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Follow your heart

Working for an NGO helping the physically challenged? Learning to play the piano? Extracurricular activities can get you admitted to a good college abroad report Arjun Seth

education Updated: Aug 25, 2010 11:39 IST
Arjun Seth
Arjun Seth
Hindustan Times

Every year highly selective colleges receive applications from academically gifted students far in excess of their required class size. These students have high GPA or high school rank along with SAT scores in the top 25 percentile. Not all make the final cut. So if you think you are a mathematics wizard who solves tough calculus problems while your mother feeds you dinner, rethink your priorities. Free up time and get involved in activities that inspire you and project your candidature holistically. If you have to free up time to follow your passion do so early in classes IX and X and build on your strengths over the years.

Describing the monotony of his weekly schedule, Karmanaya Agarwal, first year student at University of Illinois (, says “Once my family decided that the US will be our preferred destination, I quit IIT entrance preparatory classes and started focusing on working for the school’s computer science club and participating in regional and national quiz competitions. However, I am grateful that the high level of science and math preparation in those classes helped me improve my grades in school.”

Community service and volunteering are common activities that most high school students participate in. However, Arjun Chhabra, freshman in Cornell University ( took his interest to another level. He moved to Washington D.C while in Class X after his father joined the diplomatic mission, and started working with Chintan when he came back to India for summer. Chintan is a non-profit organisation that empowers the marginalised community of rag pickers who live in deplorable conditions in and around the various landfills in Delhi. On his return to America he helped raise funds for the NGO by organising samosa drives in his high school.

Internship and volunteering activities often help students identify their strengths and interests. Divya Balaji, first year student at Yale University ( worked with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust over the summer. Says Balaji, “Assisting a team of herpetologists, observing the behaviour of Siamese crocodile families, cleaning tortoise pens and assisting in the day-to-day running of the organisation, I discovered my passion for environmental science. My common application essay captured this and I think it was instrumental in my admissions.”

Sometimes life-changing experiences can urge you to follow a new path, says Rhea Kohli, a student of Sarah Lawrence College ( “A dear friend lost his life in a car accident. He was a victim of rash driving of another student who was driving under the influence of alcohol. I knew I couldn’t get my friend back but by setting up a Students Against Drunken Driving group I have dedicated my free time to raise awareness about this issue.”

If you are talented in a performing or visual art go ahead and send your art supplement along with your college application. Yashaswani Singh, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, listed her piano grades and showcased her at a concert at the India Habitat Centre that was attended by the Chief Minister of Delhi.

Likewise, athlete Shantanu Garg from Doon school sent his athletic supplement along with his tennis coach’s evaluation. Winning prestigious national tournaments and being involved in leadership, distinguished him from others. He was admitted to Claremont McKenna College, Carleton College and Vassar College. Says Garg, “I was the PT instructor for Jaipur House and this additional leadership role at Doon School defined my personal brand. Our efforts were rewarded when Jaipur House won awards for all drills during our Annual Sports Day after a gap of 15 years.”

College admissions officers read your resume, recommendations and essays to form an opinion on how you will contribute to the academic and residential life on campus. Be passionate and express yourself. Remember, the deeper your interest in activities, the more impressive your profile will be.

The author is an independent college admissions counselor and runs, a blog that helps students understand the personal essay writing process

First Published: Aug 25, 2010 11:34 IST