It is called the ``joiner strategy'' and it doesn't work. The strategy is to include a long and impressive list of extracurricular activities on a college application in hopes of outlisting the competition. Some players reportedly reach back as far as elementary school.
``That student is really no better off than the student who does nothing. He lacks credibility,'' says Dr. William H. Turner, the director of admissions at Michigan State University.
What a student does outside the classroom is important, say admissions officers, but it very seldom makes the difference when it comes to the final cut.
The main concern at all colleges is academic performance, no matter how competitive the admissions.
``First and foremost, the student is going to have to succeed in the classroom,'' says Parker Beverage, associate dean of admissions at Stanford University, which plans to admit about 1 in 15 applicants for next year's freshman class.
At Pomona College, a small liberal arts college in southern California, which will admit about 950 of its 2,200 applicants, academics counts for about 70 percent of the decision, according to Fred Zukor, the dean of admissions and financial aid.
Admissions officers use those lists of activities and personal essays to get a more complete picture of the applicant, they say. A promotion at a part-time job indicates responsibility; other activities may suggest initiative, creativity, or commitment.
``Those are all hard to measure on the SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test],'' Zukor says.
Only on rare occasions does that closer look make the difference for an applicant, but those cases are very rare, admissions officers stress.
``There was a kid who came from a tough family situation,'' says Turner. ``His father was dead. It was a large family. His academics were so-so, but he was supporting the family. The kid at first glance was only so-so at best. But when you looked at the whole picture, you were looking at Superman.''
Smaller schools tend to look harder at extracurricular activities, Zukor says, but what a student does outside of school doesn't make up for a weak academic record.
Liberal arts colleges look at the ``extras'' in part because they want to diversify their student bodies. This is especially so at schools with more than enough academically qualified applicants.
``It is a sifting process,'' said Stanford's Beverage. ``There will be students who fall out of the running because it doesn't seem to us that they will add to the diversity of the university.''
Admissions officers advise applicants not to hesitate to talk about themselves in essays or to include things they have done, such as part-time work.
``They should present themselves as a whole person,'' Zukor says.
But applicants should not join clubs or participate in sports just to get into college. It is not the length of the list that helps, but the quality, say admissions officers. Colleges prefer a student who has shown commitment and accomplishment to one who has just been busy.