Top 20 college applicants: Cultural activities that you should start a few years early before you apply to college.

Summary: If you’re thinking of applying to some of the top 10 or top 20 colleges (Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, Duke, etc.), then you need to plan certain cultural activities well in advance, preferably at least two years in advance. Columbia specifically asks about certain cultural activities.

That’s you. You’re curious, passionate, ethical.

Why I decided to write this article

The following has happened more than a few times when I’m meeting with a student about a college application:

Student: “I’m not sure what to put here, this part about exhibits, events, performances, and lectures.”

Me: “Oh. They just want to know what museums, live shows, and that kind of thing that you’ve done in the last couple of years. [pause] So do you have anything like that?”

Student: “Um… Um… Not really. I don’t like museums.”

Me: “Okay, what about music? Or musicals? Any live music at all?”

Student: “I’m in band; does that count?”

And it goes on like that. Basically a lot of people don’t really have these sorts of cultural activities to write about. I’m here to help you avoid that! Read on.

Filling your time with meaningful activities

Depending on the college you apply to, you may end up needing to answer a question about the various activities you’ve engaged in outside of school, on your own (i.e., because you wanted to, not because you had to). For this article, I want to focus on a specific set of activities, the ‘cultural’ ones, like visiting museums, attending lectures, or seeing live performances.

The colleges that ask you about activities outside of school, clubs, volunteer work, and extracurriculars also tend to be the ones that are the most selective, so if you’re not applying to brand-name colleges, this advice may not apply to you. And if you are, I hope to give you some advice about what these colleges are looking for. (If you want to skip directly to the actionable advice and skip the background information, just scroll down to the actionable advice section.)

Columbia specifically asks about this in a short-answer question:

List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year.

But even if you’re not applying to Columbia, it’s a good idea to be prepared for these questions, as the questions can change in the future, and many applications ask about books, films, and related activities as well.

Note: I wrote previously about the current situation (2020-04-12) with the COVID-19 pandemic and gave specific suggestions for what you should be doing while quarantining; the following suggestions still apply, assuming of course that one day in the future, we are able to emerge from our modern caves and start socializing and soaking up glorious sunlight.

Related questions: Summers and books, movies, etc.

Before I get started, I would like to note two related questions to answer that appear on some applications I will address elsewhere:

  • How did you spend your last two summers?
  • What books, movies, performances have you read, seen, or attended in the last two years?

I am noting these here because like the other activities that I’m going to address in detail, they are activities that take at least a bit of planning and would preferably be completed a year or two before you start writing your applications.

In short, you need to keep busy during your uptime and downtime if you’re planning to apply to a more selective college.

The kind of person they like to think they admit

Very generally speaking, colleges like to think that they’re inviting a select group of high-achieving students who are intensely curious about the world and passionate in everything they do.

This is the charitable way to describe their ideal candidate.

I heard that Stanford once visited a local high school for an information session, and the Stanford rep said that they are looking to admit (paraphrasing here) that one student who changes the class dynamic, and if they are absent one day, the whole class changes. (Oh man, where’s Bubba today? Dang, we can’t get anything done without Bubba! That guy.)

And I know many of you reading do not see yourselves this way, especially if you come from a background of traditional Confucian values (like many of the American-Born Chinese (ABC) students I work with). For better or worse, you are more tall poppy types in that you don’t like to blow your own horn, call attention to yourselves, or puff yourselves up. And I know it can be a challenge to tease this out of some of you, though I’ve learned that deep down inside, many of you can often see glimmers of these attitudes, but you’re not exactly prepared to trot them out to the world and talk yourselves up. (I have a section/article about the level of humility to strike in your writing for American colleges that addresses this in more detail.)

So, if you want to portray yourself this way on paper, you should be engaged in a good variety of activities that shows your intellect, curiosity, and passion.

A less charitable, more cynical, way to describe the ideal candidate is to point out their extroverted, Type A characteristics that may not describe you at all. This particular tendency strikes a nerve for me; personally, I see myself as more of an introvert than extrovert (though in class I must admit that I really come alive and love the engagement with learners), and while I personally am driven to achieve certain things in my life, I prefer not to do so at the expense of others, so I don’t think of myself as terribly competitive in the traditional sense. (For example, when I play board games, I don’t mind losing. In fact, I kind of like seeing other people win, especially if I care about them. And yes, I know sometimes more competitive people are more fun to play with!) So I sometimes wish that colleges give so much attention to the squeakier wheels, so to speak.

In short, I think there’s a bias against the quiet, introverted, shier types who do not aggressively seek the spotlight, and while I do see a shift away from that preference, I still think this is unfair to many.

Actionable advice

I would recommend at least a two years advance start on a sort of ‘cultural enrichment’ program that involves immersing yourself in various experiences that you find appealing. As always, these count more if you’ve done them on your own rather than been assigned to do them in school.

Here are some specific suggestions:


Visit any museums near you, not once or twice or thrice or frice, but regularly. Take notes about what you learned, liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. If you don’t live near a museum, you can try to visit one on a trip. If you’re not so close to a decent museum, just visit one ‘virtually’. The Louvre is a great place to start; it’s one of the most famous museums in the Western world and home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.

Live performances

Attend live performances of music or theater. If you play an instrument, you probably already do this. But if not, go see some live shows! They’re amazing, and you may be able to get free or discounted tickets as a student. For example, the musical Hamilton has a lottery for $10 tickets that isn’t that hard to win (I know several people who have won, and a couple who have won several times).


Visit art galleries to cultivate an interest in living artists. Yes, some galleries can be snooty and may not treat high school students well, but to heck with them! Actually, if you just tell them you’re a high school student interested in art, hopefully they’ll take some time to talk to you.

It’s can also be really interesting to see modern, living artists and what they’re creating. Here’s the work of Robert MacDonald, a friend of mine (and he even did the very first TestMagic lettering and awning on Irving Street in 1998). Here’s a better-known artist (Jeremy Mann) whose paintings go for $30,000 or so from what I can tell.


Attend festivals, ‘faires’, and other types of conventions, such as renaissance faires, the Dickens Faire in San Francisco (I love that one), Comic-Con, or other organized, themed gathering.


In short, you need to stay busy! No rest for the weary as they say. Colleges are looking for applicants who aren’t sitting around on their rumpuses flicking through TikTok (by the way, delete Tik Tok from your phone NOW!) videos, playing League of Warcraft, or binge-watching a Netflix series. Sure, you can do that a little bit, but not a lotta bit.

The top colleges want people who are out in the world, doing stuff, engaging with people, taking in the full human experience and will continue to do that in college.

(But don’t worry, we parents love all of you, warts and all.)


5 things you can do right now to stand out

Summary: If you’ll be applying to an American college in the next cycle (i.e., during 2020 for fall 2021), you need to be prepared to write about what you did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Master your ollie, memorize the subjunctive in Spanish, keep your gratitude journal. Now’s your chance.

You can be sure that a few months from now, when high school seniors are writing their college applications, everybody, their brother, and their dog will be writing about COVID-19. It’s just going to be unavoidable. Many of you are a little young to remember this, but after 9/11 something similar happened—everybody wrote something about how the attacks affected them (even if in truth fortunately the worst many of us endured was some level of uncertainty or longer waits at the airport).

This time is different. Half the planet is under orders to shelter in place. We are united in a way that has not happened in our lifetimes, and we are, for the first time in history, able to communicate in real time with almost every other part of the globe. I personally have friends in China, Brasil, Africa, and Europe that I’m chatting with daily about quarantining. I’m sure you have similar stories.

Of course, the admissions committees will be aware that there is now the ‘easy, obvious’ topic to write about and many will likely craft new prompts to ask you specifically about your unique experience in a way that suits college applicants.

So, now is the time to get busy. Think about what you can do for yourself, for your community, and for the world. But also think a few months ahead about what you’ll be writing about for your college applications.

I’m sure you have some great ideas yourself, and I’d love to hear them. I have a few ideas that I would like to share (and perhaps you’re already doing one or more), with a couple of other ideas that may inspire you as well.

1. Keep a journal

You may be doing this already, as I know a lot of teachers are requiring their students to keep a journal. I agree with them—this is a historic time, and you’ll want to look back on it some years down the road. I would also suggest recording short videos and taking photos as well; you may want to turn this into a project of sorts, and having various media on hand will help.

But at the very least, write down a few sentences every day to record what you did and how you felt. Take a couple of pictures or videos of life at home, six people in the kitchen, your no-haircut hair, your freezer stuffed with food.

2. Set up an accountability/study group

If you’re like most of the kids I know or work with (even my own children), then you’re seeing this situation as a kind of extended spring break and are enjoying your time off, maybe sleeping later than usual and watching a lot of Netflix. But you’ll admit that you’re starting to feel just a tad bored.

Unfortunately, this is the human condition—we don’t like working so much as having worked, and we often need an outside motivator to keep us working.

This is perfectly normal. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

But if you truly want to set yourself apart, now is the time to be the kind of person you know you can be. This is your chance; there’s no better opportunity. You’ve got the time, and you have more freedom to make choices than you’ve probably had in your entire life.

And you also know that developing your mind is a lifelong pursuit, but one that is especially important to engage in now at your age—learning a lot as a young person is developmentally more important in your early years than it is in later years since your brain is still maturing and is able to take in information in qualitatively different ways now than it will when you’re, say, 60 years old. Disclaimer: Learning is always important. It’s never not important. In fact, learning as an adult can slow down certain kinds of aging and help retain brain function. But young people who don’t get certain kinds of information at certain stages of their development have trouble catching up, and some may never catch up.

Finally, if you’re the type that’s aiming for top schools, then you’re also the type who’s a self-starter, someone who does the hard stuff because you enjoy it or like the challenge, not because you have to. If your teacher recommends reading an article, you do it. You take detailed notes in class, highlight with yellow, pink, blue, and green, and review your notes later. You ask at least several questions in every class, not to kiss up, but because you really want to know.

If that’s you, then you’ve probably already figured out some kind of study schedule. If it’s not you, but you’re becoming that person, here’s your chance to inch towards your goal.

So find a group of friends from school. Set goals for yourselves, set times to meet, and check in on each other. You can even set a time to set daily expectations. ‘Yo Adrian, let’s set up a Zoom meeting for every morning at 9:30 AM to check in on each other. We’ll have a stand-up and announce to everybody what we’re going to get done for the day.’ Maybe even create a Google spreadsheet to write down your assignments and goals with due dates.

You will thank yourself if you do this. Your grades will thank you. And your teachers will appreciate not having to manage you as well.

And on that note, another way to stay busy while helping others coming right up.

3. Offer to help a teacher

You may find this hard to believe, but many teachers are feeling a little overwhelmed right now. For years, they’ve been teaching in one way, and then almost literally overnight, they’ve been told that they need to change virtually everything they do in just a few days. It’s like coming home to your house, and suddenly, you’re living in a tent while you’re rebuilding your new house in a different country. Everything is different. I know some teachers are working 12-15 hour days right now just to adapt to this new learning scenario. If you feel comfortable doing so, you could approach a teacher and ask if there’s any way you could help. Most likely, the teacher will politely decline and say that she, he, or they is happy if you just keep up with the work assigned, but maybe if you offer to help by setting up study groups to keep all students on track, your teacher will be thankful.

4. Give back/help someone else

So much of our lives is consumed by our own desires that we often forget that others have desires just as powerful and real as our own. You may not think so, but someone out there could really benefit from some help from you specifically, from someone to talk about random life stuff to going over some difficult concepts in Pre-Calc. Yes, you. You can make a difference. Put yourself out there and offer to help. Perhaps even get involved with some local tutoring organizations, from your library to community centers to other organizations that are popping up to help others.

5. Make masks

Here’s an easy one! Our President has recommended that we all wear masks when we go out in public. I think this is a great idea, and wearing a mask shows others that you’re taking this situation seriously; by wearing a mask, you’re functioning as a role model. Maybe someone somewhere will see you wearing your mask and think, ‘Hey, if she’s doing it, so will I.’ And that person could also inspire another person!

So a lot of people are asking where they can get masks, while others are stepping up to make them for others to give away. It’s probably just a matter of time before people in the US use masks to make fashion statements, to distinguish themselves, or to promote their club or brand (because if you don’t have your own brand, you aren’t playing the game!), so this is a good time to get in on the ground floor if that’s your thing.

Here’s a good resource to start with:

And you never know, you may save a life! (For real.)

6. Reinvent yourself

Finally, this is your chance to ‘reinvent’ yourself. If you’ve had something in the back of your mind that you thought you could accomplish, now’s the time to start working towards it. I have a friend who, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 spread in the US, lost her job as a direct result of business shutdowns. Not a week later, she and her longtime boyfriend broke up (not unexpected, but still). With no job, and no boyfriend, instead of sinking into the pits of dark despair and self-pity, she has decided to throw herself into remaking herself to be better than she ever was. She is taking online courses in her interests, meditating, keeping a journal, and exercising at home.

So, think about setting some goals for yourself. Here are some examples to get you started.

Write out the following somewhere:

When COVID-19 ends, I will have:

Again, these are just some ideas to get you thinking. Surely you have your own ideas of what to learn or improve, from knitting to baking to Spanish to Arduino.

Final thoughts

These are historic times; what you do now will shape you forever. You have a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime chance to make something of yourself, to be a new you.

And more pragmatically, if you’re applying to college in the next year or two, you may very well need to write about what you’re doing right now.