As summer is approaching, many students and parents (mostly parents) have come to us requesting advice on activities they should do to impress colleges. “WOW Activity” has hence become a hot topic, especially with concern about increasingly selective college admissions.
In this article, we will explain what a “WOW Activity” should look like, examine the feasibility of actualizing such ideas, and share examples of what past students have done to earn places at their dream schools. Finally, we will give you guidelines on how to find a WOW Activity this summer.
First of all, what is a “WOW Activity”?
A “WOW Activity” is an activity that will distinguish you from 99% of admission candidates. It is the activity that will make a key difference in your admissions decisions.
So, what are the factors that make an activity “WOW”?
The following are the “WOW” factors for an activity, according to admissions experts I know:
1. This activity must not be something that already exists in your school or community. My high school classmate established the first Gay-Straight Alliance in the state of Massachusetts in 1992. She went to Harvard. More than two decades later, one of my students initiated the first IB book exchange program in Hong Kong. She went to Princeton.
2. This activity must reflect your passion. One major purpose of seeing student’s activities is for the admissions team to learn more about the student’s academic, intellectual, and personal interests. While everyone must have some interest in their academic studies or activities, very few of these interests qualify as passions.
So, what distinguishes a “passion” from an afterschool activity, such as playing the piano and earning instrument diplomas?
Firstly, a passion must be something the student pursues in the long run, even after the official activity is over. For example, that a student claims to be passionate about Chemistry because she has received A’s in her Honor and AP Chemistry high school courses does not necessarily inform us of her passion for the subject. We must see further proof, such as what efforts the student has made to continue with the subject outside school offerings.
Secondly, a passion must be something the student will continue doing even when they run into obstacles and failures. For example, a student who loves scriptwriting would get involved with every play at school and enter the scriptwriting competition in her city every year. After not winning anything for several years, her script finally wins 3rd place in the city’s competition in her junior year. She competes again in her senior year and loses. Nonetheless, nothing stops this passionate young lady from pursuing scriptwriting. She goes on to study in one of the best communication programs in the US. Today, she works in a high-level position with studio executives in Hollywood.
If an activity is just something the student is good at but we neither see setbacks in the student’s pursuit of it nor evidence of the student continuing it in the long run, this activity is simply read as an interest or a skill on paper—not a passion.
Important to note here is that we must not confuse a “Passion Activity” with a “WOW Activity”, because a “Passion Activity” can happen at a personal level, while a “WOW Activity” must be “significant”.
3. The “WOW Activity” must be something that addresses a real-world issue or improves your community. In other words, it must be “significant”. A few years ago, I met a student passionate about collecting all the facts about the giant squid. While it was fascinating to hear him tell us lecture-long stories about the squid’s feeding habits and encounters, the student’s interest in the topic remained a personal fascination. He neither planned on majoring in Marine Biology nor in Environmental Science. His so-called “passion” would not be helpful on his college application.
4. This activity SHOULD BE scalable, i.e., it should make you a leader. This is tricky to achieve as a “WOW Activity” MUST BE something original. So, being a club president or founding another charity program already established at your school does not immediately grant you “WOW” status. Once a ground-breaking program has been established—like the first Gay-Straight Alliance in a state or the first IB book exchange program in Hong Kong—everything that follows is a copy of the original.
But there are other ways to become a leader if you are truly interested in problem-solving or academic research.
Academic students can achieve “WOW” status by performing in-depth, long-term academic research and have their papers published. We know students who published alternate proofs to existing mathematic formulas to get into MIT and Princeton. But truly, how often do we run into 21st century Stephen Hawkings or Einsteins?
*CAUTION: paying online summer mentors for online research would likely NOT to give you sufficient depth in making any meaningful research discoveries.*
Conversely, it is more common for students to solve problems and share their passions in a scalable way through social media. For example, we have a “foodie” student who has been blogging for years about Hong Kong’s restaurants. Seeing the environmental impact of the local restaurant industry, her blogs have shifted from simple food reviews to social-enterprises, vegan-friendly, and environmentally conscious restaurant reviews. By the time this student entered her senior year, she had garnered a thousand followers, including her school faculty. The food blog, discussed in her application, gained her acceptance into a top 5 engineering school in the US. Similarly, another student passionate about investigating theological questions in his church community has opened a YouTube channel discussing these topics. He has recently been invited to live-stream debates with other YouTubers worldwide, garnering 10,000 views plus, and more each day. He also just published a book currently for sale on Amazon about Christian theology “made simple for everyone”.
Can you give us examples of some “WOW Activities”?
The following are what I consider WOW Activities, accomplished by our students:
1. Establishing the first IB book exchange program in Hong Kong. In the early 2000s, the International Baccalaureate program was new to Hong Kong students. Being part of the first IB diploma graduating class at her school, my student established this book exchange program to minimize waste on precious resources.
2. Inventing a water-filtration system using organic waste materials, gaining a patent in Singapore, and partnering up with an NGO serving over 20 million people in India’s urban slums. A student from India invented a water-filtration system that uses ashes of various plant fibers to provide drinking water to millions living in India’s urban slums. He achieved this while working on his IB Extended Essay in Chemistry.
3. Inventing an ultra-sound washing machine. This student, living in a crowded apartment in Hong Kong, was bothered by the noises from the washing machine next to his bedroom. He thus invented the washing machine using ultra-sound waves to clean clothes without making any noises. The student’s local school headmaster and teachers thought this personal project was a waste of his preparation time for local exams, prompting my student to switch schools. This remarkable young man later gained a patent in Hong Kong and received a $20 million HKD investment from an interested investor.
4. Having a name in a research paper published by one of the best colleges in the world. This student’s IB Extended Essay on Physics was so well-researched and original that a Math professor in a top 3 school in the US contacted the student and requested to use her paper as a reference for a published academic paper.
5. Having developed computer games to teach math to primary school girls; establishing a partnership with a local primary school for the launch. An all-girl school student in the US was not satisfied with the way math was taught to girls in her local community’s primary school. So, she decided to build math games to make math interesting for the girls. Her initiatives caught the attention of a local primary school headmaster, who then launched one of her math games as one of their after-school activities.
6. Organizing an event to serve over 500 members in the local community during a COVID lockdown. A student was living in a community where the COVID situation was so severe that her community was in complete lockdown for several months. Having heard many complaints from her neighbors about not being able to get haircuts, my student contacted her friend, a hair stylist, and organized a complex-wide haircutting event.
So, “How to find a WOW Activity to impress the colleges?”
We must search with you to see if you have the following:
1. A real personal passion for a specific issue. Having an interest is not enough. We must investigate with the student to figure out what has been consistent in his/her track record. With this being said, I must emphasize that while everyone must have some interests, few of these qualify as passions.
2. Something lacking in the environment you live in. This factor is particularly important and difficult for students from a well-resourced environment or who study at an independent school. If the admissions think that your achievement is resource-driven, i.e., you have received loads of help from your tutors, parents, or relatives, the “WOW” would go to those who helped you instead.
3. A strong value system. In order for your activity to be significant for college admissions, it must reflect your values. “What do you care about most?” Even when you are doing mandatory academic research, you must ask yourself, “how will the result of this research impact humanity?”
4. An idea that is scalable. Try to be a leader in the field you are passionate about by becoming an influencer. In this case, you may set up a club, a class, a blog, a website, a YouTube channel, or the likes. Do not be afraid of getting a few “DISLIKEs” from critics. That you are putting yourself out there is a testament to your willingness to take risks and your confidence in the quality of your work.
In summary, a WOW Activity is only WOW because not everyone can do it. Is it great to have a WOW Activity in your college application? Absolutely! But, must you have a WOW Activity to get into your dream school? NO! The key is, in searching for your WOW Activity, you can learn more about your interests, values, and strengths. So, please relax and know that when you genuinely love something and want to make a difference, you will be considered a great candidate by any admissions officer.
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research