Struggling With Your College Application Resume? Here’s 5 Tips on How to Start!

At the heart of the college application, sits your resume—a single document that, depending on the platform you use, forces you to squeeze four years into 10 simple activities, with only about 100–150 characters available to describe each one. It can be a little intimidating, to say the least! And before we even worry about the squeezing part, how do you make the most of your high school career in preparation for the college application season? These tips are helpful for a wide age range. Seniors and juniors, of course, but also any students already beginning to think about putting together their resume—which for many students is as soon as they enter high school—from choosing the best classes to pursuing unique extracurriculars. In this post, I’ll be offering insight into looking for the best extracurriculars, building a solid class schedule through your four years of high school, tailoring your activities into a resume, and standing out as a college applicant.

1. Get Graduation Requirements Out of the Way

Many people don’t realize that the high school transcript is also an important aspect of the college resume as a whole. First and foremost, I highly recommend you to take all your core classes and graduation requirements first, so that you free up your time and can rest easy knowing that 1) you can definitely graduate and 2) you can build a stronger transcript for college. Most schools will require you to take math, science, English, history, and art for a certain number of years. Some schools require you to take them for all four years, but if your school allows for some flexibility, spend your freshman and sophomore year getting them out of the way. This way, you can dedicate your junior and senior years to taking higher-level classes, like Honors and AP/IB, to show colleges on your high school transcript that you are willing to academically challenge yourself, and that you can handle college-level work. Ideally, you should take the highest level courses your school has to offer, but colleges evaluate you in the context of your high school, so they won’t penalize you for not taking APs, for instance, if your school doesn’t offer APs.

2. Choose Unique & Enjoyable Classes

If you have the time and energy and your school offers additional courses, you may also potentially take some more unique classes. A question that surfaces frequently from some colleges, either in essays or interviews, is: what was your favorite class/subject and why? If your school offers more untraditional classes (for example, my school has elective courses in religious studies, financial literacy, philosophy, astronomy, and more), this could be a good opportunity to make your transcript stand out from your classmates’ and gain some interesting academic experiences to discuss in your essays. Also, try to prioritize doing what you enjoy! If you like art, take lots of art classes if you have the chance. Fill your course load with humanities classes if you’re into that. Double up on science. Conduct an independent study in math. Don’t limit yourself! Figure out your passion, your “thing,” and pursue it. The other components of your application

3. Figure Out Your “Thing” & Be Genuine

Soyou may be wondering, how exactly do you go about figuring out this “thing”? What even is a “thing” anyway? Essentially, that “thing” of your focus is the subject you most excel in, and/or the direction that you’re most passionate about pursuing. These criteria can and should coincide! Don’t push yourself to take up math as your thing, for example, just because you have a knack for it but you actually despise it. Spend freshman and sophomore year trying out different clubs on your school campus, and maybe take up some different extracurriculars outside of school if club offerings are limited. Explore a variety of different subjects, and see which ones are the most interesting to you. Gradually, narrow down your focus. Most clubs turn over their leadership in junior and senior year, so try your best to get some leadership positions in your favorite clubs, and maybe try to shoot for a leadership role in a bigger, more competitive club. These will help you out when building a strong resume, as colleges like to see lots of leadership and initiative. Pursuing what you’re genuinely passionate about is an effective way of solidifying your “thing.”

4. Walk the Unwalked Path

The truth is, colleges receive A LOT of applications. Top colleges might even receive more than 50,000 in one year. Similar to taking some more unconventional courses, walking an “unwalked” path contributes to helping you stand out from the sea of applicants. As aforementioned, colleges appreciate seeing you take initiative and push for projects you are personally passionate about. You don’t always have to let available or unavailable resources limit your potential. For example, if you really love a certain activity, but your school and/or city doesn’t have a well-organized club or community for it, create one yourself! Many schools have their own systems for allowing students to easily found or co-found clubs. Think outside of the box in terms of how you can expand and apply your craft. If you’re an artist, for instance, you can go beyond simply producing art for classes and competitions. Start a nonprofit art program! Tutor young artists! Maybe you could even start your own literary magazine. Colleges understand how much more difficult it is to pave your own path than walking on a path many others have walked on. It’s also much harder to distinguish yourself and really impress colleges with achievements they’ve already seen from many other applicants.

5. Spike vs. Well-Rounded (Depth vs. Breadth)

As for some parting words of wisdom, I’d like to discuss the differences between being a “spike” and being “well-rounded” (otherwise known as depth vs. breadth). These are terms you’ll likely hear at one point or another as you go through your college application process. Being “well-rounded” means you’re averagely skilled in many different subjects (breadth), while being a “spike” means you’re extremely skilled in only one or two subjects (depth). People’s views on this topic are quite torn down the middle; on the one hand, many people believe that colleges love to see well-rounded applicants who have challenged themselves in a variety of different fields, and that it’s valuable to possess a wide range of skills. On the other hand, other people believe that it’s more important to distinguish yourself in one particular area than to be mediocre in several. Consider: in admissions committee meetings, when the admissions officers are looking through thousands of applications, who will they remember you as? The “writer”? The “scientist”? The “community service student”? Being a spike, having lots of depth in one field, ensures that you are more likely to be remembered. However, the reality is that it is best to achieve some sort of combination of being “spike” and “well-rounded.” Develop a diverse set of skills across subjects while refining your expertise in one particular craft. Don’t try to be the best at 10 different things—on top of maintaining your GPA while taking rigorous courses, you’ll never have the time. 

Above all, though, focus on developing and reflecting your personality and journey through the activities you choose to do. Then, throughout the different spaces on your college application, including essays and activities, you’ll be able to weave together a cohesive story.