Parents are aware that college admissions counselors from select schools and honors programs look at a student’s GPA, standardized test scores, essay responses, letters of recommendation, participation in extracurricular activities, alumni interviews and expressed interest as the determinants for admissions. GPA is further parsed by looking at grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum, class rank and subject test scores (AP, IB). The letters of recommendation are more often coming from high schools counselors and teachers, but there are also opportunities for these to come from employers/internship coordinators and family friends. And extracurricular activities can be high school programs, as well as activities outside of school covering a wide range of interests (sports, clubs, lessons [e.g. music, dance, etc.], hobbies and employment).

In general, the pool of all applicants is separated into those with very good GPA and standardized test scores, and GPAs/test scores that fall below the college’s established threshold. From there a nuanced process begins. Consideration, outside of academic achievement, is given for star athletes, the children of large donors, alumni, faculty, and public figures/celebrities. There may also be goals/requirements for ethnic diversity and for first in family college students. Finally, department heads may request more incoming high school graduates who are looking to study in their particular field due to current or projected attrition.

With all of the above to factor in, the most selective colleges then want their incoming student body to exhibit depth, commitment and leadership in a broad swath of different areas. Specifically, they want a population of students where each student is very good at one or two things but not the same things as the other students. These are ‘angular’ students. Or perhaps more appropriately, an ‘angular’ student body. On campus then, a very smart past student body president/with hours of community service can meet the very smart past editor of the high school newspaper/varsity volleyball captain who both can hang out with the very smart Eagle Scout/science award winner. They are essentially the same academically but not the same in the activities they’ve engaged in.

If this is what select colleges are looking for, as a parent we may wonder if we should push harder to get them more ‘interested’ in a specific activity and subtly eliminate unimportant hobbies to achieve ‘angularity.’ Or should we simply let our student discover on their own what it is they are passionate about, without any intervention. An overly structured or managed approach jeopardizes developing important social-emotional learning skills, where students gain a greater understanding of the consequences that stem from their own actions/decisions. There are also the potential for resentment and frustration if a parent is too involved in a teenager’s life. Alternately, at some level the teenage brain needs some guidance or a little push to move them forward. With the demands required of students academically, very few have the prescience to map out or actively monitor a long term plan related to extracurricular activities and their impact on future college applications.

Ultimately the decision making process should involve the student, with conversations starting at the beginning of high school career if not earlier about current interests, general goals and academic ability. Parents are the ones best equipped to gauge of their children’s personality and capabilities, and have access to substantial information to get an honest read about which tier of select schools and honors programs make the most sense to pursue as their student moves through high school. An ongoing dialogue and understanding of the college marketplace will help to avoid being too autocratic in the decision making process, or committing errors in absentia by assuming the process will take care of itself.