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Does your kid while away hours playing video games, or rereading a favorite author's books for the third time?
Don't worry. It's exactly those kinds of offbeat skills that can catch the eye of a college admissions officer.
Students labor mightily to land a spot at the college of their choice. Every year, more students apply to large numbers of colleges. In 2012, 28 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, double the rate of 10 years earlier, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Not only do application costs mount, but the work of completing all those application forms can make it harder for students to earn the grades those colleges want to see.
For their part, many parents invest enormous amounts of money and time trying to give their child an edge when it comes to getting into college. Some spend thousands every year on youth sports, even though the odds of landing athletic scholarships are woefully low. Others shell out for high-priced tutors in search of a few more points on a standardized test like the SAT.
Those approaches may work for some kids. But unconventional skills also can make colleges take notice.
Fluency in Arabic is one example. Joie Jager-Hyman, founder and president of CollegePrep360, said some colleges with programs in international relations are interested in students who can speak that language.
Lesser known sports may also give students—particularly female students—an edge, depending on the college's team offerings. Chris Krause, founder of National College Scouting Association Athletic Recruiting, known as NCSA, said when a college adds a football team, it often has to add women's teams to comply with federal regulations requiring equal access to sports for men and women.
And at least one college is interested in drawing video gamers to campus. Robert Morse University earlier this year designated video gaming a sport, meaning students can win scholarships to play "League of Legends."
Sally Rubenstone, a former admissions officer at Smith who is currently a senior advisor to College Confidential, said activities outside of school will often catch an admissions officer's eye. An application may stand out more if a student interested in community service serves on a local school board or other community committee, or if a teen actor joins a local theater company in addition to performing at school.
"Model U.N., mock trial, literary magazine, band—you can get pretty jaded by the time you are on application 47, " she said. "How many times do you want to see mock trial?"
A paid job is also a plus on an application, Rubenstone said, "and frankly, the crappier the job, the better." She would be less interested, she said, in the student who worked in mom or dad's law office than the lawyer's child with a job at Target.
"It's kind of a no-lose proposition," she said. "If a student comes from a disadvantaged family, the admission folks like to see that the kid is chipping in. If a student comes from a more well-heeled family and is still having some of that real-world experience working in Taco Bell, that's a plus, too. "
Sometimes a student fails to convey what Rubenstone calls hidden extracurriculars, the things they do in their free time that show special talents or passions. An admissions officer's interest may be piqued at the news that someone rebuilt a car for fun or read all 35 of her favorite author's books.
The quantity of activities a student lists is less important than the depth of their involvement, said Michael Motto, a former assistant director of admissions at Yale and co-founder of Apply High, an admissions consulting firm. Application readers tend to pay more attention to the first few activities a student lists, so those should be ones where a student has been distinctive.
"Admissions officers want to see that students are active and involved. It doesn't mean every activity is interning at the White House," he said.
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Still, the more a student can demonstrate a deep commitment to an activity, the better. Motto recalls an application from a student with an interest in engineering who found an opportunity to spend six weeks on a submarine learning all kinds of things about that field. Motto has also seen an application from a student interested in community service who did some work with an international relief organization for six weeks.
At the end of the day, though, admissions experts say in addition to solid grades and test scores, it is most important for students to put their authentic selves forward. Colleges want to see who students really are, not who they think they are supposed to be.
"Be your best self, whatever that means," Jager-Hyman said. "You don't have to go in saying 'Oh, the colleges want straight-haired people so I have to straighten my hair.' Be your best curly-haired self."