I am regularly contacted by high school students and their parents seeking advice on early planning for college admissions. Because advanced planning is imperative to becoming a competitive applicant, I want to share a recent (abridged) email exchange I had with the parent of an international student:
Parent - My son was an honor student in middle school. I am seeking assistance on the activities I should place him in as he goes through high school. My goal is to help him prepare for a top school in the United States. I want to support his interests while encouraging activities that will enhance his chances of admission and career opportunities.
Kimberly - First, thank you for reaching out. You are smart to be forward-thinking on behalf of your son and his future applications. He will most certainly benefit from early planning - not only will his high school years go by quickly, but his course load, GPA, and extracurricular involvement will be critical to his success as an applicant.
To begin, I suggest that you and your son discuss his interests and current career aspirations. Encourage him to look into the clubs, activities, and projects he has access to not only in his school but in your community as well. Once you both have an idea of the extracurriculars he can join, you can work out (or work with me) to put together a strategic participation plan. As I mentioned, universities are looking for what I call “T-Shaped” applicants, so you want a plan that highlights the quality of his involvement--demonstrating depth--over the quantity of activities he decides to engage in. It is also very beneficial to find activities that align with his career aspirations, particularly as he moves closer to high school graduation, as well as leadership opportunities.
After finding school and/or community clubs and organizations, your son should consider extending his interests to a larger platform. Many applicants have interests in, for example, the environment, social causes, travel, etc, but they only pursue them within their schools or local clubs. I have found, however, that those clients who proactively address their interests beyond already-established channels are viewed very favorably by universities. You son has a few options to extend his interests:
1. Found a new school club. Your son will need to work with the proper school faculty to get his idea going, recruit members, and do quite a bit of planning (meetings, activities, fundraising, outreach, etc.) which demonstrates considerable ambition, maturity, and leadership.
2. Volunteer and/or connect his school club with a community service organization. This is a way to develop leadership in a visible platform, and universities love to see an applicant with dedication to community service.
3. Advance an interest through social media. Building a community of similarly-minded individuals from around the country or around the world, publishing educational articles or blogs, and inspiring people to action shows leadership, commitment, and integrity.
In all honesty, there are many avenues your son can pursue as he moves through his high school years. The important thing is to find something he is genuinely interested in and curious about -- no matter what he ends up doing exactly, these qualities will shine through and make him a desirable university applicant.