Exclusive AMA w/ AdmissionsMom: How to Boost Your Extracurriculars & Hone Your Leadership Skills

Carolyn Allison Caplan, aka @AdmissionsMom, is an admitted all-things education and college admissions junkie. As a writing professor at Houston Community College for almost fifteen years, she taught the personal essay and often counseled her students on the college application process. Because of her addiction to all things education-related, helping students with college applications quickly became one of her favorite parts of teaching.

When Carolyn’s youngest graduated from high school in 2014, she decided it was time to officially give up the dry erase markers and move on to the next stage of her life. After helping her own kids and students see applying to college as an exciting time of self-discovery, she wanted to share that experience, so she retired from her job as a community college writing professor and opened her private college counseling practice. Today, Carolyn is an independent educational consultant, and she works with and advises private clients on all aspects of the admissions experience, bringing in her own style of Mindfulness that she calls Mindful Admissions.

Realizing there had to be a healthier approach to college admissions, she set out on a personal journey as u/admissionsmom on Reddit, empowering kids as they navigate their way to college.

Carolyn’s interest in mitigating stress in college admissions has led her to find mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, and to become both a certified Yoga teacher and a Koru Mindful Meditation teacher. Carolyn also holds a UCLA College Counseling certificate and memberships in HECA, IECA, NACAC, and TACAC. She estimates that in the last three years she has read over 3000 Reddit kid essays, and chatted with over 25,000 kids from A2C about college admissions. If you want to learn more about Carolyn and her journey as AdmissionsMom or as a private consultant, you can check out [her website](https://www.admissionsmom.college) or buy her book, [Hey AdmissionsMom: Real talk from Reddit](Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit: Caplan, Carolyn Allison: 9781733764100: Amazon.com: Books).

In this exclusive AMA, @AdmissionsMom will be answering questions on how to pick or boost your extracurriculars, as well as offering tips on how to hone your leadership skills. Ask her anything!

@AdmissionsMom, what is your advice on extra-curriculars for successful BS/DDS programs?

Hi @JoeMan2012,

That’s a great question! I haven’t worked with students applying to those programs, but I’ve worked with lots of students applying to combined programs in BS or BA and MD. My best advice is to ensure they know you are serious about the program and the future career. I’d make sure you have some shadowing of dentists in various kinds of practices – both in private practice and in public health. If you can get a job working at a dental practice, that would be amazing – that was actually one of my high school jobs (and I learned I definitely did not want to work as a dentist or in any other blood-related field). Also, see if you can get some kind of medical-related research and check out volunteer and community organizations that focus on dental health. Check out the ADA and see what kinds of community service projects they are organizing and promoting. Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any questions.


Do transfer students need extracurriculars? Like would they want to see that I’ve been doing an activity in college, or would they only look at what activities I did in high school?

I recently read about the “glue” kids. They aren’t necessarily the kids with leadership, but the ones behind the scenes that keep things running.

Do you think all kids need leadership positions?

Isn’t being the glue just as important?

How should a student frame these roles in the activities section?

Hi @animate2002,

Great question. The answer, as with most things related to college admissions is – it depends. If you apply as a transfer sophomore, many colleges will want to see what you’ve done both in high school and college. If you happy as a junior transfer, most colleges will be more focused on what you’ve been doing outside the classroom while in college. So, it’s still important to be involved in your life, your school, and your community while in college.


That’s an excellent point. I always say that leadership goes way beyond titles and positions – it’s about what you do and how you do it – not whether you’re captain of this or president of that. I do think all kids should have some form of leadership in their lives, but it doesn’t need to be in the form of a position. To me, the most important leadership role we can have is to be leaders of our own lives – and that means learning to think for ourselves, problem solve, analyze, and make decisions about our lives. The college application time is often the perfect transitional time for teens to begin this journey to self-leadership.

I love “glue” kids. They are the ones who truly make the magic happen by doing the work behind the scenes. I feel like they need to go through an internal audit to see where they make the biggest impact with their skills and leadership and then be prepared to write about it and who what they do on their applications. I have my students list all the various areas where they show leadership in their lives:

Self – do they make their own decisions? do they make choices about what they need and don’t need to do? do they know when they need to ask for help?

Family – are they a leader within the family? do they babysit or help out with the elderly or help their parents? do they plan meals or game nights or organize chores?

Friends – are they the organizer? are they the communicator? are they the friend who everyone turns to when they just need someone to listen to?

School – in the classroom, are they a discussion leader? in small groups, do they organize the group or keep them moving? in organizations, what role do they play (titled or not)?

Community – where do they show leadership in the greater community? even if not in an organized way, are there areas where they make plans and give back to others?

As far as applications, I encourage students to think about all these different ways they are showing leadership and then write about them in EC essays or in the activities sections with the strongest verbs they can use that show what they do: None of these verbs require a title: Plan, Organize, Create, Develop, Collaborate, Moderate, Initiate, Improve, Schedule, Consolidate, Enhance, Manage, Prioritize

Thank you so much!

Thanks for doing this, I have a few questions but my first one is which order should students list extracurriculars? In order of leadership roles, or the ones they did the longest, or the ones that relate to their major, or some other method?

I also wanted to ask about jobs vs. activities. Are paid jobs (like McDonalds) seen as being as important as extracurriculars?

Hi, @AdmissionsMom! International Student here. I am currently taking a gap year. I am thinking to do Harvard cs50 course on edx. Do you think it’ll give a good impression in my college application. I don’t have that much extra curricular activities. I do a bit of programming. Do you have any suggestion like things I can do in this gap year

Hi @tenniscoach12

Thanks for asking! I think you should list the most meaningful to you/most time consuming/most recent and long lasting on top. Think about if they could only see three or four of your ECs which ones would you want them to know about/would they need to know about to understand who you are and what you value.


Yes! Jobs are amazing activities, and I have only ever heard college admissions folks say how much they value them. They demonstrate responsibility, leadership, a willingness to learn – about customer service, listening to a boss, learning from others , and the value of a paycheck among many other important lessons.

Hi @maria0011

I think doing online classes can be a good thing to do if you’re interested in learning more, especially in light of the pandemic and the difficulties with being out and about. As far as other activities, start with community involvement: maybe helping with computers and internet access in places where there might be difficulties. Also take some time to think about personal hobbies and interests: practicing or learning a new instrument or language, exercising and taking care of your emotional, physical, and mental health are always great ways to spend your time. And focus on your homelife: helping out more at home with family responsibilities, organizing online activities and family meetings. If you can get a job online or safely in your community, that’s also a great way to spend a gap year and saving a little money at the same time.

An aside to the jobs comments. They are great activities for all the reasons mentioned. They are also GREAT sources of material for interesting essays. Our kids worked in HS and it helped shape who they are. I remember one of their essays about their first night of work “EVER”. Was at the local movie theater the night a massive summer blockbuster opened. You know, the one that’s in four theaters at a time in the cineplex. They told him to show up for “training” about 15 minutes before his shift. Yeah right! Ever been in a long line and the cashier crashes the system every time they touch something? That was my kid with customers 10 rows deep. Laughs at it now but…

Lots of great things to emphasize from those experiences.

@rickle1 – What a great story! I can only imagine the lessons learned that night!

@AdmissionsMom, how should you tailor your application differently between public and private colleges? ie more focused on your major vs more breadth.

Hi @penguin2 --I encourage students to put the activities that are the most meaningful to them and they’ve spent the most time on both in amount of time during the week/month and length of time at the top of their list. Of course, if it supports their major, then that’s even better. Colleges want to know how you are spending your time outside class and what’s most meaningful to you.

Hi @AdmissionsMom! Thank you for doing this AMA! I actually have a copy of your book and it’s been so helpful guiding me through the process. I’ve been really struggling to decide where to EA or if I want to ED - I’d like to shoot my shot at one of those “wildcard lottery schools” as you describe them, and I think applying early is a good opportunity to do so.

I looked into Duke and I really like what I’ve researched about it so far - the school spirit, collaborativity, and the campus is beautiful from what I could tell via the virtual tour. They also have a strong biomedical engineering program which is what I hope on exploring in college. I’ve been considering EDing because it shows more interest and I think would give me a better shot versus regular application.

But I also don’t know if I were accepted into a more “prestigious”, STEM, engineering strong university like Stanford or MIT if I would still choose Duke over those options, and EDing is binding, so I’d be potentially giving those schools up. People always say to ED/EA to your dream school - but I don’t think I have a “dream school” that fits me perfectly. I feel like I could be happy at so many different schools.

Sorry if this is a personal question that is difficult for an outsider to help with but what advice would you give when choosing whether to EA or ED?

@cakelace – nice to hear from you! and I’m glad you’re finding my book helpful!

Applying ED is tricky. I don’t recommend you apply ED unless you know the finances will work out and that you would want to be there over other schools.

I suggest you make some really big pros and cons charts for MIT, Stanford, and Duke and hang them up in your room. List finances, distance from home, programs you’re interested in, student culture and vibe, weather, geographic area, and any other aspects that are important to you. Just live with it for a week or so and add and subtract to it. Then, see how Duke and the other schools feel to you. If Duke looks good and is sitting pretty with lots of pros, definitely consider applying ED, but if not, then I think you might need to wait and see what happens.

Good luck!