Grade 12 students throw their caps in the air to celebrate graduation.

“How do I get into my dream school?”

I respectfully submit that this is the wrong question for students to ask.

It’s obvious that any student’s dream school wants each successful applicant to be an outstanding academic. But for every spot available in the freshman class of any one of a hundred or more competitive universities, there are often dozens (even hundreds) of equally academically qualified, high-achieving students.

So how do students set themselves apart? The first step is moving past that question; it suggests there’s only one path to acceptance or that their high school years should be spent completing a to-do list of what they think universities want them to do. What they do and who they are outside the classroom shape and define them, making them distinct and interesting candidates for university admission.

Set Yourself Apart as a Leader

In 2009, “To learn, to lead, to serve,” emerged as part of our school’s Vision. It has gained traction since then, providing a helpful and simple framework on which we build into our students’ lives, and help them catch this same vision for themselves. The core elements for a purposeful life are there, and if we work to emphasize these three simple concepts, I am confident that our students will make an impact while they’re here at SMUS and on the world stage when they head off to university and beyond.

It is not uncommon for a student in Grade 9 or 10 to come to my office with ambitions to get accepted to a highly selective university, wanting to plan ahead both academically and in their extracurricular pursuits. More often than not, the student presents this question: “How many clubs should I get involved in?” or “What club can I start or lead (because that looks good on a university application)?” May I politely suggest, again, that these are the wrong questions to be asking?

My philosophy of leadership has always been that leaders are people who see a need, step in to fill it, and draw others along in the process. No fancy title is needed to implement this approach to leadership in everyday life. From the time our students are young, we emphasize finding meaningful ways to contribute to their communities, to give back, as we sometimes frame it. The concept of meaningful involvement is key to students seeing their extracurricular life driven by things they truly care about, both while they’re in school and after they graduate.

Sure, there is no shortage of opportunities for extracurricular involvement (we have 67 clubs and councils running – even during COVID times); Ms. Parker coordinates and informs students about multiple volunteer opportunities on and off campus, and online (care to volunteer to watch a livestream feed of a penguin colony and document your observations!?) Yet, students still think of the extracurricular piece as a checklist, as if there is some formula: if they get the calculation just right – the right number of clubs, or service hours, or leadership positions – they’ll get that coveted university admission they are seeking.

Universities Want Quality Over Quantity

What if, instead of some perceived metric of ‘just the right number of clubs, service and leadership roles’, students were to look around, observe their communities, identify gaps and needs, and find a way to fill those needs, gathering a few like-minded peers along the way? Such an approach would be a genuine expression of the student’s engagement with their community and naturally lead to meaningful involvement and leadership opportunities.

Universities regularly tell applicants and University Counsellors that they are looking for continued commitment and dedication to activities outside the classroom; quality over quantity is always the measure.

A high school student asking, “How can I get into [enter selective school of your choice]?” is ultimately asking an inward-looking, self-serving question. Instead, they should ask “Where do I see the needs around me, and what can I do to help meet those needs?” This perspective is outward-looking, community-oriented and ultimately will lead to meaningful community involvement and leadership opportunities. I am confident that students would be much more able to speak passionately about experiences which are an expression of their own observations of their community’s needs: their involvement would be intrinsically driven.

When students sit down in spring of Grade 11 and begin drafting their personal statements and college essays, wouldn’t it be great if this were the easiest part of the application instead of the hardest? What if they asked themselves, “How am I learning, leading and serving in my community?” And what if the answer came as easily to them as answering “What’s your name?” If students are meaningfully involved in their learning, leading and serving – if it comes from a place of intrinsic motivation – talking passionately about it should come naturally to them.

Instead of asking “How do I get into my dream school?” I’d recommend students ask themselves, “Who do I want to be and how can I effect positive change in my community?” Knowing the answer to this question and meaningfully responding to it is what universities want to see in prospective students. We want our students to leave this school and embark on their post-secondary journey confident that they have a role to play in the success of whatever community they end up in. This comes from internalizing our Vision, “To learn, to lead, to serve.” And it’s what will truly set them apart.

Our University Counselling team recently hosted a “Post-Secondary Planning 101” event. University Counsellors covered a number of topics, including the basics of applying to universities and writing applications, and they shared more on the importance of extracurriculars. The video from the live stream can be watched in full here.