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955 Benecia Ave.
Sunnyvale, CA 94085

(408) 479-4742


Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

Filtering by Category: Extracurricular Activity




How to Craft Your Extracurricular Resume

At every college admissions presentation we’ve given, we are approached with one very popular question, “What extracurricular activities are good for college admissions?” Our one sentence answer, “Anything you love and can commit to” can be understandably frustrating for parents and students seeking a silver bullet to elite college acceptances (spoiler alert—there is no “silver bullet” activity, unless participating in the Olympics is within your reach AND even that isn’t going to get you in everywhere). This article will explore that principle in greater depth and give you some examples on how to take what you’re already interested in and build upon it to help you stand out on your college application.

When admissions officers review extracurricular resumes, they are looking to see what kind of student emerges from the activities and descriptions. Is this applicant someone with a long-standing commitment to animal welfare? Someone who spent much of his time on the tennis courts? Someone who explored her interest in astronomy? All those tabulations of hours and dates reflect choices that you’ve made during high school. What story will your choices tell about you on your college application?

Find a Focal Point

“I’m just another boring Asian girl who volunteers and plays piano!” Katie (not her real name) wailed dejectedly as I scanned her extracurricular resume. Key Club? Check. Piano up to CM Level 10? Check. Hospital volunteering? Check. While clearly in possession of a sense of humor and a lot of intellectual curiosity, her personality didn’t really come across on her resume.  Fortunately, as a 10th grader, Katie still had time to shape her extracurricular profile.  And my first advice to her was to find a focal point. We explored the following questions:

What is the one activity you would focus on if you had to give up the rest? Why is it important to you? How can we highlight that activity and do what we can to formalize the interest? Are there other activities that you would be interested in trying?

Some students might not be able to pursue their quirkier interests in an established club. One of my students loves investing and watching his stock portfolio grow. Another spends all his free time mountain biking. Katie devoured novels at a rate of several books per week and had also started writing short fiction pieces on her own. But it wasn’t something that she felt like was a “legitimate” interest or anything outside of a private hobby. As we talked, she began to see how her writing could be a focal point of her resume and something that would help her stand out despite her choice of stereotypical activities up to this point.

Look for Ways to Formalize Interests

One of the easiest ways to pursue an interest in a more formal way is to take classes or lessons related to that interest. My student who was interested in investments enrolled in a finance-related university-sponsored summer program. Another student who loved to bake took a series of cooking classes in her community and then organized a bake sale as a fundraiser. Students interested in marine biology can get scuba diving certifications. And, of course, there are a myriad of learning options for those interested in science research or computer programing.

You might also want to think about starting something on your own in order to explore your interest. Students interested in creative writing can start a blog or a literary magazine at their high school (if there isn’t one already). A former student with an interest in judo started a free self-defense workshop to help women in his community gain some basic skills in crisis situations.

As for Katie, she decided to take a creative writing course over the summer, submit several of her shorter pieces to a fiction-writing competition, and to join her school newspaper as a staff writer to polish her writing skills.

Build Cohesion

On a more advanced level, you might want to think of ways to connect the different activities that you’re involved in. Not only will this help you take a more holistic approach to your out-of-school time, it will also help to paint a more cohesive picture of who you are for admissions officers.

What does building cohesion mean? It means finding the overlap between two or more of your interests: music and math, swimming and cooking, or psychology and running. Well, let’s take Katie’s example again. She loved to write, but she also has a budding interest in medicine. She decided to combine both of these interests in a club she became involved in that centered around public health. She used her creative writing talents to write and illustrate a children’s book that explained this particular disease and encouraged testing in a way that even kindergarteners could understand. She also wrote articles about this public health issue for her school newspaper.

What are admissions officers looking for? They are looking to see how you use your time. Remember that they are looking not necessarily looing for a well-rounded candidate but to build a well-rounded class. They want to see what you’re passionately devoted to. They’re looking to see what YOU would uniquely bring to their campus. We encourage you to take steps to discover that now!

Do you have more questions about extracurricular activities? Feel free to submit a case study on your extracurricular resume, and we’ll pick one entry and try to give you our best advice on how to improve your activities from an admissions standpoint.

We have many more tips for students as they work on their college essays.  Contact ILUMIN Education for more suggestions: OR (408) 479-4742.


Elton Lin

Interested in learning what it takes to be an Entrepreneur?
Want to become the next Steve Jobs?
Sign up to join the Junior Achievement Student Company Program!

ILUMIN Education is partnering with Junior Achievement of Northern California to host a 13-week entrepreneurship workshop and incubator for aspiring teen entrepreneurs. Students will work with local business leaders and learn what it takes to raise capital, write a business plan, market a product, and build effective teamwork and leadership skills.

Students will be broken into teams, develop their own product or service and launch a real business. Teams will also have the opportunity to submit their business idea to the JA Company of Year Competition, sponsored by Intuit, in April 2017.

For more information on this specific workshop, contact us at 

Session Information:

Dates: Every Saturday starting Jan 27th to April 21st
Time: 1-3pm
Location: ILUMIN Education Office - 940 Stewart Drive #236, Sunnyvale, 94085
Cost: $285/student** (funds go towards facility/program expenses and a donation to Junior Achievement)


1. Must currently be in high school.
2. Provide your own transportation and arrive on time to all sessions.
3. May not miss more than 3 sessions (if more, please discuss with instructor).

Accepted students will be notified on January 12, 2017.


** - Make check payable to ILUMIN Education and bring on the first day.

Some words from one of last year's Company Program team members:

"Before attending the Junior Achievement program, I knew little to nothing about business and what it took to run a business. Now, after my experience with Junior Achievement, I understand the number of different teams and the endless work that come together to produce a single product. We had marketing, sales, product, and management teams that all worked together. The marketing team and I had so much fun making a commercial and brainstorming ways to bring our product, PiggyPack, to the public. My favorite moment with the entire company is when we finally got to see our product (a waterproof, dual compartment athletic bag) in person. We had been working on the logistics of the bag for over a month, and to finally see all of our hard work come to life was so exciting. Even if you aren't currently interested in going into business in the future, I would highly recommend joining the JA program, because it introduces you to many other dedicated and inspiring high school students, and it gives you a newfound appreciation for the world of business."

ILUMIN Education Team // Best Demo and Commercial 2017

ILUMIN Education Team // Best Demo and Commercial 2017

Junior Achievement Entrepreneurship Workshop and Incubator -- Deadline -- Jan 6th

Elton Lin

Interested in learning what it takes to be an Entrepreneur?
Want to become the next Steve Jobs?
Sign up to join the Junior Achievement Student Company Program!

ILUMIN Education is partnering with Junior Achievement of Northern California to host a 13-week entrepreneurship workshop and incubator for aspiring teen entrepreneurs. Students will work with local business leaders and learn what it takes to raise capital, write a business plan, market a product, and build effective teamwork and leadership skills.

Students will be broken into teams, develop their own product or service and launch a real business. Teams will also have the opportunity to submit their business idea to the JA Company of Year Competition, sponsored by Intuit, in April 2017.

To learn more about JA, visit For more information on this specific workshop, contact us at

Dates: Every Saturday starting Jan 21st to April 15th
Time: 1-3pm
Location: ILUMIN Education Office - 955 Benecia Ave, Sunnyvale, 94085
Cost: $250/student** 


1. Must currently be in high school.
2. Provide your own transportation and arrive on time to all sessions.
3. May not miss more than 3 sessions (if more, please discuss with instructor).

Accepted students will be notified on January 11, 2017.


** - Make check payable to ILUMIN Education and bring on the first day. Majority of funds will be donated back to Junior Achievement.

Summer Programs Alternatives: 5 Outstanding Summer Options

Elton Lin

When faced with the question of what to do this summer, a program could be the most convenient answer. There is a worthwhile program for you, no matter your interests, GPA, or goals. Still, summer programs are not mandatory for your best college results. Every year, thousands of students who have never participated in a single summer program are admitted to even the most competitive colleges.

As a former UC admissions evaluator, I have been asked many times which summer activities increase a student’s admissions chances. The perhaps unsatisfactory answer is: it depends. There are numerous factors that can make a summer experience an asset to your college goals.

For one, admissions readers review extracurricular activities for evidence of your genuine interest in your prospective major. If you love it, why wouldn’t you be spending your free time doing it? And, if you’re not sure about your major, summer is the perfect time to try something new. Even if you don’t like what you try, the time you spend exploring demonstrates your intellectual curiosity, motivation to succeed, and discipline to see something through to completion.

What admissions readers aren’t looking for is how expensive the summer program or how prestigious the host university, even if you’re applying to that host university. So, if you have summer commitments that preclude you from participating in a program, it’s not in your family budget, or you are denied by your desired programs, here are five outstanding options for your consideration.

1. Volunteer locally

So many well-meaning families arrange for their sons and daughters to volunteer overseas. However, many colleges view these summer escapades as “voluntourism.” If you can pay, you can feel good about yourself. Instead, volunteer locally. What colleges want to see is: How does your commitment to social justice play out in your own backyard? How are you applying yourself selflessly in the long term, not just during an expensive trip?

Lisa volunteered in a food pantry during the school year. When she needed to stay in town for her SAT prep course, she increased her summer hours at the food pantry. She made it her mission that summer to find a better way to organize the food donations. The experience Lisa gained from leading the food pantry project became a strength that helped her achieve her college goals.

2. Take a class

Community college courses offer a wealth of opportunities to explore your interests at bargain rates. For Kristen, earning an A in a community college accounting course became a convincing argument to colleges that she was a strong candidate for their accounting programs.

For students in 10th and 11th grades, a passing grade in a UC-transferable California community college (CCC) course is guaranteed to be treated as a weighted GPA point for UC--just like an AP course. And now, with a searchable database of online CCC courses, it is easier than ever for high school students to pursue their interests while improving their UC GPAs through CCC courses.

3. Get a job

Working requires that you show up on time, be a team player, and meet the expectations of your customers and/or boss. Even those students earning a perfect GPA have something to learn from giving good customer service at the local burger joint for minimum wage, and college officials understand this.

My student, Jared, who was interested in business and fashion got a retail job at Macy’s, which led him to a new understanding of selling techniques. Jared’s job experience became the theme of his main personal statement, and he was admitted to top business schools.

Demonstrating your ability to maintain--and excel--at a humble job in the real world is worth more than your paycheck. And, if you’re able to contribute something new to the workplace you join, your accomplishments become brag worthy, a jewel in the activity section of your college applications.

So, start working on that resume. Even if you don’t have work experience, you can still write a resume.

4. Land an internship

What student wouldn’t want a summer internship? The challenge is the much celebrated internship in your field of choice may not be readily available. Therefore, aspiring interns need to be resourceful.

James’ summer research plans fell through at the last minute. So, I had him look up local researchers who were doing the specific kind of research he was interested in. James contacted several researchers to request a brief informational interview. One of his contacts replied to him, and the interview went well, leading to a job shadow, and eventually, an internship.

5. Start something new

Completing an independent project that you’re in charge of is one of the most impressive activities that you can report on a college application.

The options are endless. Mary taught a writing course at Boys and Girls Club and was admitted to almost every school she applied to. Other students I’ve worked with have done everything from creating a shopping service, writing an e-book, and spreading awareness about hepatitis B. You can’t go wrong with working toward a solution for a local problem.

No matter what you decide to pursue for summer, remember to have fun. Exploring your interests and demonstrating your passion should translate into enjoying your summer break. If you find your summer plans to be less than inspiring, it might be time to consider a new direction.

If you’d like to know how we can help with your--or your teen’s--summer, please contact us to schedule a free consultation at or (408) 479-4742.

Why Reading More Will Help You Reach Your Dream College

Elton Lin

There are so many good reasons for you to read outside what is assigned by teachers and posted on your friends' Tumblr pages. Reading deepens your understanding of the world and how you fit into it. A long term reading habit benefits writing skills and correlates with higher scores on standardized tests like SAT. Not to mention that reading comes in handy in all types of social situations by supplying you with interesting conversation topics. If nothing else, some colleges want to know what you’ve been reading regularly and for fun. Columbia, Princeton and USC (among others) all provide space on their application to share with them what you read. Surely an application to Princeton calls for more than Harry Potter and Reddit.

Here are seven kinds of reading recommended for every high school student.

1. Think Local

Via blog, free weekly, or local paper, reading local news is critical if you want to effect positive change in the world, and there's no better place to start than your own backyard. Understanding local problems as well as the solutions community leaders are working on can also inspire meaningful capstone projects.

2. Stay Current

You can fight the "I grew up in a bubble" mentality by increasing your understanding of regional, national, and international events. This can be accomplished by reading a major newspaper or news magazine regularly. LA Times, Washington Post, Time and The Week are examples of good options.

3. Read Stories

There's much to be gained from fiction. You can learn about racial injustice in the Deep South during the Depression era, but you will gain a new understanding of what it was like to live in that period by reading To Kill a Mockingbird and other fictional accounts.  That's not to say that you should only read historical novels - fiction in all genres offers something to be learned, from the personal to the political. In Ralph Waldo Emerson's words: "Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures." Check here for recommended titles.

4. Learn from Others

As you prepare to make significant life decisions as an adult, there's never a better time to read biographies. Not only does learning about other people's life experiences increase your capacity for empathy, thinking about choices people make and where those choices take them provides valuable life lessons. Biography options here and here.

5. Be Socially Responsible

If you already use social media, you can easily follow at least one organization that is doing good work for a social cause of choice. Students who love the ocean or want to study marine science can follow Save Our Shores. Students concerned about hunger can follow No Kid Hungry or The Hunger Site. The possibilities go on and on.

6. Struggle to Understand

It’s worthwhile to read an online professional or scholarly journal related to an industry or field of your preference. You can expect this type of reading to be slow, requiring the decoding of unfamiliar vocabulary. It's likely you will not understand every point. However, the laborious reading will bring with it an expanded vocabulary and knowledge you might build from to pursue future goals. Lists of journals are here and here.

7. Try Something New

It’s advisable that you read a nonfiction book to learn about something new once in a while, regardless of how relevant it may seem to your goals. Expanding your knowledge base helps you develop intellectually and make interesting connections between different concepts. Browsing Amazon or the New York Times Best Seller List are great ways to find something to read "just because."

Adding more reading to your perhaps tight schedule might seem challenging. At the very least, you can try reading news an hour a week. You can aim to read one article per month from a professional or scholarly journal. You can check the socially-responsible social media from time to time. And each year, you can choose three books - fiction, biography, and other nonfiction - to read during school breaks. Over time, your reading efforts will pay off in multiple ways.

Summer Plans: Taking Classes at Community Colleges

Elton Lin

Thinking of taking classes at your local community or junior college this summer? Here are a few reasons you should do it:

  • Community colleges normally have classes you can't get at your high school. You can explore your interests or take more classes in an area of strength (math focused students taking higher levels of math; history students studying different eras of history, etc.). 
  • If you get an A, it may give your GPA a little boost!
  • If you do well, it can signal to universities that you're ready for college-level study.
  • It can demonstrate to colleges your interest in the subject.
  • You can takes classes almost anytime morning, noon and night. You can take classes online through your community college as well!
  • It's a good complement to a part-time job.

A few things to be mindful of when taking community or junior college classes:

  • You have to WORK! Summer classes are accelerated so you need to stay on top of it. 
  • Teachers won't pay as much attention to you, so you NEED to be pro-active with asking questions and seeking help.
  • You need approval forms signed by your high school before you register. Start all this paperwork in April and search for the high school enrollment info on each individual community college website. 
  • High school students register last... so have a few backup class choices ready!
  • California students applying to UCs or CSUs - try to choose UC-approved courses so you'll definitely get the course transferred later on.

Hope that helps! Questions? Comment below or contact us!

5 Great Activities You Can Do This Summer

Elton Lin

Students (and parents) often ask me how they should spend their summers. Should I go to summer programs? Should I take SAT courses? Can I just play video games and watch TV? Uh, no, to the last one for sure. 

Summers are important because it provides colleges a glimpse of how you spend your free time. It's also a great time to do things you didn't have time for during the school year. Here are five great options for the summer:

1. University Summer Programs

Yes, lots of students are going to them. No, you won't automatically get accepted to USC if you go to USC's summer program (or any other university's summer program for that matter). However, university summer programs are a great way to focus on a specific interest area (business, engineering, art, etc.). Since most high schools don't focus on career exploration, studying engineering at Johns Hopkins Engineering Innovation program or business at Georgetown's Fundamentals Summer Program may help you learn more about those careers. 

Living on campus will also help you see if you really like the school and have what it takes to handle college life. I had a student whose dream was to go to NYU. But after a summer in New York City, he realized he hated city life and applied elsewhere. I also have many students come back from summer programs way more motivated because they got a better taste of the hard work needed to succeed. Whatever the reason, summer programs might be the way to go.

2. SAT or ACT Study

Yeah it's a little boring, but it's the best time to get it in. You can take an expensive training class or study on your own. Either way, you should do it before your junior year (when you need to be taking them). What's the best way to study? That's another post for another time. All I can say is every good test prep plan requires taking plenty of practice tests.

3. Volunteering (with ONE non profit)

That might seem boring too, but summer is the best opportunity to commit more time to ONE local non-profit or cause you're interested in. Focus more on deep than wide. When you commit more time, you'll develop stronger relationships with the leaders and the community the organization is serving. You'll learn more, have a richer experience and may even help with leading big events or new projects. Summer is a great time to invest more deeply in the organizations you're passionate about. 

4. Independent Projects

Start a cooking class out of your house! Start a weekly fitness group with your friends! Make Youtube videos on how to dance! Do something, anything... but find something you're interested in, set a goal and then go for it. Don't be afraid. There's plenty of time to be scared when you're an adult (401k's, osteoporosis, etc.). Do something fun and challenging and set an awesome goal for the end of the summer. Yes, it demonstrates leadership, personality and all that stuff (blah, blah, blah) to colleges. But more importantly you'll have a great time and accomplish way more than you ever think you could. 


You're thinking, "YUCK." But wait. Reading is the easiest way to build your English foundation for the SAT or ACT. The more you read, the easier it will be to fly through those reading comprehension passages. If you read good stuff, you'll pick up good vocabulary and you'll intuitively learn how to formulate good arguments. AND you might just fall in LOVE with reading (your English teacher's wildest dream!). Don't just read anything. Read good, classic literature. Read the New York Times. Read the New Yorker Magazine. Read about what's going on in the news right now and what's happening all over the world. Don't make it chore. Read on your smart phone when you're in the bathroom in the morning. Read on the way home from school. Read when you're waiting for mom to finish her manicure at the spa. It's OK to read what you like, but also read widely and deeply. Set a goal for reading 3 or 4 books over the summer and go for it. I promise you won't regret it. You'll do better on the SAT and you'll discover a world you may never have seen before.

I've got other suggestions including part-time jobs and internships. But that's another post for another time. Develop a plan and go for it. And make your summer both fun and productive. Questions? Comment below. Thanks!