High school is an incredibly busy time for any student, but particularly so for students who fill their course schedules with the most rigorous classes available. With already packed schedules, many students question whether spending their limited free time on sports, clubs, and out-of-school activities is worth it.
The reality is that for selective institutions, extracurriculars are the critical distinguishing factor between academically qualified students. It is important to note that colleges are looking for a particular kind of extracurricular involvement. Admissions officers value a record of deep interest and achievement in specific pursuits far more than a well-rounded resume. In the early stages of your high school career, it can be useful to ask yourself: What do I truly enjoy doing or learning about? What opportunities can I pursue or create to further my interest in these areas? As you consider the answers to these questions, the below guidelines can also help you craft a strategic approach to your extracurriculars and use your time efficiently and meaningfully.
Why Extracurriculars Matter
Extracurriculars help you develop your hook:
During the application review process, admissions officers must succinctly describe the merits and qualities of a student, whether on paper or to a committee of their colleagues that makes the final decision on whether to admit or deny a student. Because there are thousands of students with excellent or even perfect grades and standardized test scores, extracurriculars play a crucial role in building a unique narrative that stands out among other applications. Whether your hook is being an elite-student athlete who can contribute to a college’s team, a theater buff with a YouTube channel dedicated to helping others put on productions, or a future diplomat who wants to keep other high schoolers informed about international affairs, colleges will look closely to see how you are pursuing your passions, developing your talents and improving your community.
Extracurriculars show leadership, collaboration, and communication skills:
Extracurriculars are vehicles for implicitly conveying your personal values and intangible skills. While holding an elected position in a club, being voted captain of a team, or having a big part in a play may be obvious indicators of your hard work and aptitude for an activity, involvement in extracurriculars also shows that you can effectively communicate your own ideas and listen to others. College is a collaborative atmosphere, and being involved in extracurricular activities indicates that you will be able to thrive in a group environment.
The Common App allows you to list up to ten activities:
When you fill out the Activities section of the Common App, listing multiple meaningful activities will add valuable personalizing information to your application. Every activity that you describe demonstrates another facet of your interests and abilities to your colleges. Failing to flesh out an Activities section with interesting, distinctive activities and achievements is a missed opportunity. Even before reading your personal statement and supplemental essays, admissions officers should be able to gain strong insight into your interests, accomplishments, and potential niche on campus solely from reading your Activities section. A great Activities section will also pique officers’ interest and make them excited to proceed to your essays, where you’ll delve deeper into the special experiences you’ve had in high school and what you’ve learned from them.
Admission officers are looking to create a balanced student body:
Top universities could fill their freshman class multiple times over with students with perfect GPAs and standardized test scores, but they do not want to. Admissions officers are looking to create a diverse student body, one whose students, in addition to having academic strengths, will get involved in activities on campus, create original projects, and eventually contribute to their institution’s reputation as innovative and socially-minded alumni. Involvement in meaningful extracurriculars signifies that you will bring specialized knowledge to your college community and add your voice to classes, clubs, teams and other groups once on campus.
Approaching Extracurriculars with a Passions-Focused Mindset
Focus on enjoyment, social impact, and quality over quantity:
In the context of both personal development and the college admissions process, it will be far more rewarding for you to invest your time into projects and causes that are genuinely meaningful to you, rather than joining multiple clubs, sports and other activities for the sake of filling out a resume. Additionally, stretching yourself too thin can negatively impact your grades, mental health, and even your involvement in each extracurricular, as you will not be able to fully devote your time to anything. Rather than aiming to “do it all” as a student, being selective and spending your time on extracurriculars that you care about can be far more enjoyable and empowering, and help you stand out to colleges.
While it is always good to pursue your passions in any way available to you, your time can often be best spent on using your talents to better your community and others around you. For instance, if you love psychology, putting together an advocacy campaign for student mental health in your school can be a creative way to explore your interests and make a long-lasting impact on your school community. If you’re a creative writer, teaching poetry workshops to younger children can not only help bolster their literacy and imagination, but also make for a great experience and potential narrative for your college essays.
If your school or community does not have an opportunity that matches your passion, look to create your own club or join an outside organization. Some students may not be inspired by the offerings at their school or in their community. If you do have a passion but no avenue to pursue it, you should search elsewhere for like-minded individuals, and even address the lack of access in your community by starting your own initiative.
Demonstrate commitment, work ethic, and leadership:
Being a member of ten clubs for one or two years is not nearly as impressive as earning leadership positions in two clubs that you have been committed to for multiple years. Long-term involvement in clubs will give you opportunities to organize events, develop specific skills, take on leadership positions, and build friendships with your peers. It will also demonstrate your persistence and dedication to the communities, causes, and projects that you’re involved with. Starting early with activities in high school is important; in some cases, when students become over-involved with new clubs and projects in junior year and right before senior year, it is a red flag to admissions officers that a student is trying to rack up achievements and activities to appear impressive to colleges rather than out of authentic interest.
Remember that summer activities, volunteer work, and jobs also count as activities:
Not all of the activities you list on your Common App will or should be school clubs. Part-time jobs, regular volunteering commitments, summer research positions and courses, and sometimes even serious family responsibilities can all be listed on the Activities section. Getting involved in too many activities both in and out of school will mean that some of your other experiences have to be left out.
Explore opportunities you’re curious about even if they do not already match your hook:
A common trap students fall into is thinking, “How will this activity look to colleges?” A student who wants to become a doctor may think they should limit his activities to clinical volunteering and Science Olympiad. But there is much more to every person than their career interests, and colleges are looking for students with multi-dimensional sets of passions and talents. A prospective scientist who loves classical mythology, or a future math major who sings in an acapella group, is fascinating to colleges, which are seeking authentically curious, creative, and motivated students. Furthermore, if you can identify and creatively pursue ways to explore the intersections of your disparate interests, admissions officers will appreciate your out-of-the-box thinking and initiative. For example, a student who enjoys both Mock Trial and Robotics Club might explore an online course or internship in patent law to explore overlaps between law and technology.
The Bigger Picture
Extracurriculars matter, but they only tell one part of your story. Your application will also include your grades, test scores, volunteer work, work or internship experiences, a personal essay, awards/scholarships, and your recommendation letters. Use your extracurriculars as an opportunity to paint a broader picture through your application – become deeply involved in extracurriculars that you are passionate about, and your genuine interest will shine through to colleges.