The College Conversation: Don't favor activities over academics

It should come as no surprise that the most important factor in college admissions is grades in rigorous courses. So unless your student is going to be a recruited athlete or an actress on Broadway, extracurricular activities should never trump academics when it comes to ensuring that your child is the most competitive applicant for college admissions.

Unfortunately, you really won't know how far your child's talent will take him until much later in his high school career. And, you should always keep in mind that your star athlete might tear his rotator cuff junior year and have nothing to show on his record but low grades, an easy course load and sub-par test scores.

It baffles me when families come into my office with their thespians and musicians in tow, asking if colleges keep in mind a student's heavy extracurricular load when determining a student's chance of admission. No college admissions officer in his right mind is going to tell you that your kid's long hours in the pool will excuse average grades and a decision to take four classes his senior year.

Whose fault is it that extracurricular activities have overtaken your child's high school experience?

Unfortunately, the blame often does not fall on the students themselves. The blame might be laid at the feet of the cheerleading advisor who calls a last-minute practice or doesn't have the decency to create a schedule ahead of time so her girls can map out their study schedules; or the coach who demands twice daily practices in order to accommodate ego and the desire to win; and even the high school administrator unwilling to stand up to the advisors of these teams and organizations; and there's always the father who dreams that his son is going to be recruited by a Division I team securing a full tuition scholarship to the college of choice does not help either.

And, heaven forbid, a student stands up for himself and decides to put academics first, making the intelligent decision to skip practice. The result: The student is ostracized and benched for the next game. It doesn't seem to matter if the student has a ton of homework, the SAT exam around the corner, or a college visit; if the player misses practice or a game, he is served the wrath of a coach. And, the more competitive the team, the worse it is. Students, and often parents, live in fear of their coaches, many of whom are classroom teachers. How ironic is that?

And the students who want to do it all, they are not sleeping. We polled our clients and learned that, on average, students enrolled in AP classes and involved in heavy extracurriculars outside of the classroom are sleeping far less than six hours a night, often pulling all-nighters just to get it done. Even the most well-intentioned students can have practices called last minute by a frustrated coach, throwing a monkey wrench into their study plans. Eating dinner is also difficult. It's not just a sack lunch anymore, but a sack dinner.

It's a sad state of affairs that so many people sacrifice grades and academic learning to accommodate an extracurricular schedule. In fact, according to the National Assn. of College Admissions Counselors, in a recent survey of college admissions officers, extracurricular activities ranked low on the totem pole when colleges were making decisions on a student's candidacy. Grades in college prep classes, the rigor of a student's course load, grade-point average and test scores top the list.

Don't risk your child's chances of college admissions by watching him or her overextend and become too involved in activities outside of the classroom. I am not suggesting that students drop everything and solely focus on school work.

After all, you want your child to find balance, and feeling connected to high school is critical for emotional health. Colleges also want healthy students who are able to balance academics and life. But there comes a point when the adult needs to step in and say, "Enough is enough."

It is our responsibility to stand up to the bullies who are demanding too much from our 14- to 17-year-olds, or at the very least help our teens to self-advocate.

Seriously. Something's got to give here.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs Sundays. Please send college admissions questions to

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