What Can Your 11th Grader Do Now to Prepare for College Applications This Fall?

If you are a planner by nature and like to avoid last minute rushes, there’s some foundational prep work your 11th grader can be working on now before crunch time hits in the fall of 12th grade. One of the foundational exercises we go through with rising seniors is to have them create an old-fashioned resume. 

That might sound strange at first. It's true that students don’t upload a conventional resume as part of the Common Application (or most other application platforms), but creating a 1-2 page resume the way mom or dad would understand the term helps applicants prioritize what activities and experiences they'll want to showcase not just in the Activities section of the application form, but throughout the entire application. It is a key part of figuring out what to highlight (or deemphasize) in a format that requires prioritization (as the application will, too).

We’ve found that sometimes students are very good judges in deciding which activities deserve priority on the resume (and in the application itself), and sometimes it’s the parents who have the better perspective. Respecting boundaries in the application process is always a delicate balancing act for parents, so the resume is a great place where you as the parent can be a helpful conversation partner and a gut-check before your student starts working on the applications themselves. The key here is to be mindful of Ivey Strategy #2: Think Like an Admissions Officer. (The Ivey Strategies we refer to on our blog are the strategies we use throughout our book How to Prepare a Stand-Out College Application.) It helps if you can take off the mom or dad hat and try to put on an admissions hat. You probably know intuitively that those are very different roles, but in practice it can be hard to separate the two, and it helps to be mindful of the difference.

For example, your daughter might think that having served as chair of the school's Winter Ball committee is the most important activity to feature, whereas you might be lobbying hard to include the fact that she has won top reviews as the Zumba instructor at a well regarded grown-up gym in your neighborhood. Actually, neither activity is as significant for application purposes as the student group she co-founded at school to provide dance classes to students, after having negotiated with the school administration to grant P.E. credits, no less.

Or if your daughter wants to emphasize that she’s a competitive athlete, then maybe "Athletics" should have its own section in the resume, because as a group those activities are a bigger part of her profile than the non-sports activities she's involved in. Because she's not in a time crunch (yet), she has time to play around with different sections and different orders on the resume. What if she puts these three things or those four things together? How does that change the theme and the overall impression? Grouping things together in different ways and in different places on the resume can be much more revealing for brainstorming and strategy purposes than making one giant, jumbled list of activities, or simply putting all of it in chronological order.

The larger purpose of this resume exercise is to be thinking about the bigger portrait of the applicant. What matters more? What matters less? What should or shouldn't make the cut? How much detail and space does one thing or the other deserve? It can be hard to make those positioning decisions when you're not being forced to do so by space constraints and formatting choices. In this case, the constraints are your friend. They give you control over the first impression you want to make. 

Here’s an example. A student might tell us that he wants to focus on tennis in the Activities section of the resume, because he’s been playing for ten years. So we reply, “Oh that’s great! Do you play singles or doubles?” Student: "Uh, actually I haven’t really thought about singles versus doubles.” That reply is a strong signal not to feature tennis in the Activities section, because tennis is more of a long-time hobby for him than a serious athletic pursuit. In that case, we would recommend listing it in the Personal section of the resume instead. That's because anything that goes into the Activities section needs some meaningful detail around it. Michael Phelps can get away with a one-liner for an important activity (“Olympic swimmer”), but most people can’t.

If you want to see what a resume looks like in a teenage context, here are some samples to guide you. Notice how each student has made intentional and thoughtful use of both the space and the formatting for the purposes of positioning. Do you see how those choices influence how you think about an applicant whom you've never met? (These examples and samples are all anonymized or fictionalized, naturally.) Each of the sections and items in these samples reflect choices about what to highlight and what to deemphasize. Now that you know the purpose of the resume exercise, can you figure out some of the the decision-making that went into them and why?