Do you have great extracurriculars? Maybe you’re captain of the football team or president of a top debate team. Your approach to college admissions will be quite different than a typical student’s, and your SAT / ACT prep process should be uniquely tailored to you. In this article, we talk about what unique opportunities you have in test prep and what traps you should avoid.
In this guide, first we'll discuss the different academic and extracurricular strengths students can have and which categories you fit into. We'll also go over why extracurriculars are important to colleges and why certain schools care about them more than others.
In the next sections, we'll discuss specific strategies you can follow based on the strength of your extracurriculars and academics. Our final section is for students who are being recruited or otherwise meet special admissions requirements.
How Good Do You Have to Be?
The best way to approach admissions and test prep depends on two factors: extracurriculars and academics. First, are you relatively good at extracurriculars (think captain of the chess team), or are you truly stellar (think second-best high school football player in the entire US)? Second, are you already doing well academically (90 percentile or higher on SAT/ACT) or are you more towards the middle? We'll define each of these terms below and give you advice that best fits your situation.
For this article, Relatively Good extracurriculars means that your percentile in an extracurricular is at least three times as good as your academics. For example, if you are an 85th percentile academic (perhaps a GPA of 3.8 unweighted), then you are Relatively Good in extracurriculars if you are at least a 95th percentile in extracurriculars. Likewise, if you are 97th percentile academically (perhaps a GPA of 3.95 unweighted), then you’re relatively strong in extracurriculars if you’re in the 99th percentile. Having Relatively Good extracurriculars is a challenge, and it does make you stand out.
Conversely, for Stellar extracurriculars, I’m not talking about being the president of a chess team that you started with five people. I’m not talking about winning second place in a county track meet. You need to be ranked in the top 500 in the country in a popular area (e.g. football, math, debate), or you need to be ranked top 50 in a less popular area (e.g. javelin throwing, Model UN).
When calculating these rankings, do it honestly. Don’t kid yourself by making artificial categories. Top 500 in touch football doesn’t count, nor does being top 500 in the uncommon Mandelbrot math competition. If you have to ask whether you’re within the top 500, I would play it safe and count yourself out for now (but you can always improve!). Those who are clearly ranked in the top 500 of a popular extracurricular will know without having to mull over the question for hours.
Finally, different advice applies to students with strong academic baselines versus those who are more moderate academically. For the purpose of this article, we define a strong academic baseline as someone performing at the 90th percentile for both their GPA and SAT / ACT score. That is, you’ve looked up your SAT percentile or ACT percentile, and it’s above 90. You’ve also asked your guidance counselor for your class rank, or informally polled your classmates, and you’ve found that that you’re performing at least 90th percentile there too.
Those who are performing much less than this have a standard or moderate academic baseline. Of course, there is some flexibility here. Some may say 80th percentile is a strong baseline, and if you’re targeting an institution outside of the US News top 20, this is true. A GPA or class rank that’s 70th percentile or lower is probably no longer strong enough for the definition of this article.
Why Do Colleges Care About Extracurriculars? Which Colleges Care More?
To begin understanding why students with great extracurriculars are viewed differently by colleges, it’s useful to review the ideas behind why colleges even look for extracurriculars in the first place.
Extracurriculars, in general, allow great colleges to have a student body that is more than just students who did well in school. Colleges have their own values, often shaped by the social landscape to which they belong. They may care about social impact, richness of student character, diversity of student body, and so on. Extracurriculars are the method by which colleges select students in furtherance of these values that they hold.
However, colleges, at their core, are academic institutions. They believe the most important things are academic: learning subjects, doing well in classes, furthering knowledge through research, etc. Colleges generally value academics more than other areas. This is demonstrated by their emphasis of SAT/ACT scores and GPAs over other applicant qualities like extracurriculars.
Think of academics and extracurriculars as being in a “pyramid of college needs." The academic layer is the lower half, and extracurriculars are the higher half. Colleges want to fill the lower half before filling the upper half. Only colleges that have already had their fill of strong academics will start caring more about extracurriculars. Analogously, in humans, we say that eating is a more fundamental need than watching a movie. If we don’t have a movie and we’re starving, we look for food first. Only if we have enough food do we start caring about the movie.
Figure: The hierarchy of college needs. Academics come before extracurriculars.
With this model, it’s easy to see why the top colleges care disproportionately more about extracurriculars. The top colleges (generally defined as US News top 50), can already get their full fill of strong academics. There are hundreds of thousands of students every year with GPAs above 3.8 unweighted or with ACT scores above 30 (SAT scores above 1300). These strong academics are more than enough to fill the academic needs of top colleges. Therefore, these top colleges will start using extracurriculars more to differentiate students. If you’re already strong academically, then you’ll likely be targeting higher ranked schools, and your extracurriculars will matter more.
Conversely, colleges ranked below 50 in US News (which can still be great colleges for a number of reasons) will care a lot more about academics. If you’re performing only mediocre academically, extracurriculars won’t carry you (unless you are specially recruited, as we’ll discuss below).
The next part of this guide will give you specific strategies depending on your current academic status. If your grades and test scores are about average, read the next section for Moderate Academics. If your grades and test scores put you in at least the 90th percentile, skip two sections down to the section for Strong Academics. The final section is for students who are being recruited or who otherwise have special admissions requirements.
Moderate Academic Baseline? Shore Up Your ACT / SAT First!
As we saw above, your extracurriculars will only really matter if you're great academically as well. Academics and extracurriculars complement each other. After all, the top-ranked schools care about extracurriculars the most, and only then in students who already have a good academic baseline. If you're not currently in the 90th percentile academically, the advice in this section applies to you, regardless of whether your extracurriculars are Relatively Good or Stellar.
As we mentioned previously, our rough cutoff to be academically moderate is being below the 90th percentile on the SAT / ACT. If you’re less than that cutoff academically, the most important thing you can do for college admissions is improve your SAT / ACT score and GPA while maintaining your extracurriculars. The further you are from that 90th percentile transition point, the more important academics become. In the extreme, if you’re scoring average or below average academically (ACT 20 out of 36, SAT 1000 out of 1600), your admissions will depend nearly entirely on your academics.
Now, how do you solve this? Of course, don’t lose your extracurricular -- it will be important to admissions later. Also, if you’re so good at this activity, you probably do it because you enjoy it too. However, recognize that, if you’re mediocre academically, you should mainly focus on improving those scores.
How will shoring up your academics be different from normal students trying to raise their grades? For one, since you have a great extracurricular going on, that presumably takes up a lot of time. Therefore, you want to increase your academics in the most efficient way possible. This often means that SAT / ACT prep is probably the best way to improve. Just a few hours of study will increase your points substantially and move you up a few percentiles. It’s not uncommon to see a gain of 20 percentiles on the SAT or ACT in return for just 40 hours of study.
Contrast that with improving your GPA. Suppose you put in 40 extra hours on your academics. Over the course of your high school career, between classwork and homework, you’re already putting in over 4000 hours of work into academics. An extra 40 hours moves your GPA less than 1 percent! Maybe your GPA will go up from a 3.50 to a 3.53 -- barely moving the needle. When it comes to time efficiency for college admissions, classes and GPAs are often a wasteland.
Thus, the conclusion is that, if you’re not doing superb academically, definitely work to improve that first. Regardless of whether your extracurriculars are Stellar or Relatively Good, if your academics aren't great, the best way to improve your college chances is to work on improving your academics. And, as we explained above, the easiest and fastest way to significantly improve your academics is through ACT / SAT prep.
Strong Academically? Here’s What You Should Do
Now, suppose you are already performing at the 90th percentile on both your GPA and the SAT / ACT. That’s great news because you have a good shot at the top 50 US News ranked schools. This is when your extracurricular will start to shine!
First, your extracurricular will be the differentiator at this point, so make sure whatever strategy you do, you don’t ruin your main selling point, your main extracurricular strength. If you are in tennis, I would avoid doing activities that injure your arm. If you’re trying to improve academics, then realize that 90th percentile is already good, and be careful not to take any actions that will endanger your special strength.
For example, suppose you are a US ranked tennis player. Your GPA is above the 90th percentile, but your ability to write essays about world literature is merely average. You are considering missing some tennis practice sessions to take an essay-writing improvement course. My strong advice: Don’t do it. Your ability to write a bit better about Shakespeare won’t make an impact on college admissions, whereas your tennis ability will.
You should understand at this point that colleges will care more about quality than quantity of extracurriculars. Being state-ranked (top 100) in debate and also state-ranked in math is far worse than being nationally-ranked in just one of the categories. Choose one or two things that you are especially good at. Once you go into the “three somewhat good extracurriculars” area, you seem like a dilettante to colleges, a negative. If you’re good at three or more activities, focus on the one that you’re strongest in, you’re making the most progress in, or that is most recognized by colleges. Thus, my number one advice to you is to focus on that one great extracurricular.
At this point, if you’re Relatively Good at an extracurricular, you want to turn that into a Stellar. If you are already Stellar, you want to improve your rank even more.
There are two cases when you should still pay attention to academics. First, you should always pick the low hanging fruit. If an easy project or essay comes your way that will boost your score by a lot for very little work, you should definitely still do it. You should also still invest in some SAT / ACT prep, whether by yourself or some other way. Studies show that the first few hours of prep improve your score by the most. While some students study hundreds of hours, 40 hours of prep often is very low-hanging fruit for you to pick to improve your application by a lot.
Also, if you are very Stellar already (but not recruited -- I’ll talk about recruited below), it is worth re-examining your academics. If you are in the Stellar category, you’re probably in the top 0.1 percentile in terms of extracurriculars. If you are just “merely” top 90th percentile in academics, then your academics are still trailing behind. In that case, it’s worthwhile to push your academics harder still -- getting up to 98th or 99th percentile. This doesn’t mean a perfect score: you just need to get around a 1500 out of 1600 on the SAT or a 33 out of 36 on the ACT.
Again, ACT / SAT Prep is your friend for the above goal. Being Stellar, you likely won’t have much time to invest. Because ACT / SAT prep is a relatively fast way to boost your percentile, it’s a great fit for you.
Extra Advice for Students Stellar at Extracurriculars: Recruitment and Special Slots
All students who are strong in extracurriculars have an advantage. Usually this advantage is implicit, a wink or a nod from an admissions officer approving of your math team trophy or debate win. However, for some students who are truly stellar, the implicit becomes explicit. A nudge turns into a likely letter. Waffling about flexibility in ACT scores turns into explicit ACT cutoffs.
Therefore, if you are really Stellar in an extracurricular, you should look to see if you have explicit special admissions requirements. Special admissions requirements are more advantageous, so you should definitely find out about this if you can. If you’re a Stellar athlete, I would talk to your coach, your local association, your trainer, or even the school you’re interested in attending. Athletes in popular sports like football, baseball, basketball, and so forth especially are recruited. If you are a top athlete looking to continue playing for a college team, this section applies to you!
Special admissions requirements also apply for Stellar students of non-athletic fields. For example, if you are a stellar scorer on the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), both MIT and Caltech have relaxed admissions requirements. Caltech, in fact, explicitly asks for USAMO type scores. Students admitted to the prestigious RSI science community are even given guaranteed admissions to MIT and Caltech.
There is no single rule when it comes to explicit special admissions for stellar students. Explicit special requirements depend on each school and each activity. The special SAT / ACT requirement for a USAMO winner at MIT will look very different from that of a Division 1 recruited football player. The best way to find out more information is by researching your particular field. If you’re stellar in a field, chances are you have much deeper and unique resources than a blog can give you.
I should also mention that explicit spots depend very much on school, activity, and year, and the specific interaction of all three parts. If Harvard is looking for a flutist in 2004, being good at the flute will give you a much stronger advantage at Harvard than it would at a similar school (like Yale) not recruiting flutists that year. Similarly, if Harvard has a much greater need for a flutist in 2004 than they do in 2006, a flutist who applies in 2004 will have a much better chance of getting in than a flutist who applies in 2006, even if their applications are identical.
If one school offers you explicit admissions requirements one year, don't think all schools will give you the same advantage all years. Luck and timing become are important parts of the process.
Once you find out about explicit special requirements, you should follow the specific advice you get from your recruiter or mentor about SAT / ACT guidelines. However, it is very common for recruited students, especially in sports, to need to hit a hard SAT / ACT score quota (which is also called a target, goal, or baseline).
Recruited Students: Need to Hit an SAT / ACT Quota?
In sports and athletics, it’s very common for the best athletes to have explicit SAT or ACT score cutoffs. This means that a recruiter will call you and literally say that, if you get a 30 on the ACT, you will be admitted. Even if it’s not a guarantee, your chances of admissions jump from 10% to 90% at this hard cutoff. This was the case for one of my tutoring students who was a tennis star, and it’s a very common situation for exceptional athletes to find themselves in.
In these cases, you should understand that the reason colleges use the SAT / ACT is because these scores tend to be more objective than teachers or school districts. Colleges are afraid that an easy high school or an easy teacher will give a popular athlete strong grades despite her performance being poor.
The internal politics of the college also revolve around ensuring that the stellar extracurricular student can pass everything. If you’re a basketball star, you don’t need to be getting an A in Organic Chemistry. If you’re a math genius, you don’t need to be writing research papers on Voltaire. However, if you start failing out of classes, that will embarrass your future coach. Having an ACT / SAT cutoff is supposed to reduce admitting students like this.
When aiming for the SAT / ACT quotas, you should take the test in ways that are different from usual. Suppose you’re reasonably sure that you’ll hit the quota. Then you’re in a good position, and the name of the game is to play it safe and don’t waste time. Unless you are really above the cutoff by a ton, it’s useful to do some ACT / SAT prep. The prep will take just a few hours (no more than 40 hours, or the same amount of time as 1-2 weeks of rigorous sports practice), and it will very effectively improve your score. You don’t want a program that interrupts your sports training; classes that make you miss practice are a bad idea.
Now, suppose you’re getting much lower scores than your quota. For example, you usually score a 28, but the quota is a 30. First, it would an extremely good idea to prep in this case because this one number literally will make or break everything. Most students don’t have the good fortune to be told an ACT score can (virtually) guarantee them admissions. You do have that opportunity, so the gains test prep can give you matter more than ever.
Second, you will want to take the ACT / SAT as many times as you need -- so you can maximize your chance of getting above that score. Each time you take the exam, you will want to have higher variance. Try out different strategies -- read the passage before the questions during one test and vice versa during another. Any strategy that increases the volatility of your score will increase your maximum score attained, and thus your overall chances of getting over the quota. You should invest every bit of time you need in SAT / ACT prep to hit the quota because if you miss it, at least for admissions to that college, all your talent and hard work in that sport or activity will have amounted to nothing.
While having so much depend on the ACT / SAT hardly seems fair, it’s actually an advantageous position to be in because the quota is likely a lot less than what you’d need to get if you were applying normally to that university!
For students who are strong at extracurriculars, here's a handy chart to guide you through the test prep and college admission process:
Strength at Extracurriculars
Moderate Academically (<90%tile)
Strong Academically (>90%tile)
Relatively Good: Percentile-wise, extracurriculars at least 3x stronger than academics.
Academics is your first priority. Focus on SAT / ACT prep while maintaining extracurriculars.
Your single best extracurricular is the priority. Get low hanging academic fruit like SAT / ACT prep.
Stellar: Top 500 in the US (in a popular activity)
See if your stellar extracurriculars qualify you for special admissions. Otherwise, focus equally on improving extracurriculars and academics.
Your single best extracurricular is the priority. However, make sure your academics don’t fall too far below extracurriculars.
Recruited: Your mentor in your field tells you about special circumstances
Follow recruiter guidelines. SAT / ACT quota likely. Take the SAT / ACT multiple times.
Follow recruiter guidelines. SAT / ACT quota likely. Take the SAT / ACT safely.
Most students who are strong in extracurriculars are in the Relatively Good category, as opposed to the absolutely Stellar category (and that’s not a problem, be proud of your strength!). In the Relatively Good category, those who fall below the 90th percentile are urged to focus mainly on academics. At your target colleges, academics are still the bread and butter, and extracurriculars are merely a garnish. Push academics as hard as you can, and often that will mean SAT / ACT prep. If you are already academically strong, though, you are better off continuing to improve your extracurricular.
For students with Stellar extracurriculars, it’s always worthwhile to see if you can be recruited or get special admission requirements. At this point, you should be very careful to keep your extracurricular top-notch. If your academics are moderate, though, they will hold you back -- improve to at least 90 percentile. Once you’re at 90%, extracurriculars become more important, unless you become so good at extracurriculars that it makes sense to notch up academics just a bit more.
Finally, recruited students and special admissions students -- you have the best deal of the bunch. Follow the advice that your recruiters and mentors give you, and remember that, as a general rule, put your extracurricular first.
For students of all types, SAT / ACT prep is a relatively low hanging fruit -- a fast and efficient way to improve your academic standing.
Want more information on athletic recruiting? Check out our guide which goes through the entire process, from beginning to end.
Looking for ways to strengthen your extracurriculars? Check out four examples of amazing extracurricular activities that are sure to impress colleges.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.