You’ve been working hard in high school to get good grades and test scores, but there’s another part of the college application that many students find more confusing: the extracurricular activity section.
How many extracurricular activities do you need for college applications? How many are too many? Will you get rejected from a school if you don’t have the right amount?
Many students who have participated in activities throughout high school are shocked to look at the Common App and realize there are ten spaces to fill out. Does that mean you have to be involved in ten different activities?
In this article I will tell you:
- The important things colleges need to see in your extracurriculars
- The ideal amount of extracurricular activities
- The minimum amount of extracurriculars you can have
- What to do if you have no extracurriculars
- What to do if you have too many extracurriculars
What Colleges Want to See in Your Activities
Before we talk about exactly how many activities you need, let’s discuss why extracurricular activities are important in the first place and what colleges are hoping to learn about you through your activities.
Extracurriculars are one of the most important ways that colleges can learn about who you are as a person and if you will be a good fit on their campus.
Why? These activities show admissions officers many of the “intangibles” that they are looking for in their students. For example, your extracurriculars show admission officers if you can balance your schedule, if you can commit to an activity, the extent to which you can lead or improve something, and what makes you tick.
There are three main things that colleges are looking for in your activities:
- Dedication: Instead of seeing you jump around from activity to activity, colleges would far prefer to see you dedicate a significant amount of time over an extended period (a few years) to one particular activity. This shows your willingness to make a commitment and your passion for what you are doing.
- Leadership: Admissions officers like to see students take control in their activities and show off their leadership skills. This could include things like founding a club, increasing participation in an activity, or leading a project like a fundraiser. Universities hope that someday their students will go on to be leaders on a larger scale in the community, and these activities are a good way for them to gauge if you have the interest and ability to do that.
- Lasting Impact: This ties in with the previous idea. Admission officers like students who are going to make a difference in the world and leave it better than they found it. So if you are someone who has done just that in an activity, they are going to be more likely to think that you are the type of student they want on their campus. Did you do something to improve a club or organization you belonged to? Did you streamline a process or innovate how your activity is done? Did you leave something better than you found it?
Now that you understand what colleges are hoping to glean about you through your activities let’s see just how many of them you need in order to show off these qualities.
What’s the ideal amount of activities you’ll need in order to impress admissions officers?
How Many “Normal” Activities Should Students Have?
The Goldilocks “just right” number of activities is 5 or 6.
This is a good amount because it's achievable for most students without being overwhelming.
Fewer activities than this can show a lack of willingness to branch out and try something new, while having way more than 6 activities is unsustainable for most students. When colleges see students who have 10 or more activities, they will likely assume that you either padded your resume, or that you only showed up to your activities instead of making a real effort to be significantly involved.
In your freshman year, try out a lot of different activities to see what you're the most passionate about.
In sophomore year and beyond, start whittling down your activities so that you're left with the ones you can really make an impact in. These activities can be almost anything – clubs in your school or community, sports, art, hobbies, or community service.
The key is to choose one or two activities that you will focus most of your time on. In these activities, you should be investing a significant amount of time every week.
"Significant time," of course, can be interpreted differently depending on what activity you are doing. In general, between 5 and 10 hours per week for each main activity is a good benchmark, depending on how many activities you are involved in and how much time you devote to other responsibilities. (Remember to never let your academics suffer at the expense of extracurriculars!)
During your last years of high school, make sure that you show growth or development in these activities and try to take on a leadership role, or at least lead some initiatives. Take note of some specific accomplishments that you are proud of (don’t be too humble) and can write about on your application – specific details about your achievements will make your hard work much more impressive to colleges.
Round yourself out with a few secondary activities. You won’t be spending as much time on these, so they should be things that you can have fun with and not have to stress about. On your college applications, these activities will help round you out as a person and show aspects of your personality that may not be visible in your main activities. For example, if your main activities are competing in Science Bowl competitions and doing research at a local college, having something like a stand-up comedy club on your application could show a completely different side of you.
Keep in mind that the main thing is to pursue activities that you are really passionate about.
College admissions advisors care much more about getting a good idea of who you are and why you have pursued certain activities than reading a list of activities you couldn’t care less about but thought would sound good on an application.
Though 5 – 6 is the most ideal amount, that’s not to say that some students don’t do well with fewer activities – sometimes significantly fewer!
What’s the Minimum Number of Extracurriculars I Need for a Competitive School?
However, if that’s all you’re going to have, it had better be one very impressive activity that shows your growth, leadership, and impact.
You will also need to show that you have been significantly involved in the activity all throughout high school.
As an example, let me tell you about a student I knew at college.
The summer before her freshman year, she went with her family on vacation to Malaysia, where she was enchanted by the beautiful shawls local artisans made. She realized that many of the artists who produce these pieces were being underpaid for their work.
On returning home, she decided to take some classes at the local community college in business and web development and then launched a non-profit company that allows people to purchase these kinds of goods directly from the artisans abroad. Over the next four years, she expanded the business to reach artists in several countries and hired a couple of employees to help her do the work.
This kind of activity shows initiative, leadership, dedication, maturity, and passion – which are each qualities that admissions officers are looking for. Additionally, something of this magnitude would take up pretty much all of your time and not leave a lot of room for other activities.
If you only have one activity of this magnitude, you should run with it and not worry about the blank spaces on your application.
But is one really the minimum amount of activities you can have? What if you don’t have any at all?
Can I Get Away With Having No Extracurricular Activities?
The short answer to this question is yes; you can get away with having no extracurricular activities.
Some lower-ranked schools completely base their admissions decisions off GPA and test scores.
Additionally, there are several state schools that admit a percentage of students entirely based on the same criteria - ignoring extras such as your activities. For example, the University of California system guarantees admission to one of its campuses to all students who are in the top 9% of California high school students. If you have no activities, it's a good idea to check your state school system and see if it has a similar plan.
Finally, if you have spent your free time in high school doing something productive such as taking extra classes at your local community college, you may find that schools will also look well on that and be willing to admit you despite a lack of extracurriculars.
However, you may not want to go down these paths if you can at all avoid it.
While you will almost certainly be eligible for some schools without extracurriculars, they may not necessarily be the schools you were hoping for.
Unless you have serious extenuating circumstances, most colleges will look at a complete lack of extracurricular activities with disapproval. A student with no activities often ends up looking lazy, unmotivated, and afraid to leave his or her comfort zone.
Therefore, students with no extracurriculars will not be competitive at most schools.
Furthermore, you will be automatically eliminating yourself from the running for loads of merit- and activity-based scholarships, which are often dependent on your extracurricular activities. If you aren't sure if your after-school activities count as extracurriculars, or if you currently have no extracurriculars and don’t know what to do, see our guide.
But what if you have the opposite issue? Is it possible to have too many extracurricular activities? There are only ten spaces for activities on the Common App. What if you have more than that?
What If I Have Way More Than Ten Activities?
If you have more than ten activities, you do not need to list all of them.
In fact, on this part of the application, you can make a good argument that less is more.
Instead of having a long list of activities, it’s much more important to be able to show significant involvement in a few activities.
Use the Common App to showcase what you consider to be your best activities. Choose the activities that you are most passionate about, have helped you mature and develop skills, have allowed you to make a lasting impact, and that you have spent the most time doing.
This will look different for every student. Some students are genuinely invested in several activities. If that’s the case, then you should list them all. However, most students will only have a couple activities that they have really dedicated themselves to.
Keep in mind that colleges will care less about what you have done and more about why and how you have done it. When you're choosing which activities to write about, focus on those that help tell the story of who you are.
This means that you probably don’t have to mention the one time you worked backstage on the musical or the ten hours of community service you did freshman year and never thought about again until college applications rolled around.
Instead, just focus on those that show growth, leadership, and dedication.
If you think about it with that criteria, do you really have more than ten activities?
If you are very concerned about making everything fit, see if you can group activities together. For example, if you have participated in several different volunteer activities, you can lump them together as one.The same thing goes for students who have played several different instruments and don’t have room to list them individually.
You should also consider not filling up the list. I’ll repeat: It is okay to not fill up the whole list, especially if you're including activities that you can’t show to be significant.
Why is this a bad idea? Admissions officers may think that you just signed up for activities to pad your resume, and it may make them doubt your maturity and the sincerity of your involvement in the activities you have listed.
Check out our list of extracurricular activities if you need inspiration for an activity to choose.
Now that you know what extracurriculars are check out our guide for how to write about extracurriculars on your college application.
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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.