College Tips - How An Extracurricular Expert Evaluates Student Activities Ft. Tressa Thomas, Crimson Education Head of ECLs
When it comes to getting into top colleges, it's usually the extracurriculars and essays that help admission officers determine who will thrive on campus.
But not all extracurriculars are of equal value!
In this episode of College Tips, Crimson Education's Head of Extracurriculars, Tressa, breaks down how Crimson evaluates a student's activity list, the unusual extracurriculars that admission officers value and how an analogy helps heaps of Tressa's students make a start on big projects.
Resources and links
students, extracurricular, activity, mentors, crimson, people, project, work, bicycle, build, truck, apartment building, thinking, community, masks, clubs, profile, starting, admissions officers, authentic
Tressa, Podcast Host
Podcast Host 00:17
Hey, Tressa, welcome to the Top of the Class podcast. It's awesome to have you on the show. Now, of course, we've known each other for a couple of years now, being a Crimson staff member, but our lovely listeners probably aren't aware of all the amazing things that you do. So can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Yes, sure Hi, everyone. Nice to be here for my debut, as it were. Yeah, my name is Tressa. I am from the States, which you can probably tell from my accent, and I've been with Crimson for about two years. I am the director of extracurricular and leadership or ECL, as we call it, and I also mentor, as a width director, I'm also mentoring students. And really what we're focused on is helping our Crimson students build up their activity lists, and then develop leadership projects. Those are our two big goals for all of our ECL students.
Podcast Host 01:06
Awesome. Now, how many people? How many kind of mentors Do you oversee in your role?
There are about almost 200 of them. So quite a few, quite a few. And then between those almost 200 mentors, we have probably like 2500 students.
Podcast Host 01:24
Wow, 2500 students, 200 mentors? How do you select mentors to join the ECL program?
That's a great question and is a huge part of my role is trying to figure out who those people should be. I actually did an audit of sorts where we looked at like, okay, who are our mentors right now? And which ones are doing really well? And how can we learn from that in order to hire more people like that. And what we learned from the data we polled and sort of analyzing what that data said about our mentors is that our best performing ECL mentors are often in the arts and humanities, which was unexpected, particularly because we know that a lot of students want to work with someone in STEM. However, our successful mentors are actually folks that don't necessarily work in STEM. They're people that are really involved in community service, people that maybe have created their own businesses have writing degrees work in sort of like social spaces, like political science, international relations business. These are the types of people that we actually found we're doing, we're doing really well with our students. So that is we try to hire they are also a mix of undergrads graduates and post grads, but typically around college age students, but we do have some really excellent folks that have had like full time careers and are now coming back to to work with us and work with our Clemson students. But yes, there's a lot of variety, a lot of people in the States, but we're trying to hire people, you know, in other regions at the moment.
Podcast Host 02:53
Yeah, and so for Crimson students, they work pretty much exclusively with one particular mentor that they get paired up with, for the duration of whatever project they're working on. Is that correct?
Yep, exactly. So an ECL mentor is the person that a student will work with on the activity list and developing a leadership project, right. So sometimes our Clemson students will work with that one person for four or five years, because they will have come on, you know, when they're in four years before they're going to apply. So they'll start working with that person, then, if that's the case, that ECL mentor is going to be starting from the bottom and working up like, okay, let's build your leaders or your extracurricular profile from the bottom up, let's get involved in clubs. Some of our students come in, you know, six months before they're gonna apply. So our goal with with those students is to develop a leadership project in that amount of time. So it's those two main pieces developing the profile overall. And then one of the big things on that profile is the leadership project.
Podcast Host 03:52
Right now for students who may not be familiar with the college process, etc. This is what we're mainly focusing on at the moment. It's mainly your focus when we're talking ECLs. And it's, you know, the activity list is 10 different activities that students have to display. And then is the leadership project a part of that 10.
Yep, exactly. So the leadership project represents the best extracurricular on that profile. The Shining Star is what I call it of your profile. It's not always the case. Sometimes students have multiple shining stars, in which case, the leadership project is just one of those very impressive activities. But it's also kind of important to think about, like, strategically when we're helping kids build these projects, helping students build these projects, we want them to be thematically beneficial as well. So something that combines multiple interests of their something that's going to tie their leadership or excuse me, their extracurricular profile together, right. So be related to their intended major, or sort of be the thing that represents the best of who they are as a as a community member. And as an academic.
Podcast Host 04:55
I think this is the really crucial part of ECL mentoring. And this is something that when I was in high school, I didn't ever think about that. And it wasn't really a thing that people talked about to get tutoring or mentoring in your extracurriculars. I was really the scattergun approach. And whatever my school said, Hey, you should do this. I was like, Sure, I'll do that. And never really thinking about what was the holistic type of experience that I was trying to build through all these things. Because at the end of the day, you spend so much time in your extracurriculars, you spend so much time on subject selection here in Australia, in any case, like we spent a lot of time thinking about what subjects you want to study, but probably not as much time thinking strategically about what we want to do in the extracurricular space. So a quick question for you is like, what is that process like to take a student through? Or like the parents and the student through? Hey, like, what are you interested in? What's out there? And I guess, also expanding the horizons of what students might think extracurriculars. And really taking them to the edges of like, what it could be.
Yeah, and that's actually the place I usually start is like describing Well, what is an extracurricular to my new students, you know, extracurricular, you can think about it as extra curriculum, right? It's, it's in the name. And it's, it's defined as any activity that you partake in. That is not for high school credit. And this includes Yes, sort of the things we think of like sports and music and clubs. But it can also include things like taking care of a family member who is ill, or elderly. It can include things like a paid job or an unpaid job, it can include summer camps, internships, right. So making sure that students understand that anything that they're involved in and passionate about outside of school that they're not getting credit for. That's an extra curricular. And I think that that's an important place to start as well, because it helps you understand, oh, well, how do I spend my extra time? Right? Like, is it playing video games? Is it Oh, I love hanging out with my family and visiting my extended family? Is it googling like, random startups in your area? Just because you're interested? Right? So and I sort of described this as like, what is the thing that gets you up in the morning? What are the things that when you know, that's something you're going to do that day, you're excited to go and do it. And that's like a good place to start. Of course, there's a lot more strategy we can do around what those specific activities are going to be. But we have to start from a place of passion. What are you interested in? What makes you excited to get up in the morning? Yeah, there's, there's a lot to it, it feels like a nuanced thing, because on one hand, you want it to be authentic. I mean, so this is a way that we evaluate activity lists. So my team essentially to backup we have constructed a way to evaluate and give scores to activity lists that our students have created or have worked on, prior to them submitting to college applications, right? What are the elements of how we score an activity, one of the things is authenticity. And so you will get an activity and then rate it on a score of one to four, based on how authentic it feels. That has to do with how related it is to the other things in a student's academic profile. So this is the essay the interview academics, does it feel reasonable that the student actually cares about this thing? And did it because they care about it and are interested in it? Or did they just do it to do it? That's what the authenticity score is about, right? The other elements, in terms of trying to evaluate an activity is uniqueness, right? So you can get points for the more unique an activity is depth and length of participation, right? So part of the common app is actually filling in this is how many years I did something and this is how many hours per week I did that thing, right? Another aspect of an activity we look for is achievement. So this has to do with like, how much given what position you had to be activity did you accomplish in that time, this can often look like oh, I had a leadership role in this club, or I scaled to the project up. So it became even more impactful, kind of, it can be a lot of different things. But anyway, I think that can be helpful for students to understand too is there are these different ways of thinking about how strong an activity is.
Podcast Host 09:03
My mind is literally racing through all the podcast episodes that we've had, and how that particular rubric of you know, how you would judge or how you would score an activity list fits with a lot of our past students that have been on the show. And like the authenticity is one thing that really shines through and the uniqueness and achievement don't want I guess they all shine through. That's why it's called top of the class. That's why they're on the show, I guess. But yeah, like it's really interesting to go back to the authenticity side because I think that's one that has that vagueness about it in a way because I think a lot of students would see other kids getting into top colleges with a particular type of extracurricular and they're like, Oh, I should do that. Because that's what gets you into Stanford or Harvard or whatever, but you know, might not necessarily be authentic. And it's odd to think that like, looking after a family member, you know, who might be ill or doing these Things that are really close to home is really what's authentic and could actually end up getting you into one of these elite colleges. Is that correct?
Yeah, absolutely. And that's a very strange one, because it's actually that particular type of activity is very highly valued by admissions officers. But you can't participate in that intentionally. Yes. So it's sort of a catch 22. Because I'm not trying to say, go take care of a family member. I mean, that doesn't make sense unless that's your situation. But it's an example of like, if this is a responsibility you have, and you need to spend part of your week as a 15 1617 year old, dedicated and focused on this task. That's a valuable thing like that, that demonstrates who you are as a person and who you are as community member. Therefore, it's an invaluable extracurricular. But you can't just copy that, you can't just do that, to do that. And I think that relates to another sort of overarching theme that's important to understand, particularly when it comes to us colleges. And this is somewhat true for the UK, but a little bit less. So. You know, we all have seen sort of the videos and movies and shows about us colleges. And that's why they're so popular is is like, oh, there's this whole community around the school, right? It's the fraternities and the sororities and the clubs and the campus and the living and the dining and the everything. So being at a university in the US, yes, it's about the academics, of course, it's about the degree, but you're a part of a community, you're a part of a small city. And so when admissions officers are reading your application, they want to know that you're going to be a value add to that community, that you're going to start clubs, you're going to start initiatives, you're going to make people in the community safe, you're going to help you're going to contribute. And so that's why it is, you know, a part of the application, because that's the kind of environment you are applying into.
Podcast Host 11:47
Yeah, for sure. Obviously, we got to talk at some point about COVID-19. I did mention affair that Melbourne is in the longest lockdown in the world, and we still are here in Australia. But of course, like there was all these different seminars that we were doing, as soon as COVID broke out, and people started going into lockdown about what extracurriculars look like in lockdown, because most students have their extracurricular list kind of devastated by the fact that they weren't able to join these clubs or get out there. What do you think it looks like now has COVID had like a permanent effect on the way students operate in extracurriculars? Has it expanded potentially the array of different extracurricular students could do because they went so far into the internet or digital world to try and get around? COVID?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what's funny is, so I'm an artist and, and one of the things that I think about and talk about with my colleagues and co workers is that sometimes it's easier to create something when you're in a constrained environment. So this means in my example, it would be like, Oh, I, I'm traveling right now. But I really want to paint something, oh, I only have a pencil and pen, okay, I have to make something right. So just like physical or logistical constraints on something. But then because of that, you end up creating something really interesting because of those constraints. So that's the way I like to think about this. And I actually think it's become quite true. Obviously, I'm not saying that, oh, COVID is a great thing, because now we have great extracurriculars. But there is a way of thinking about this as a way to spark more imaginative and creative solutions to things like in every aspect of the world. So what I want to say about doing ACLs, and COVID, is start with your community, which is what I would say before COVID, as well, like, what does your community need right now. And that could be your apartment building. So I know, you and I just talked about how things are getting delivered in Melbourne because of the like, million year lockdown. So like, is the apartment building? I don't know, struggling to organize where the packages are going in your building? Can you be helpful for two hours every other day of the week in your apartment building? Like that's an extracurricular, right. So really starting small, and then just thinking, How can I be helpful here? What skills do I have already that I can contribute to my community, and that can be again, as small as an apartment building. It can be your school, could be your city, it can be your county, your state, your country, right? We can scale it up. But it's a mindset. It's about, like, what are creative solutions to the problems I'm seeing around me? And how can I help solve them?
Podcast Host 14:21
Yeah, absolutely. Which is a fantastic tip. Now, last question, before you go would be using examples of some of your students that have come through Crimson or mentors that have currently with us. What would be some of your advice for students out there who are you know, obviously, people who listen to this show are usually pretty switched on? I'm guessing like the students who have messaged me on LinkedIn, they're like, Great LinkedIn profiles usually and they are on to it type of thing. But what advice would you give to students using some of the examples that we've had in the past to kind of help them out over the next 6, 12, 18 months before they apply?
Yes. So I mean, I've kind of two responses to that. I think the first is I wanted to give an example of a student who is working on a mask sharing project. And it was something that is an example of what I will describe later. And it's called the MVP model or the minimum viable product. And this model, I think, is extremely helpful when we're developing leadership projects. And the student did this really well. So this student, I'll give this example, when COVID first happened. So at this point, this is like a year and a half ago, she thought in her head, you know, the students in China. And she was like, I'm hearing about all these communities, like an hour from me, these rural areas that aren't getting masks, like, they don't have access to it, the resources aren't there, how can I help. So she literally started a donation among friends and family and was like, hey, contribute $1, this and that, I'm going to buy masks, drive it over there and give them to the people that need it, right. So just a very, like, literal, tangible, helpful thing to do. It quickly actually gained media coverage in her city, and then exploded overnight. And so she ended up delivering, like 1000s, and 1000s of masks, hand sanitizers gloves, and then eventually testing kits to different regions in her I'm not sure if you'd call it a region in China, but to her surrounding community, right. So this is also a great example of what I want to call the MVP model. This isn't the idea that instead of starting a project with one big idea and saying, okay, I want to build this, this huge, you know, donation system where people donate, and then I deliver 1000s of masks to the people in the rural communities around me. It's like, okay, that's all well and good, but you have to start small in order to get there. So if we think about like, the metaphor of like, okay, the project is trying to build a truck, that's the metaphor, I'm trying to build a truck, the truck is the project, right? So one way to do that is saying, Okay, I'm going to build the wheels, then I'm going to build the frame on top of the wheels, then I'm going to build the part where you sit in the truck, and then I'm going to build the cargo hold in the back, and then I have a truck. The problem with that model is that nothing is usable until the last step, until the fourth step, I have a truck. And alternative way of thinking about this is to start by building a bicycle. Okay, it's not the truck, it's not even close. But I can put it on the road. And it takes me from point A to point B, and it's a transportation vehicle, right? Yes, then you put it on the road, you test it, and you're like, Okay, this is what I learned about that. Next, I'm gonna build a motorcycle. So I'm going to add a motor to it and see what happens there, I'm gonna put it on the road, test it out. Stage three as a car, okay, it's not quite the truck, it's bigger, right? So we're scaling up until finally you're building the truck. And the reason this is valuable is at every stage step 1, 2, 3 and four, the project is usable, you can put it on an application, you can say you accomplish something, you can put it on the road and test it and get feedback about whether it's working or not, and then scale it up. So this is an approach I love. And I actually use it like in my own professional work all the time. And I suggest it for all my students, so that you're cutting a project into bite sized pieces, eventually trying to build that truck button again, starting in the bicycle phase with something you can actually use.
Podcast Host 18:09
I love that. I love that analogy. I think the students should be going out there thinking about the, you know, maybe aspiring to the truck, but certainly starting off with the bicycle. And I think that is one of the reasons why we're doing this show. You know, these students have amazing profiles. But inevitably, like, you know, if you look at their profile just at face value, like oh my gosh, how did they achieve that type of thing. And that's why we do the show, because they talk often about the bicycle and how they got started and the people they met and the steps they took to get to where they are today. So yeah, for students out there like looking at these, you know, big hairy goals, I celebrate the students get that kind of ambition. But it looks really hard, until you look at what the bicycle version of that big hairy goal might be.
And that's the thing is no truck was built without the bicycle. Like all those projects had a bicycle phase. So it's not that they built something overnight. It's that they scale something up.
Podcast Host 19:06
Awesome. Awesome. Well, I know we'll put some details in the show notes about how to get more involved with Crimson how to, you know, learn a little bit more about what extracurriculars and leadership might look for students if they're in kind of, you know, any time in high school really like we're a big believer that students you know, it doesn't matter what their age, it only matters about their interest and motivation, and all these kinds of things. We'll put some links in the show notes for students to learn more about our pressure extracurriculars. But thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. This is the college tips section of the podcast if people haven't realized that yet, it's certainly in the graphic that we have there. But yeah, it's awesome to kind of dive into the extracurricular thing because I know it's such a big part of college admissions, and I really look forward to sharing this episode far and wide.