PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 215 | An Extracurricular Activity Cheat Code

For juniors who need to beef-up their extracurricular activities list, learn the cheat code to do just that in 4-6 months.

In today's episode, I discuss how to develop a compelling extracurricular activity in the final 6 months before college applications are due.

There are many juniors who wake up halfway through the year, and realize that their extracurricular activities list is pretty light.

It dawns on them that their applications are due in 6 months -- and they hit the panic button.

What can I do to be different, to stand out? Most of my activities are pretty generic and unorganized...

Listen to today's podcast to learn a way to take your ECA list to the next level.

If you're younger than a junior, learn how to use the same strategy over 18 - 24 months, instead of 4 - 6 months.

Show Transcript:

Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. This week I want to discuss what I consider to be a secret weapon when it comes to extracurricular activities. I was recently reminded how powerful this strategy could be. While on a consulting call with a prep willer earlier this week and I thought I'd highlight the strategy to the greater prep community.

I've talked about the strategy before, but never really dug into it in that much depth. So I decided to devote an entire episode to it. Now, this is a relatively high level strategy reserved for what I would consider very motivated students who really want to put their best foot forward because it's not particularly easy. The strategy can be implemented over the course of 18 to 24 months.

If you're, say, a freshman or a sophomore and you're super disciplined and organized. But it can also be executed in, say, 4 to 6 months if you are closing in on the application season and you feel like your extracurricular activity list is still a little light. This would be the case for current juniors whose college applications are due at the end of this summer, just a few months away.

So just as a reminder, when you fill out your college application and there will be a section called Extracurricular Activities and it has ten spots for you to fill in with activities that you have done outside of the classroom. That's what extracurricular means. It means outside of the regular high school academic curriculum. And there are a lot of activities that students put in this section.

The usual suspects are sports work, internships, volunteer work and community service, student government. Boy Scouts. National Charity League. Piano. Speech and Debate. Mock trial model. U.N. religious based activities and other school based clubs like Robotics Club, Recycling Club, Spanish Club. Investment Club. You get the idea. Now I can rattle off all of those because I see them every single day and admissions officers see them every single day.

They are very common. Unless you have earned some type of national or international acclaim or recognition in one of these activities which you might have. These are not exactly going to get the attention of admissions officer. Remember, they are reviewing hundreds and hundreds of files, of which there is often an 80% overlap in the extracurricular activity lists. This is not where you want to be.

You want to stand out from the crowd and give the admissions officers something to sink their teeth into. Something that gets their attention. In the past, I've suggested some unconventional extracurricular activities, like independent research projects starting a podcast, writing a book, starting a business, filing for a patent, and so on. The idea I'm proposing today is similar to some of these, but in my opinion, much more attainable and realistic and effective, especially in a short time window, and that is to create your own extracurricular activity out of thin air.

You could call it by a few different names. Some call it self-directed study or self-directed learning or self-directed education or self-directed personal development or something along these lines, depending on what your particular project is. The idea here is that you put together a long list of things that you have done to enhance your own education, your own personal development.

This is completely self-initiated. No one asked you to do it. No one assigned you to do it. You're not getting high school or college credits for doing it necessarily, but rather you're doing it because it excites you. It feeds your passion, it inspires you, and you almost can't help yourself from doing it. You're doing it on top of all the other obligations that you have because it's that important.

Let me give you some examples. A few years ago, one of my sons who was applying to college during the height of COVID, when all of his pre-arranged summer extracurricular activities had been canceled and he was forced to stay at home for months and months at a time. He and I discussed the situation and how the lockdown, if you will, and subsequent cancellations really hindered his ability to show the admissions officers what he really cared about, what he really valued.

And he had a point. Most students use their extracurricular activity list as a way to tell a story about what they care about, how they choose to spend their time, what they value by reading down the list of those ten essays, extracurricular activities, which should be in priority order. By the way, the admissions officer can get a very good feel for who you are, what you've been doing for the last three years, and they can make a good guess about what you might continue to pursue when you get to college.

This is all a good thing unless you have a weak and disjointed or confusing essay list. So I asked my son what was he really interested in? What were his career plans potentially? What did he think he might want to major in? To which, after some back and forth, he responded Well, I know I'd like to be a military officer in the Navy.

I'm interested in leadership, specifically military leadership. And I plan to be a history major in college. Okay, that's great. That gave me a lot to go on. I then suggested that since he essentially couldn't leave the house any way because of the quarantine restrictions, that he'd go on a massive reading binge and that he should set out to read the top, I don't know, 50 books on military leadership.

Over the following three months. And that he add this quote unquote activity to his list of ten essays, one that he calls self-directed study, comma, military leadership, whereby he lists the 50 books that he read during quarantine and for the book titles that didn't fit in the hundred and 50 character limit. He would finish that list in the additional information section.

He liked the idea. He spent a small fortune on the best 50 books on military leadership, and he proceeded to become a subject matter expert on the topic within four months. And he added this custom activity to his essay list. And maybe not surprisingly, it was the very first thing that every one of his interviewers asked him about during his college and military interviews.

I see that you read quite a few books here on military leadership. Wow. 50 books. That's impressive. Which one was your favorite? And this launched the interview in a very auspicious way because my son was proud of the accomplishment. It was a pretty heavy lift. It intrigued each one of the interviewers, and he was able to communicate about the things that he cared a lot about, both by the content of the list itself and about how he talked about the list.

The list alone is like a shortcut, a heuristic, if you will. That immediately gives the admissions officers a window into your life. And it was memorable because it was different. I don't imagine other interviewers starting out with a question like, I see here that you were the vice president of the recycling club in 10th grade. Tell me more about that experience.

That is probably not going to happen because it's frankly boring. It provides little insight into who you are as a person or a student or a prospective college student, presumably. It's not a bad thing to have that on your list. It's just not particularly compelling or memorable. I would say it falls pretty flat. I'll give you one more example.

I've worked with a student who thought he wanted to be a sports management major. And I've said this many times before, that's fine. But it's pretty generic and it's a pretty popular major. So we worked on a way to get a bit more specific about his interest in sports management. And it turned out after some extended conversations and some probing that he came to the conclusion that a career as a sports agent seemed to bring together all of his passions and his strengths and his skills.

And I agreed with him on that. I thought it was a great idea with a lot of promise. Unfortunately, it was very late into his junior year, and his essay list was already pretty well spoken for, and he didn't have that much time to get involved in any long term projects or jobs or fancy internships. Now, he had some of the generic prerequisites for this type of major.

He was a three sport athlete. He was a leader in a few school clubs. He had good grades, both on the math side and the verbal side. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But nothing that really stood out. He looked like a lot of other smart, athletically inclined males interested in something related to sports. Well, join the club admissions officers.

See a lot of these types of profiles, almost as many as they do females who want to major in psychology because they claim that they are really good at helping their girlfriend solve relationship problems. Be that as it may, I suggested to this prep Weller that he create his own custom essay that he would call self-directed study karma the business of athlete representation, and that he would take the following online courses from Coursera over the next four months to become a subject matter expert in what a sports agent is all about.

Course, number one, becoming a sports agent, of course. Number two, Intro to Statistics. Course. Number three, Employment Contract Law. Course. Number four, Data Analytics in sports and team Management. Course. Number five. Excel Spreadsheets. Course. Number six Analytics. Law and Athlete Representation. And for good measure. I suggested that he should also take the LSAT or the LSAT, which is the SAT for law school, and I suggested that if he did, those things that they would jump off the page compared to any other of his more generic activities because each of those courses was directly relevant to becoming a sports agent, legal matters, statistics, contract law and the rest of it.

And you could imagine how fluent he would be in talking about this topic. He would be way ahead of the ball and the admissions officer would not be left wondering what the student was really interested in. It was right before their eyes and lo and behold, that's exactly what happened. He ended up talking about these self-directed courses and what he learned about more than any other thing on his application.

The point is this If your extracurricular activity list looks a bit generic and not apt to grab the attention of the admissions officer, maybe you should do something about it. And by creating your own custom activity with a list of things that presumably you want to do because you're the one picking the things you are forcing the admissions officer to see what you care about in all of its glory.

They have no choice but to see it, to digest it, and to acknowledge it. It's it's a sneaky way to do it because it's unique. It's a bit subtle and it doesn't take the form of an overly edited supplemental essay, for example. I don't mean sneaky in an unethical way, but in a unique way that presents what you care about, what you value, and what you intend to do with your future in a novel way.

It's a cheat code. You're basically creating a course curriculum ahead of time for what you think you intend to explore in college. You're telling them what you care about through your actions. This is magical. Most applicants leave it up to the admissions officer to figure out what they actually care about. By piecing together all the things that they've done.

We call that connecting the dots. You don't want your admissions officer spending their time and energy guessing what you want or guessing how you intend to connect the dots. That's a losing game. They don't have time to try to guess what you're thinking. You want to connect the dots for them. And this self created essay is a clever way to do it.

Don't make them wonder or guess or worse. Show them what you intend to do by taking this massive action. In my son's case, he read 50 thick books on military leadership because he's a reader and he had a lot of time on his hands during the lockdowns. Or the second student who didn't have a lot of time left to join a club or find a job or get some internship.

But he did have time at night and on the weekends to take online classes from Coursera, which are often free and often just a few weeks long and self-paced and doable if you have some discipline. There are other ways to shape your essay list to reflect what you value that aren't so short term and intense. And that's exactly why Prep Academy starts in ninth grade.

It would be better if you had an extra curricular activity list of ten activities that you started in ninth grade and continued through 11th grade that has a coherent theme and direction. But not everybody can pull that off. But most students, if they're motivated, can use today's strategy. In the last 4 to 6 months prior to applying to college to create their own custom essay that really highlights exactly what they want to highlight.

And I would say that the two most potent and realistic ways to do this is by way of a reading list of books that you've read in a few months time or a list of online courses that you take over the course of a few months. Both of these strategies allow for you to do them on your own, on your own time after hours, and for not a lot of money.

If you're a junior right now with six months to go before your applications are due and your essay list is pretty light and doesn't have a coherent theme and doesn't speak to what you want to do in college or beyond, you might want to break glass in case of emergency and deploy this strategy. And of course, if you'd like to discuss this with me so we can brainstorm a viable plan to close out your junior year to put you in good shape for the application season.

Please let me know and we'll set up a Zoom call. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies, Online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me. Or I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC analytics scholarships.

Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in Prep Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman or sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind.

Go to and enroll today. If you know a parent with a middle school or high schooler that might find this episode helpful, please share it with them and give us a rating if you get a moment. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a much wider audience. If you have questions, comments or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email.

DM me on Instagram. Check out our blog or our Facebook page or connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear from you. Until next week, goodbye. Good luck and never stop preparing.

Follow us:

If you want to support the show, here are three immediate steps to take. Subscribe to the podcast where ever you listen to podcasts

  1. Follow me on Instagram or Facebook
  2. Give us a review
  3. Share this episode with a friend
  4. Join our mailing list (by opting in on the homepage or in this article)
  5. Enroll your 9th or 10th grader in the program

Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

Learn More About PrepWell:

Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.

More From PrepWell

Get Started

Get Started With PrepWell Academy

This website uses cookies to create the best user experience. Learn more here. 
Copyright© 2020 PrepWell Academy, Inc. All Rights Reserved.