Recently, I was sitting across the desk from a parent and student whose transcript was filled with excellent grades and rigorous courses. The student enjoyed school and had SAT scores that were well above average. 

As I’ve written about in many other blog posts, grades, academic rigor, and standardized test scores are the foundation upon which most students want to build their college applications. When I shared these ideas with the student and parent, I noticed that both had a wide smile on their face. It seemed like this student was right on track. 

I then turned my attention to the other important parts of a college application, including extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. All of a sudden, the energy in the room changed. The smiles disappeared, and I wondered if I had said something wrong. 

The Introvert’s Dilemma

I persevered and continued to share what a great extracurricular profile looks like when the parent politely cut me off and said, “Oh, well, my student is really great in the classroom, feels pretty good taking standardized tests, but when it comes to outside activities they are shy—it’s just a natural part of their personality. So, I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot there in my student’s college application. They will just have to rely on the strength of their academics.”

This is not the first time that I’ve met a student who considered themself to be an introvert, or shy (which are not always the same – e.g. an introvert is not necessarily shy), and who was bumping up against a college application process which seems to favor extroverts. 

For so many naturally introverted students, it often feels like they’re stuck in a dilemma. They see signs, suggestions, and subtle innuendo that the “best” college applicant is outgoing, sociable, a leader. But they engage differently, and, unfortunately, they see this as a judgment of themself as a person and a clear sign that they are not going to get into a great college.

Sitting across the desk from this student and listening to the parent so clearly articulate this dilemma really made me think about a few things that I believe introverted or shy students need to know about the college admission process.

What Introverts Should Know About Extracurricular Activities

The first thing I’d like introverted students to know is that if you’re feeling as though the college admission process is weighted towards more extroverted students, you’re not crazy. It is. I see evidence that college applications—and much of the advice that you can find online about applying to colleges—seem to emphasize extracurricular activities that are naturally suited to extroverted students.

The second thing I’d like introverted students to know is that despite this apparent disadvantage, colleges are not favoring extroverted students over students just like you. 

When thinking about extracurricular activities that suit you as an introvert, choose extracurricular activities that you enjoy and that you want to spend time doing, no matter what anybody else says you should be doing to get into a great college.

The most important qualities of extracurricular activities that stand out on great college applications are those that show some type of growth, achievement, challenges faced, or specific talents cultivated. Introverts can find lots of extracurricular activities that have these qualities!

What to Focus on as an Introverted Student

A note about leadership for introverted students: leadership is a loaded term because to some people it implies being the president of the club, the captain of the team, or the person standing at the podium making announcements. To many applicants, it implies that you have to have some type of a title to show that you’re a leader. I can tell you from my many years as a college admissions officer and counselor that most colleges don’t really care that much about whether or not you held a title. Rather, they care more about what you have achieved.

What I’d like every introverted student to do is to stop focusing on “leadership” and start thinking about demonstrating “initiative.” 

Have you started something that nobody else was working on before? Did you write a song or created a video or some other document from scratch? Have you raised money for a nonprofit organization? Were you a part of creating something for a club that didn’t exist before? These are all examples of taking initiative, which is actually leadership.

For introverted students, you don’t need to be the leader of the club or captain of your team. Instead, think about where you want to make an impact, where you want to take initiative—to try something new or to create something that didn’t exist before. 

It’s okay to be yourself, even if you’re shy, but don’t sell yourself short. Try to demonstrate that you are contributing all the great ideas you have to whatever you’re working on or want to work on in the future. This is what colleges want to know about you.

If you would like to know more about how to successfully traverse the college application process, I would like to offer my extensive experience as an Independent Educational Consultant to help you and your student make the most of this important step in their life. Please, feel free to contact me.