Extracurricular activities are one of the most important parts of your college application. After your test scores and grades, they are the best way for a college to get to know more about you and to understand what kind of student you might be on campus.
But what if you have no extracurricular activities? Is all hope lost?
Read on to find out why things might not be as bad as they seem and what you can do to make up for not having extracurriculars.
The extracurricular activity section on the Common Application is one of the most confusing for students because they don’t know what does and doesn't count as an extracurricular activity. If you haven’t been elected class president and aren’t on a varsity team, how are you supposed to fill up those ten spaces?
What if you have no extracurriculars?
In this article, I'm going to show you:
- How to determine if you actually have any extracurricular activities
- The reasons many myths about extracurricular activities are false
- Strategies to compensate for a lack of extracurricular activities, at every grade level
- When it's okay not to have extracurricular activities
Do You Really Have No Extracurriculars?
The first step is to determine if you actually have zero extracurricular activities.
Most students actually have a few, but they just haven't realized it.
Extracurricular activities can be almost anything you've done outside of the classroom that doesn’t count for school credit.
Ideally, these things will also be something you're interested in – even passionate about. The ideal is that over the course of your four years of high school, you will have explored different interests, developed them, and then decided to dedicate significant amounts of time to an activity.
College admissions officers like to see these kinds of activities because they say a lot about what makes you tick, and what kind of person you are when you're committed to something. You can also show certain “intangible” qualities through your activities, such as leadership and the ability to follow through on something.
Many students who think that they don’t have any extracurricular activites actually do, but they don’t think of their activities as “real” extracurriculars.
To see if you have an extracurricular (or two!), sit down and make a list of the following:
- How do you spend your time at school during lunch? Do you ever participate in groups at your high school, specific activities with your friends (like an intramural sport or a magic club), or interact with other students in a productive way, such as through tutoring?
- What do you do after school? Have you ever volunteered in the community or at your school? Do you have a job? Do you go straight home? If so, what do you do when you get there? Do you help look after your siblings or otherwise contribute to the house?
- What did you do last summer? Did you take any classes that weren’t required for school? Did you join a club or play a non-school sport? Did you have a job?
- What is your favorite hobby? Do you like anything unconventional, like playing the bagpipes? Or do you have more popular interests, like knitting, skiing or other activities that you do in your free time?
Good news. If you can think of anything that you have spent a significant amount of time doing for a worthwhile reason, it can probably be counted as an extracurricular activity.
Can Anything Be an Extracurricular Activity?
However, not everything counts.
For example, if you have really spent all of your free time sitting in front of the television after school, and spent your summer playing video games, hanging out at the mall, or lounging by your country club’s pool, you can’t list those as extracurricular activities.
But at the same time, the list of things that do count as extracurriculars is a lot longer than people may think.
Some students end up feeling discouraged because they buy into myths about what is and is not a valid activity.
Extracurriculars have to be sponsored by your school.
Extracurricular activities can be almost anything you are productively dedicated to. It can be an activity in your school, in your community, a nationwide group, or something that you find online. The key is that you get actively involved and make an impact with your involvement.
Organizing a community festival and participating in a city orchestra do count as extracurricular activities!
I don’t have any extracurriculars because I work or help out at home.
Colleges also consider these kinds of activities to be extracurriculars and want to hear about them. Colleges understand that not all students have the luxury – being time or money – to participate in traditional activities because they have to help out at home or get a job. These count as very valid ways of spending your time.
If this is the kind of activity you are involved in, you should try to think about how you have made an impact on your family and how these activities have impacted you. For example, you are likely a lot more responsible than the average high school student, and you probably have had to learn good time management skills.
Many jobs will also allow you to take on roles where you can showcase your leadership and creativity – so be on the outlook for those kinds of opportunities if work is going to be your main extracurricular!
Tutoring your younger siblings at home after school or working at the local hardware shop to help bring in money for your family do count as extracurricular activities.
Extracurriculars can’t be academic.
There are many extracurriculars that are related to academic activities. If you have written for a literary publication, joined a competitive math team, or have worked with a local community college professor on a science experiment, these all count as extracurricular activities.
In fact, these sorts of activities are often highly regarded because they show a passion for an area of study. These are especially valuable activities if you are planning on pursuing something similar in college.
Doing your homework does not count as an extracurricular activity.
Writing for a literary publication and competing in a science competition do count as extracurricular activities.
I spend all my time gaming/blogging/shopping/on social media, so I don’t have any extracurriculars.
Sometimes even things that traditionally shouted “lazy student” can be morphed into college-worthy extracurricular activities. Blogging and social media are both professional pursuits. If you can show that you are dedicated to digital communication and you have made an impact in the online community – for example, you have dedicated yourself to writing a tech help blog, or a YouTube channel about makeup – you can count it as an extracurricular.
In fact, someone at my college had few extracurriculars in high school apart from making what was, at the time, the most popular Harry Potter fan web site. Over the course of four years in high school, what had started as a small web site had grown to be a massively successful business where he connected people around the world over a shared passion.
Similarly, things like shopping can be leveraged into a fashion interest, and gamers now have tournaments and other communal outlets. If your interests seem similar to these sorts of things, try to see what you can do to take your passion beyond you sitting alone in a room and turn it into something that allows you to inspire or teach others.
Playing video games at home alone or with friends does not count as an extracurricular activity.
Starting a gaming club at school and organizing a gaming tournament for charity do count as an extracurricular activity.
My passion involves only me, so it doesn’t count as an extracurricular.
While it’s true that the most successful college applicants will usually have some sort of connection with the wider world – through volunteer work or participation in group activities – not all extracurriculars need to involve many people.
If you have dedicated a lot of time over the years to developing a talent, such as art or playing a musical instrument, this also counts as an extracurricular activity.
Taking singing classes does count as an extracurricular activity.
I’m getting paid, so it doesn’t count.
As I’ve already stated, colleges are very interested to hear about the activities of students who have to work to help support themselves and their families. But other students who are not financially strapped also choose to get jobs.
Even if you don’t need to work, it can be a good reflection of your personality if you choose to work in high school. Try to pursue something related to your future interests. Some students may also choose to do an internship over the summer, and this can be a great addition to your extracurricular list. If you go down this route, try to make sure that the job or internship you choose is something that is going to allow you to develop responsibility, teamwork, and leadership skills, and explore an area that you will be interested in pursuing either in college or professionally.
Of course, if you choose to work when you don’t have to, it can take time away from other activities. Is it the right choice for you? Read out article on getting a job as a teenager to see.
Doing a paid summer internship with a tech company does count as an extracurricular activity.
As you can see, there are a lot of things that count as extracurriculars. But what if you really have nothing at all that counts as an extracurricular?
What If You Have No Extracurriculars?
The answer to this question largely depends on how far along you are in high school.
If You Are a Freshman or a Sophomore…
You're in luck! You have a lot of time to develop your extracurricular list. If you are a freshman, I would recommend trying a lot of different activities to see what interests you most. By sophomore year, you ideally should have some sort of idea about what interests you, and you should start to narrow your focus to just those activities.
As you get older, it’s important to start showing dedication to a few different activities that you are passionate about. It’s even better if you can show leadership and growth in your activities.
If You Are a Junior…
At this stage, you are running out of time.
Many college admissions officers will think that if someone who has previously had no activities start to join a bunch of activities in their junior year, that they are just doing it for college applications as opposed to doing it to develop a passion or to explore a real interest.
However, starting something in your junior year is still infinitely better than doing nothing at all.
Narrow your focus to one or two activities and get as involved as your schedule will allow.
Try to take on leadership responsibilities as soon as possible, and work hard to make a difference in whatever activity or organization you choose to join. Try to complete specific, quantifiable goals that show that you have left the organization better than you found it. For example, run a membership drive and take note of how many new members you can persuade to join a club, or organize a fundraiser and keep track of how much money you make.
Ideally, choose an activity that you will be able to continue into college. The Common App has a place for you to mark if you are interested in continuing your activities into college. If you can genuinely answer "yes" to this question, you will come across as more interested in your chosen activity and appear less like someone who just took up an activity to have something to put on your application. (Remember, you should never lie on your application, even about something as seemingly harmless about your intention to continue with an activity.)
In your college application (in the "Additional Information section" or in an essay, if appropriate), you may want to address why you started your activities late in your high school career, and what you managed to contribute and learn through the activities you started your junior year.
If You Are a Senior…
Unfortunately, if you have spent your entire high school career genuinely doing nothing, you have hurt your chances of getting into many schools.
While college admissions officers realize that students can’t do everything – and in fact, it’s better if you don’t try to do everything – your application will be much less competitive because you have chosen to do nothing.
At this point, I would recommend two things:
Firstly, focus on your test scores and application essays. Many less competitive schools will accept students based just off of grades and test scores. If you are already a senior, there’s not much you can do about your grades (it’s a bit late to turn a 2.0 into a 4.0) – but you can definitely impress with a top SAT or ACT score.
Similarly, sometimes students can really sway an admission committee’s opinion with a fantastic essay that shows strong passion for something. Though you won’t be able to back up this passion with an extracurricular, your essays are now the best way you have to express who you are as a person, what kind of college student you will become, and what your goals and interests are for the future.
Note: Grades still matter in senior year. Don’t slack. But also don’t expect miracles if you have waited until now to start trying.
Secondly, start doing an extracurricular activity NOW. Choose one that you can be very involved in over the course of senior year and in which you can make a real impact (again, make this a quantifiable one where you can actually list what you have achieved). If you wait until the application deadline for most schools, this will give you 5 months of an activity. While that’s not great, it’s better than nothing, especially if you can show how you’ve made a difference and how it has changed you.
Continue doing the activity for the rest of your senior year. If you end up appealing a rejection in the spring, it will work in your favor to have continued the activity.
What Should You NOT Do?
Don’t lie on your application. If you have chosen to not do anything outside of the classroom, then you shouldn’t try to fix that with dishonesty. And if your colleges find out, they may decide to rescind any offers they made based on who you misrepresented yourself to be.
Instead, make sure that you present yourself as you are, and talk about your future goals and passions in your essays.
Are There Any Exceptions?
Of course, there are always some exceptions.
If you have not participated in any extracurricular activities because you experienced exceptional hardships throughout high school that prevented you from doing anything, you should make this very obvious on your application in the "Additional Information" section.
College admissions officers will appreciate your openness in discussing why you couldn't participate in what otherwise is a very important part of the high school experience.
Check out our list of extracurricular activities if you need inspiration for an activity to choose.
If you’ve realized that you do have extracurriculars, check out our guide for how to write about extracurriculars on your college application.
Getting ready to write those essays? Learn the basics of the personal statement.
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Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.