# Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college application?

1. Jul 4, 2011

### Mépris

A recent thread, about getting into MIT and/or CalTech got me thinking. And while I did post https://www.physicsforums.com/showpost.php?p=3387540&postcount=9", I don't want to hijack that thread.

Over the past year or two, I've been actively reading about college and university courses, applications and other things. I just found it a sensible thing to do. In any event, I've noticed a few trends. In the UK, there's this obsession about getting those A*s and for college applications, it's the extracurricular activities more than anything else, although the GPA and AP grades are another concern for students.

Why is their such an obsession about ECs? A student engaging in one activity or another might say something about what he/she enjoys doing and that might in turn, give an idea of that student's personality. And yes, when looked at under this light, listing ECs in an application form can make sense. However, whenever I see people discussing about what they've been doing and "how much they've been preparing", I'm left baffled. It's just college - why is there this relentless need to prove oneself's worth through things one might not even be interested in? I especially see this in people who are applying to the more "popular" (I don't like the word "top" because I don't think putting numbers next to the name of an institution means anything) colleges and the Ivy Leagues. Who cares whether you list fifty different activities?

I may very well be wrong but I think that a student who is genuinely interested in the one or two things he does and writes about it effectively in his essay, has more of a chance than somebody who's listed fifty things that only sound impressive and don't mean a thing beyond that.

Also, http://www.mitadmissions.org/topics/before/helping_your_parents_through_this_process/marilee_jones_in_the_news_1.shtml" [Broken] article is a very interesting read. Anyone applying to college or with any interest in the application process might want to check it out.

Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
2. Jul 4, 2011

### twofish-quant

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

My answer is that it's because we've created a hyper-competitive, winner take all society in which there is a perception that if you don't make it to the top, you are nobody. The problem is that there may be some truth in that belief.

But what if you are competing against someone that lists fifty things and they have an admissions coach that helps them write about that effectively?

The basic problem is that there are just too few places for too many people. Once you have too few places then it effectively becomes a lottery. You *might* guess right and win, but lets suppose you do. The person that lists fifty things is likely not an idiot, so does it make sense for you knock them out of the race?

There is a weird irony in this story in that Jones resigned under fire from having inflated her resume credentials. Google the name.

Also, you can slice and dice the numbers all you want, but the basic issue is that MIT can only admit about 1000 students whereas the number of people that could usefully benefit from the MIT education is probably in the millions.

Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
3. Jul 4, 2011

### Mépris

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

:[
I could sit in my room and be sad about it or I could spread the word and who knows, something might happen out of it. Everybody's at each others necks. Life's only this long and at the end of it, it's just a lot of garbage human mumbo jumbo. I think kids should stop wanting to grow old too quick and take a second off and breathe. I wish somebody had told me that when I was 14. Actually, maybe somebody did. **** knows what I was thinking then. Anyway..

No, it doesn't make any sense. And theoretically, if he's better, it would only make sense to take that other person over me but as you say, there's a huge element of luck involved. And that can play in my (or anyone else's) favour as well. There's too many variables involved. What if the majority of the people who saw the application find that the person who listed fifty of those is not the kind of person they'd want to admit? Or if they've already admitted too many persons who fit into that same mold? About a thousand get in, right? By the time they reach number 987, maybe they've already admitted too many perfect candidates. See where I'm going with this? The way I see it, it's either you get in or you don't - don't take it personally. It shouldn't be such a daunting process. Kids shouldn't be feeling like they're slowly torturing themselves in an unspeakably horrible fashion. ARGH!

Will do.

I didn't even attempt to get into the "numbers game". There's too many applicants to even bother. In any event, I'll still do the SAT and SAT subject tests and I will apply. Somebody might like a sentence I wrote and somebody else might like it. I could get lucky. In all probability, I will not. But I'd rather pay the $50 bucks or so and find out, rather than leave more room for regret. 4. Jul 4, 2011 ### cristo Staff Emeritus Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat In the UK all you have to do is put some extracurricular activities on your UCAS personal statement. I doubt people really look at these too much, to be honest, and was told to just put a sentence or two on the statement (after all, grades are the most important thing). 5. Jul 4, 2011 ### Mépris Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat Yeah, no one really cares about those. I did mention something about the A*s being the obsession. Everybody wants to go to Oxbridge, Warwick or somewhere in London. If you don't get into there, you're a failure apparently. Pretentious twats. 6. Jul 4, 2011 ### cristo Staff Emeritus Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat I don't think these stereotypes are true at all! 7. Jul 4, 2011 ### Mépris Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat It is true to the realm of internet forums which is the furthest my exposure with regards to this goes. Don't believe me? Browse through TheStudentRoom quickly and you'll find how "obsessed" the majority of people get about rankings and what not. I just don't think arguing about which university is "better" (let alone, applying/attending one) based on rankings is a sensible thing to do. And that's why I see there. Maybe it's just a stereotype. Or maybe it isn't and the people you know/talk to aren't anything like that. In any case, that's not the point of this thread. By what I said in the initial post, I was just trying to illustrate how everybody's always wanting to be too perfect and over-doing things. Take http://talk.collegeconfidential.com...nsolidated-ea-rd-2015-results-thread-12.html" thread for instance. I do realise that the "more popular" colleges cannot accommodate that many applicants but it's just trying too hard. It's the same thing for the rest of the Ivy League colleges; Stanford; the UCs and all the other "big name schools". Everybody's so worked up about it all. Then maybe this is too much of a skewed picture that I see and the people who are more relaxed, don't even post in these forums and those that do, are too few in numbers for me to notice them. There could be a number of reasons for that but it doesn't change that fact that a huge number of kids are stressing the **** out for no good reason. At eighteen, there's so many other things you could be doing. And they're not just for the sake of getting into a "big school". Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017 8. Jul 5, 2011 ### shravas Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat This obsession with doing whatever it takes to get into the top schools is mostly limited to certain segments of the population, probably skewed towards people that live in the northeast and are upper-middle class. I went to an average public school, and no one really outwardly worried about extracurriculars or anything, even those who applied to competitive colleges (of which there were very few). 9. Jul 5, 2011 ### twofish-quant Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat Except that there ***are*** good reasons for stressing out. There is this belief that if you don't go into the right schools and do the right careers, you are doomed. I'd like to say that's a silly belief and it's not true, but honestly *I CAN'T*. I'm twice as old as you, and what I see is that people with stuff get more stuff, and people without stuff get less stuff. My first priority over the last decade was to work like hell to get myself in a situation where I was on the right side of that line. Now that I think that I'm on the right side of that magic line, I'm trying to figure out what to do next. Personally, I think it's going to just get worse and worse until something breaks. In the case of MIT, it took several people dying and some massive lawsuits, before people stepped back and said "whoa, what are we doing here?" If you don't like the system, then step back and think about it, and figure out how you want to change it. Hopefully you'll think of something that we older people have missed. The reason that eighteen year olds are stress-out to hell trying to play the career game is because their parents, and teachers are stressed out to hell trying to play the career game. 10. Jul 6, 2011 ### Mépris Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat Amen. Exactly my intended course of action. The ability to get stuff is one of the reasons I won't do a PhD right after my undergrad. I doubt I will go beyond an MS (4-5 years post high school). I don't want to be thirty years old with a PhD and no work experience. I'd rather have that extra 3-5 years where I've been earning enough money and then I'll do the PhD after...unless my interests have changed by then! I thought about it. My conclusion is that there are more factors involved with this and I should get up to speed with my "other" reading first (especially economics) and then come up with an answer. Even then, it won't be an absolute. Well, I seriously doubt it anyway. I happen to think that too many people want to get degrees/are going to university. Not everyone has to. A lot of them go with the intention of "finding a "good job" after". If finding a "good job" is what you want, maybe a vocational qualification will be more suited to your needs. 11. Jul 6, 2011 ### Mépris Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat I think that a step towards this endeavour would be getting rid of this mentality that "going to uni after graduating from HS is THE only thing to do to be "successful"". The French have more flexible educational system. For example, after high school, one can go for a "brevet de technicien superieur" (basically, being a certified technician) in two years post high school. Following that, one can try finding employment directly or opt to pursue higher education. People have this qualification can also enrol into the the "ecoles d'ingenieur" (engineering schools). So, despite it not being a university degree, it can still allow for progression in the field if one wants it. 12. Jul 6, 2011 ### twofish-quant Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat The Ph.D. is work experience. The problem with doing the Ph.D. later is that if you want to have kids, it becomes really tough. People have argued this, but the problem is the people that seem to say "don't go to a big name college and become a plumber instead" are all people that seem to have gone to big name colleges. I'd really like to hear from a plumber say "I'm glad I turned down Harvard and became a plumber." 13. Jul 6, 2011 ### twofish-quant Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat The trouble is that there are good reasons why people have this sort of mentality. 1) The fact that another country has a different system, even a better one, doesn't help if you have to make a decision now in the United States 2) The thing that really troubles me about people that say that more people in the US should take technical education is that if you ask them "OK, but do you want *your* kid to go to community college rather than Harvard?" they say tend to say NO. I think the problem is that the people that make the decisions about who goes to technical schools are by and large, not people that to go technical schools themselves. 3) One thing that makes it not terribly convinced that going to community colleges is a great thing as a student is that it's a truly crappy job if you are doing it full time as a teacher. 14. Jul 6, 2011 ### Mépris Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat My understanding was that the more the stuff you're working on is applied, the better. Is that correct? Are people working on very abstract math that doesn't have direct applications, essentially screwed? Or is that practically impossible, in that the PhD student will have to be using other skills in his work, like programming or stats? I think the problem with this is that manual labour does not have much respect. At least, not in the part of the world I live in. It's seen as "degrading". If that can be fixed, then you'd have more people willing to do those jobs. Not everybody who goes to uni actually wants to. I suspect many go thinking they won't fall in that "trap" but turns out a lot of them end up in dead end jobs. I'd rather be a computer technician than work in an art gallery...cause I spent big$\$ on my BA in Art History.

College education doesn't necessarily mean you're going to somehow end up happier. This is only anecdotal: lots of people I know tend to think going to uni and getting a degree is somehow going to make their lives easier. I don't know how true (or not) that is.

It would be interesting to see what happens to the people who do go to technical schools. I bet they'd have an easier time finding employment than college grads. If not that, then they'd be more likely to find employment before them. (graduating two years before them)

Didn't get this part.

15. Jul 6, 2011

### twofish-quant

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

It's tricky to answer that question, because it turns out that some things that people think are abstract as heck turn out to be pretty useful, and I suppose it could go the other way. For example, neutrino diffusion turns out to be very useful in finance, but I had no clue that this was the case when I did my dissertation.

It turns out that "do whatever seems interesting" worked out quite well for me, and probably a lot better than if I consciously decided to do something. I'm not sure why that is.

One thing that you do have to be careful about is that statements about what is and is not useful can end up affecting outcomes. For example, suppose I told you that some math was too abstract and therefore useless. No one studies it, and what will happen is that in a few years there is a desperate shortage of people that have expertise in that exactly sort of useless math. Remember that we are talking about 1000 graduates each year, and so if 100 people make decisions based on predictions that could flood the market or create a shortage.

I suppose what people are asking is someone to tell you to "do X or don't do X", but markets perversely adjust to counteract any sort of advice that you give.

Curiously, manual labor does have a lot of respect in my neck of the woods.

Except that in the end both of you are going to likely end up shuffling papers for some large corporation. Most people that major in things like art history or Russian literature don't actually end up doing anything that have anything to do with art or literature.

But I think it's better to be educated and miserable than uneducated and miserable.

I think it is true. Also, money *does* buy happiness.

I'm seriously, seriously skeptical of this. If someone that has an associate degree comes online and tells me that they are having no trouble finding work, I'll change my mind, but one thing that bothers me about hearing about the wonders of technical education, is that I don't hear that many real live students that say this.

16. Jul 6, 2011

### carlgrace

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. Perhaps a more accurate, but complementary idea would be:

17. Jul 6, 2011

### TMFKAN64

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

NOBODY cares. And that is especially true of admission committees at top colleges.

If anything, the "try-to-do-a-little-bit-of-everything" concept is completely missing the point. The top colleges want to see a uniqueness and a drive to excel that leaps off the page, not a huge, padded resume.

(Yes, I know... successful applicants need to be unique, just like everybody else... )

Good grades and test scores are just assumed at the top schools. The ability to differentiate yourself is everything, and *that* is why ECs and essays are important.

18. Jul 6, 2011

### TMFKAN64

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

Not really. Money buys comfort. I agree that it's hard to be happy if you are uncomfortable, but nonetheless, there are certainly unhappy rich people out there.

I agree that it's a false dichotomy though. It's relatively rare to be presented with a choice between money and happiness where it's totally impossible to get both. (Or neither.)

19. Jul 6, 2011

### drkatzin

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

Agreed. Instead of fifty different activities, I think what admission committees really want to see is one activity that you pour a ton of passion and effort into. The obvious reason is that a university is a community, and they need people to fill various niches. An orchestra can't function if it doesn't have any string bass players, for example.

The less obvious reason is that putting effort into an EC is a sign of strong academic potential. Most high school students haven't discovered their major. Ideally, when they do, they will have the same passion and drive that they had for their EC in high school, and will want to work hard to succeed.

20. Jul 6, 2011

### twofish-quant

Re: Extracurricular Activities and Essays: The be-all and end-all to college applicat

That's what they say. That's what they honestly want. But I'm not entirely convinced that this is what actually happens.

Which leads to Kafka-like situations. You must be unique!!!!!

Also, we are looking for something, but we won't tell you what it is, because we don't know, and we know that you will do what we say if we tell you to do it, so we won't tell you anything.

One thing that concerns me is that this "guess what I want you to say" leads to a lot of bad consequences.

First of all, one of the stated purposes of elite schools is to reduce class differences, but "guess what the admissions committee wants" makes that harder to do. In China, admissions into university is determined by a single number on a single test, which has problems, but the good part is that you can be dirt poor and study like hell for the test. In the US, you have a major advantage if you can think like a member of the admissions committee (or pay for someone that can think like someone on the admissions committee). This is bad, because if your are dirt poor, and you guess what the admissions committee thinks, you are more likely to guess wrong.

Second, it increases the anxiety and stress level. In China, people go nuts when it comes time to take the national entrance exam, but it's one day, you get your score, and if you do bad, it's over. If you don't know what is going to be on the exam, then you are going to increase the stress level to insane levels.

We are near the point, where I think that everyone would be better off if we just put the names of everyone that is decent into a hat and then draw the names out at random.

Last edited: Jul 6, 2011