Laura Berlinsky-Schine 5 min read College Application Tips

How to Find Your College Application Spike

Time and time again, you’ve heard the importance of being a well-rounded student. This is what colleges look for in their student bodies, right? Those straight-A applicants who have dabbled in music, athletics, leadership, and other activities?

 

Actually, that’s not necessarily true. While you should aim to succeed in all your courses, “lopsided” students with a particular talent can have an edge in the admissions process. What does that mean? Let’s take a look at what an application spike is and how you can identify yours.

 

What is a College Application “Spike”?

 

Colleges want students who have a passion and drive for a particular pursuit. These are the individuals who will be leaders in their fields. This is different from the quintessential well-rounded candidate who’s good at lots of things, but doesn’t show a particular dedication to any one interest.

 

In order to demonstrate a spike, you should show talent for and attention to one or two main interests, which you’ve pursued in your extracurricular activities and potentially your coursework. This is similar to an application theme, a cohesive narrative about who you are as a student and person, exemplified throughout your application.

 

Do You Need a Spike to Get into College?

 

If you’re hoping to attend a top 20 university or liberal arts college, then a spike can help maximize your chances of acceptance. Less-competitive schools accept many well-rounded students, but the more elite schools generally want students with well-defined passions. These students have proven to be successful in their fields already, and are likely to be successful in the future, which reflects well on the college.

 

After all, while colleges want a well-rounded class, they don’t necessarily want a class of well-rounded individuals. Instead, they’re hoping to fill specific roles in their student bodies, like someone to play oboe in the orchestra, or the next leader of the Muslim Student’s Association. Having a spike will make it clear which role you can fill.

 

Of course, that’s not to say that well-rounded students don’t have a chance. It will simply be more difficult for them to stand out, as there are many well-rounded students. That said, you shouldn’t change yourself to conform to what you think colleges “want” to see. If you’re a well-rounded student, you can try developing smaller spikes rather than a singular spike. Trying to artificially produce one burning talent or interest will only harm your application, and make you miserable.

 

In fact, students who try too hard to create a spike sometimes end up looking prototypical. What does this mean? Well, if you try to develop a spike in a specific interest, you may end up doing a lot of traditional activities that won’t help you stand out. That’s why it’s important to approach the college application spike in a more nuanced way, and we’ll be offering tips on how to do just that.

 

How Do Admissions Officers Evaluate Extracurriculars?

 

Before we dive into our tips, it’s important to understand how admissions committees evaluate extracurriculars. While these activities may seem totally subjective, colleges actually “rank” your ECs by relative impressiveness. This ranking system is known as the 4 tiers of extracurriculars.

 

Tier 1 is for the most rare and unique accomplishments, such as being a nationally-ranked runner or qualifying for the International Biology Competition. 

 

Tier 2 is for more impressive achievements that are a bit more common, like playing in the state orchestra or serving as student body president.

 

Tier 3 is for typical roles that demonstrate extra responsibility or leadership, like being captain of your soccer team or secretary of your debate team.

 

Tier 4 is for participation roles, like volunteering or being a member of a club.

 

College application spikes need to involve at least one Tier 2 activity, as these demonstrate significant achievement and dedication. 

Discover your chances at hundreds of schools

Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.

How to Find and Develop Your Admissions Spike

 

1. Reflect on your natural talents and interests.

 

There’s no one type of extracurricular activity adcoms are looking for in students. They want to represent a multitude of interests and talents in their student body, and those can take many different forms. 

 

Spend some time thinking about your natural strengths. Do you love science? Is writing your passion? It’ll be easiest to develop a spike in an area that you’re passionate about.

 

2. Consider your future major and career.

 

While not necessary, having your professional goals in mind will develop a spike that is relevant to your life after high school. That doesn’t mean you need to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life when you’re a teenager. It just means that starting to reflect on the types of professions that appeal to you can help guide you.


For example, a student interested in becoming a writer can develop a spike by writing and publishing short stories. Or, a future doctor may do health advocacy work with underserved populations.

 

3. Let go of any low-potential, time-intensive activities.

 

Lots of students pursue sports and music-related activities in high school, but only some of them are truly invested in them. These activities take up a lot of time, but usually end up being only Tier 3 or 4 activities for most students.

 

For top 20 schools, your extracurricular portfolio should include at least one or two Tier 2 activities, and a Tier 1 activity if possible. If you spend your time on Tier 3 and 4 activities, you won’t have the time or energy to develop more impressive extracurriculars.

 

To help develop your spike, let go of the generic activities that aren’t adding much to your life or your application. If you love music or sports, you can certainly continue them (and you should continue them if you’re already high-achieving in these areas). That said, you should be practical and assess whether these are going to help your application, especially if you aren’t truly passionate about music or sports.

 

4. Look into self-driven activities.

 

Some students believe they need to join an established, group activity like a club for it to have meaning on their applications, but that’s not the case. In fact, adcoms will likely value self-driven activities even more, because they show student initiative and are more unique, meaning you’re more likely to stand out. For example, you might conduct an independent research project, build an app, or start a blog.

 

5. Consider tying together two interests.

 

As we mentioned earlier, a common pitfall of the college application spike is that it can actually make you look generic. For example, if you want your spike to be writing, and you only do traditional activities like edit for the school newspaper, publish short stories, and submit to contests, you’ll look like “just another writer,” even if you have strong achievements.

 

Instead, consider pursuing a contrast profile, which blends two well-developed interests. Also known as juxtapositional depth, this type of profile is interdisciplinary and much more unique.

 

Perhaps, for example, you’re a writer and science buff. You could combine these interests into science writing — say, a blog where you perform experiments or discuss real-life scenarios. This will make your application more memorable, and more importantly, it allows you to pursue more than one of your interests.

 

Does your spike give you the potential to succeed at a top-tier college? With our chancing engine, you can find out. This free tool will estimate your odds of admission to more than 500 colleges — and you’ll get tips on how to improve your profile to increase your chances. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to get started!

Want more tips on improving your academic profile?

We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.


Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.