You might have heard about a spike or an edge from posts or articles like this one or this one. But how do you really develop one? A spike (or an edge) is simply a way to differentiate yourself from other applicants in the college admission process. A spike can be a specialty or particular skill that you have spent a considerable amount of time and effort developing and have (ideally) mastered. In some cases, a spike may be a unique challenge you have had to overcome. For instance, if you are first-gen college student, grew up in the foster care system, or have a low-income background. Chances are that the first example of a spike, the skill, applies to most of you, so I will address how to select and develop this skill. (If the second case, a unique challenge, applies to you, I highly recommend checking out QuestBridge.) You will develop your spike through your extracurricular activities (EC's). Here is how I would go about picking the theme or category of my spike:
Organize all of your current EC's into categories by skill type or theme. If you are a freshmen or in middle school (and have time to develop that specialty), you can also list your interests. If you aren't sure how to organize your EC's, refer to this video. Examples of categories are athletics (tennis, soccer, swimming, etc.), art (painting, photography, etc.), music (composition, piano, violin, etc.), STEM (biology, chemistry, math, etc.), public speaking (debate, mock trial, etc.).
Pick the top three you would be willing to dedicate a significant portion of your time to. What are you most passionate about? What do you enjoy?
Pick one of the categories you just chose. To be really good at something, you need time. Since time is limited, it will be close to impossible to master three different skills. It's much easier (though still difficult!) to master one. Also evaluate (if at all possible) whether you will have opportunities within that category to earn (hopefully national and international) awards like competitions, performances, exams, etc.
My category was music--I was a classical flutist. I started learning how to play the instrument when I was 10 and after the first year practiced ~2 hours a day in addition to weekly orchestra rehearsals and private lessons. If I had picked 3 different categories, I wouldn't have been able to reach the national or even international level in high school. Remember, you want to master one skill, not just be average at one skill. Always think, quality > quantity. One diamond is better than having 10 plastic crystals. And that's it. That one category you've selected will be your spike. You can still pursue activities within the other two categories. For instance, I was part of the Mock Trial team in high school. My team placed in our state, so I was able to list this as an award/honor. But,the bulk of my time was spent practicing flute which was my spike. A few things to keep in mind:
In most cases, a spike will not make up for a low test score. Still aim for a high GPA and high test scores! A good way to determine what your target score should be is to take a look at the freshmen profiles of your dream college. Here is Stanford's just as an example. Think of test scores as a qualifying round in the college application process. If you don't match or exceed the test scores that a university typically accepts, then it's less likely you'll get in.
Developing a spike isn't easy. It's easy to chose one. The hard work comes after. There will be times when you don't want to spend hours and hours practicing and studying, but it's necessary in order to reach that level of achievement. You want to develop a habit and not depend on motivation. I discussed this briefly in my previous newsletter.
If you have questions on a spike or would like me to review your plan, you can schedule a one-on-one Zoom call with me. Just fill out the Contact Form at mycollegelead.com.
I also posted a YouTube video with more details on a spike. Be sure to check it out!