THE BLOG

Extracurricular Activities: Finding Your Focus in College Admissions

02/25/2015 03:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Harvard University accepted 5.9% of applicants last year, and Stanford admitted 5.1% of applicants - the lowest in college history. High school students increasingly turn to extracurricular activities to differentiate themselves, and even with that, they must apply to more and more schools to diversify their risk.

In this cycle of ever-increasing competitiveness, what should students actually focus on? It is easy to say focus on what you love to do or do something you are good at. Those concepts, however, are often tied together. On top of that, helicopter parents, over-competitive peers, and over-stretched high school counselors do not offer unified advice for a busy high school student.

The Shotgun Approach

At Synocate, our answer is the shotgun method: trying 3 different activities in various fields and reflecting on them after 3 months. In this way, we create a "rotational" program for our students and help them realize their own interests, strengths, and weaknesses.

In this article, we will lay out the steps of the shotgun approach: engaging, reflecting, and iterating. This time-tested approach is featured in our book The Applicant and has been used with over 250 students individually.

Step 1: Engaging

The first step is to frame the activities, your mindset, and game plan

In the shotgun approach, students take ownership in finding and participating in activities. Students themselves reach out to professors for internships, local clubs for officer positions, and competitions. In this way, students can take ownership for their plan and learn time management and long-term planning. They also will be more engaged.

These activities should span across different "buckets", or types of activities. There are four buckets in the framework: out-of-school, in-school, social work, and competitions. The actual number in each bucket is flexible and dependent on the student and available activities.

After an initial reflection, students devise a 3-month plan of activity management and tangible metrics they will use to measure each activity. Keeping a weekly log of reflections is helpful.

Step 2: Reflecting

The second step is to think deeply about each activity

After 3 months, the student should have a good sense of the people, the work, and the scope of each activity. Reflecting is just as important as doing the activity: it can take the form of a journal, a brainstorm, or even conversations with parents or peers. In fact, discussing thoughts with a school counselor or teacher can be a way to get to know them, which eventually reflects well in letters of recommendation.

Students should think critically about what they enjoyed most about each activity and how that connects to their personality or their previous experiences. Often, merit and happiness are correlated.

Step 3: Iterating

The third step is to use these experiences to inform future actions

Thinking is not enough - it is important to make those thoughts into a reality. After reflecting, develop next steps that can be measured either by time span or achievement. These goals can vary from making your own "dream" activities to starting again from scratch with three very different activities. The shotgun approach can be iterated upon many times, and often with great results.

The Dangers of a Narrow Mind

In order for the shotgun approach to work, two things must exist: an open attitude and a willingness to persevere. An attitude to try new things is essential to the shotgun method and to expanding one's horizons. Often times, we speak with parents or students who are focused on just one school or a set of schools (usually Ivy League schools). Although it is good to have a focus, sometimes being so narrow-minded can remove students from what they actually would enjoy or where they would excel.

We have used the shotgun approach with 7th-12th grade students and it has worked wonderfully. Some students realize they actually enjoy robotics and pursue that, winning VEX competitions and other related competitions. Others realize that medicine was just a dream their parents had for them, and they pursue dance, turning that into a series of performances and focusing on specific styles.

Conclusion

The beauty of the process is that life is a rotational program. We view the shotgun approach as just the start to a series of experiences that young adults take themselves. Students take responsibility for finding these activities, following through, and ultimately reflecting. Using these tools, students will be equipped to find their focus, which often changes, in college itself. About 80% of college students end up changing their major at least once.

This long-term view of admissions is what really has made us successful and what can make you successful. Empower your child to explore, and give them the energy and perspective to do so. That is often easier said than done, which is why many parents approach us as a third party with experience and a passion for helping others.

Although SAT scores are important, understanding and evaluating a student's core strengths and areas of interest are equally valuable and often underestimated. Using our shotgun approach and carefully selecting different activities across a spectrum of buckets is one way to create your own rotational program and explore interests. Some of those may even turn into professions. We have followed students over the years and found exactly that: when a student uses this approach and finds their passion early on, that budding interest sometimes turns into a fully-fledged profession.

Good luck and comment with your story below!