I once heard an Ivy League admissions officer say “We understand that the opportunities and demands for Indian students are different than for American students. But that makes Indian students weak in extra-curriculars and, unfortunately, our process is unforgiving.” This seemed like a harsh assesment of an Indian students, but a few years of advising I now understand his comment – many indian students lack depth in a particular extra curricular and the breadth they demonstrate is mundane and similar to all their classmates. So what can you do to make yourself stand out to admissions officers like the one quoted?
Ask yourself, how many of my peers have done the same extra curricular activities as me? If the answer is “all of them” you will not stand out.
But involvement in the standard extracurricular activities (think MUN, CAS, Trinity Music, etc.) is not enough, then what is? If you have done something that was fairly easy and accessible and you never won an award or secured a competitive spot in your chosen activity, it is probably not enough to make you stand out. You can stand out either by making extreme efforts in an ongoing interest of yours through the 12th grade. Or join a camp during your vacation that has competitive admissions whether in India or abroad.
Another way to stand out is to demonstrate “leadership”. But what counts as leadership? Let’s say you were the head girl of your school – do you know how many head girls there are in India? Harvard/Princeton/Yale cannot accept all of them. But they might select the head girl who formed an association of head girls across India to forge a better alliance for social impact in student-led initiatives. Coming up with creative ideas and getting other people to join you qualifies as leadership. It does not even have to be something outside school: I recently met an applicant who, along with some classmates, started a social service initiative that matched the energy of young people to the loneliness of old age and retired communities. We worked to position this in her essays as a leadership effort by outlining how she came up with the idea, why it was needed, how she convinced her school and her peers to support it and what were the results. This was an excellent way to highlight her leadership, but she hadn’t thought of it that way. She simply saw it as a curriculum requirement.
But right now you might be saying “It’s too late. I have to apply this year and my extra curricilar activities are what they are.” So what should you do? What if your most active pastime is reading? What if you simply love online gaming? And that is all you have done in your free time for the past four years? Well all hope is not lost, you can try to position these pastimes in a way that makes them seem critical to understanding who you are and who you want to become. For example, admissions blogger Alan Grove (http://collegeapps.about.com) showcased one applicant whose pastime was trying to win online contests. This may not be a deep and meaningful extracurricular activity, but she was able to present it as a representation of her optimistic spirit, someone always looking for the next opportunity who sees herself as a winner. It may be a stretch, but if it’s all you have, it’s worth a try.