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

Top 20 college applicants: Some activities that you should start ASAP

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 (archived copy of the page) 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.)

Back to blog