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How smart teens from lower-income families can go beyond grades, SATs to get into top colleges

Key Points
  • American millionaires, on average, spend less than $1,000 to help their children get into college
  • Encouraging extracurriculars is the most-popular recommendation among wealthy families to aid a college application. 
  • How colleges rate extracurriculars as opposed to test scores is not an exact science.
Michael Jung | Getty Images

Breaking down the college admissions science is a tricky game, but certain factors can improve chances for prospective students. Extracurricular activities, in particular, are the most-popular recommendation made among America's affluent families to help their children gain admission to top college choices.

Sixty-five percent of millionaires spend less than $1,000 to help get their children into college, according to the recent CNBC Millionaire Survey. Instead of paying for test tutors and prep books, many more millionaires encourage their kids to go out for extracurricular activities such as sports, arts, or other groups. The reason is simple: Extracurricular activities are a great way to provide insight on how well-rounded an applicant is, in a way that grades and test scores can't capture.

Unfortunately, not all students can access extracurricular opportunities equally. Like access to expensive test prep, and private schools or public schools in wealthy zip codes, extracurriculars are a key to college admissions that continues to favor the wealthy, requiring monetary and time commitments that lower-income students may not be able to meet.

Extracurriculars don't have to remain out of reach

According to C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health at the University of Michigan, students from households earning less than $100,000 have twice the level of non-participation as their peers from wealthier households. Nearly 3 in 10 parents (29%) said the cost of school extracurricular activities is higher than they expected, and 10% of parents said the benefits of school activities are "not worth the cost."

The study found sports, arts, and other activities have an average annual participation fee of $161, $86, and $46 respectively, but when equipment and travel expenses are added these numbers rise to averages of $408, $251, and $126. Costs like these are a factor in the inequality, but other factors cited are access to transportation and the demands of a job.

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But extracurriculars are a college admissions factors that students and parents from lower-income families can navigate, unlike, for example, finding an alternative to match the 10% of American millionaires in the CNBC survey who said they plan to spend $50,000 or more to help their kids get into top college choices.

"Students whose schools lack resources or those who need to work or take care of their family should not be disadvantaged when applying to college," said Peter Wilson, director of admissions at the University of Chicago.

Wilson said having a job counts as an extracurricular in the University of Chicago admissions process.

It's not just about getting into college. C.S. Mott Children's Hospital noted in its study that participation has been positively correlated with educational achievement and personal development. It found 1 in 6 students nationally are not participating (18%).

Katherine Pastor, American School Counselor Association 2016 School Counselor of the Year, said there are still suitable alternatives to expensive activities.

"Volunteering and doing things in your community to help better the community ... those don't cost students any money to participate in."

Pastor also noted that these organizations often have scholarship money available for students who volunteer with them. "If you're going to go to a summer camp or if you're going to play an instrument or you're going to play a sport, there's a financial obligation there. But if you're going to go and do literacy volunteering or go work down at the adult center, there's no cost to the student other than their time," she said.

C.S. Mott found in its study that parents concerned about cost may not be aware of no-cost activities or knowledgeable about fee waivers. Only 7% of parents requested a waiver or scholarship for participation fees. Nearly one quarter of parents were what C.S. Mott called "missed opportunities" — they didn't know about waivers (19%) or were not comfortable requesting one (5%).

Quality over quantity

The Common Application — used by more than 800 schools — offers students 10 slots to fill with extracurriculars. But USNews, widely known for its annual college rankings, suggests picking and choosing extracurriculars based on quality over quantity.

Pastor agrees. She said you can tell the difference between kids loading up on extracurricular activities "versus kids who do things that fills their soul."

"Kids nowadays seem to be so involved that they get tired really quickly and they spread themselves too thin and they're trying to be everything to everybody," she said. Part of the problem is that parents and children are not sure what colleges and universities are exactly looking for when it comes to extracurricular participation.

Invest in You: Is a college degree worth the money?
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There is no extracurricular golden ticket to get into college, says the University of Chicago's Wilson.

"That's one of the biggest myths in the college admissions process. We want students to take advantage of what is interesting to them in context of where they are coming from," Wilson said. The University of Chicago would rather "see students utilize the space with things that matter to them, regardless of spots offered on an application."

Jobs that Wilson said the university has seen on recent applications include child or elder care, landscaping, farm work, camp counselor and youth athletic coach/umpire.

Colleges, universities, scholarships are looking for students uniqueness and how to help them tell their own story.
Katherine Pastor
2016 ASCA School Counselor of the Year

Calls have always existed to get rid of both the SAT and ACT admission tests. The University of Chicago is one elite school that has adopted test-optional policies. "We know testing is not the end-all and be-all," Wilson said. "In particular cases, we know it is not the best way to gauge a student. Being test-optional creates access for students of all backgrounds."

"Colleges, universities, scholarships are looking for students uniqueness and how to help them tell their own story," Pastor said. "We're learning how we can better represent our students in a more holistic approach as opposed to one test score. Test scores can't measure perseverance and grit and resilience."

"We really see a wide variety of activities. It's amazing how many new and different things tend to pop up in applications," Wilson said. This year alone, the range of extracurricular activities listed on UChicago applications included: beekeeping, vaudeville clown, slam poetry, "Bacon Club", environmental artist, bird caller and rock climbing.

Research has shown that while extracurricular activities are important in the eyes of colleges as they make decisions, good grades continue to be hugely important. According to the 2018 National Association of College Admission Counselors report, the top factors in the admission decision were "overall high school GPA, grades in college preparatory courses, admission test scores, and strength of curriculum" taken by a student.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.