How to Bulk Up That College Resume

With extracurriculars that actually matter. Ahead, four simple activities that’ll wow college admissions officers—without a heavy investment of time or money.

Family responsibilities.

It’s an area of experience that’s often overlooked, but Elizabeth Cheron, dean of undergraduate admissions at Northeastern University, says it can speak volumes about an applicant: “Even though it’s not a formal program, if someone has two parents who work full time and regularly cares for, say, younger siblings or a grandmother, it shows us more of who they are as a whole person—and lets us see them handling adult-level responsibilities.” In fact, the current Common Application has been changed to better capture the family aspects of students’ lives.

Community-service projects.

“Especially those that allow students to participate consistently, rather than just one single event,” Cheron says. “This way they get to know the purpose of the work they’re doing and the people in it, and it becomes far more meaningful for them.” Relationship-based work at retirement homes or organizations like the Special Olympics can be particularly rewarding for high schoolers. “Once they start working regularly with real people and experience volunteering as not just a line on a résumé but something about real people who become important to them, the impact and realizations they take away can be profound,” she explains.

Regular ol’ summer jobs.

Thinking about signing up for a pricey tech or science enrichment camp? Consider some on-the-job training instead. “Lots of students think of a full-time or part-time job in retail or scooping ice cream as something that isn’t teaching them anything,” Cheron says. “But the life skills they teach can be tremendous”—think a proven work ethic, time and schedule management (i.e., maintaining that elusive work/life balance), leadership skills, and the ability to cooperate as a team member. All of which, Cheron says, are valued by admissions experts.

Anything you’re passionate about.

“The main thing we look for is something authentic in what an applicant is showing us,” Cheron says—in other words, concrete evidence of who you are and what you’ll contribute to the college community at large. “One of my favorite applications presented two extracurriculars: skateboarding and music composition. Initially we all said, ‘Huh?’ But then he elaborated in a video, showing us in a clear, eloquent way that he composed music and choreographed skateboarding routines to it. Suddenly we understood.”