played violin in the school concert band also played his violin for seniors at a local senior center. A student who loved chess taught chess to younger children. These are great ways to use community service to do something you love and help others at the same time. A college admissions officer who sees this on a résumé knows it’s a labor of love, and not just a way to pad a college application.
3. Tell a Story
A student’s college application essay, when they write it, tells one part of their story. Make sure the portfolio that goes with it reinforces that story and fills in the details. If the story you’ll tell is of an introverted student who feels much more at home in a research lab than as part of a sales team, your portfolio is most effective if it shows how you spent your summers being a writer or working on science projects. If the essay showcases your concern for the planet, then your college application portfolio would be most effective if it showed you working on a local green initiative in your city.
4. Stand Out
Many universities will give a leg up to students who send in additional material that indicates accomplishment or talent. If you worked with a university professor on a research project, did an interesting internship, or excel at an unusual activity, include it in your application. If the university’s application makes that difficult, write a letter to the admissions officer. Don’t be obnoxious and excessive in your communication, but be sure to demonstrate your gifts and talents.
The College admissions process is complex. One of the ways in which this complexity appears is that universities want to know who a student really is. That can make the process seem overwhelming. But with some mindful attention, a great college application portfolio can make the process less stressful for parents and less overwhelming for students.