What Really Counts in Getting In

Study finds surprising correlations between certain extracurricular activities and college admissions -- and Bourdieu may have provided explanations.
May 31, 2006

Do you want your daughter to get into Harvard? Get yourself to an art museum. But if your daughter doesn’t want to go, don’t worry about it. That’s because there is a correlation between parents who visit art museums having their children end up at highly competitive colleges. There’s no correlation between visiting art museums and ending up at a top college yourself.

That’s one of the surprising findings of one of the more unusual studies about which factors may or may not lead students to end up in college or at an elite college. The study, “Chess, Cheerleading, Chopin: What Gets You Into College,” appears in the new issue of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.

The study accepts the premise that academic preparation, as measured by grades and test scores, is central to college enrollment. But with many high school students trying for an edge in college admissions through résumé padding -- and with parents hoping trying to find new ways to make their children Ivy-bound -- the question remains: Which activities outside the classroom actually make a difference?

Jay Gabler, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Harvard University, and Jason Kaufman, an associate professor of social sciences at Harvard, tried to figure that out by using the National Educational Longitudinal Survey, a project of the U.S. Department of Education that involved tracking the educational progress and characteristics of thousands of people who were eighth graders in 1988. Because of the differing college-going rates of students of different races and ethnicities, Gabler and Kaufman examined only white students’ records. And their study only looked for correlations on whether students actually matriculated to colleges of various sorts, not whether they applied.

Of activities that take place out of school, the researchers found that participation in music or dance classes made it more likely that a student would enroll in a four-year college program, but had no correlation to whether students would end up at elite colleges. The only out-of-school activity that increased the likelihood of a student ending up enrolled at an elite college was parental visits to art museums.

Art classes and visits to public libraries (by parents or children) had no correlation to students matriculating either to colleges generally or to elite institutions.

Several activities that take place in school increased the likelihood that students would enroll at a four-year college, although not an elite college. These activities included school music groups, interscholastic team sports, and student government. Two types of participation made it more likely students would end up at elite colleges: yearbook or school newspapers and “hobby clubs.” (The authors regretted that there was no breakdown on the impact of various hobbies, so it is unclear if photography clubs do better or worse than chess or other topics.)

Numerous activities had no apparent impact on whether or not students will end up in college -- elite or otherwise. School plays, interscholastic individual sports, intramurals, cheerleading, academic honor societies, public service clubs -- no impact is clear from any of them.

What does all of this mean? The authors say that their research suggests that extracurricular activities do matter, but perhaps not just to be piled one on top of another for the longest possible list. One possibility the authors suggest is that this data may reflect the relevance of the theory of “cultural capital,” a term coined by Pierre Bourdieu, the late French sociologist.

Bourdieu wrote that knowledge of elite culture is in itself something of value -- just like money or class status may have value in helping a person get ahead. Gabler and Kaufman note that many critics have questioned the relevance of Bourdieu’s theories – based on decades-old research in France -- to American society today. But Bourdieu’s theories would explain why music or art classes have an impact, while cheerleading doesn’t.

And to the extent that parents who visit art museums (even without their children) are likely to talk about high art and culture, their children (if they pay even a little attention) will pick up cultural knowledge that their peers lack. And if those parents teach their children to name drop, there could be an impact, especially if it allows students to shine in interviews.

“A chance mention of the new Bertolucci film or the Ruscha show at the Whitney may tip an applicant from one pile to another,” the authors write.

So what activities did the authors of this paper participate in during high school? Their author ID’s indicate that Gabler was editor of the student paper and Kaufman was on the tennis team.


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