Extracurriculars are a significant part of your college application, and just participating in an extracurricular is not enough. Colleges don’t want participants. Colleges want leaders. If you want to stand out, it’s not sufficient to be the president of a club. Colleges want leaders who take initiative and get their goals accomplished.
How can you become a successful leader in your extracurricular? What are good leadership activities for high schoolers? In this article, I’ll guide you through the whole process of becoming a successful leader: from deciding where to focus your efforts to implementing your plan to describing your achievements on a college application.
Why Is Leadership Experience Important?
Demonstrating leadership is one of the most important parts of your college application. It's almost required to get into a top college, and having great leadership experience can help compensate for another area of your application that isn't quite as strong as you'd like it to be. Admissions officers like to see students take control in their high school extracurricular activities and show off their leadership skills.
Why do admissions officers care about leadership? Colleges hope that the applicants they admit will go on to be leaders on their campus and leaders out in the world. Colleges want their alumni to have a significant and beneficial impact on the world. Admissions officers use your high school extracurricular activities as a way to judge if you have the interest and ability to be a leader.
What do colleges look for in leadership experience? As I said before, simply having a leadership title in one of your extracurriculars is not enough (most high-achieving high school students have a leadership role in an extracurricular), you need to be a leader who makes an impact.
What Is Impact?
Impact is making a real difference: leading your club to raise $5,000 for breast cancer research, leading your team as captain to the national championship, leading your club to collect 1,000 cans of food to donate to your local food back, etc. In general, your impact should be measurable by a number amount (i.e. $1,000 raised or 500 students attended the event) or by meeting a big goal (i.e. getting to the state or national level of competition). You should be able to say, "Under my leadership, the student council raised $5,000 to make prom free for all students" or "Under my leadership, our math team went from not making the regional competition to winning the state championship."
It's important to show impact because, as I mentioned above, most high-achieving high school students will have some leadership role on their application. Not many students will have made a true impact. Impact is difficult to achieve, but I will guide you through the process in the steps below.
You want to stand out from other applicants!
What Are Ivy League Schools Looking For?
If you’re hoping to attend an Ivy League school, I recommend that you try to get leadership experience in your main area of interest. What do I mean by that? The Ivy League no longer wants well-rounded students (who do varied activities such as tennis, drama, student government, and volunteering at an animal shelter). By participating in such a wide range of activities, very, very selective colleges (the Ivy League and Stanford) may see your well-roundedness as a lack of focus.
The Ivy League schools want experts. They want students who specialize in one general area. For example, if your passion is drama, you should join the drama club, do regional theater, compete in the drama categories with your speech and debate team, write an original play, and/or volunteer with a children’s theater group. Specializing in one area doesn’t mean only doing one activity. If drama is your focus, don’t just be an inactive member of your drama club. You need to do more than that to impress the Ivy League. As I said above, you need to make an impact.
Whatever one thing you choose to be an expert in, I recommend you also try to become a leader in that field. If you’re a number 1 ranked tennis player, consider trying to run for team captain at your school, founding a club to teach children how to play tennis, and hosting a tennis competition to raise money for breast cancer. If you’re a mathlete, consider running for a mathlete board position, holding a Pi day fundraiser for charity where you sell pies, and starting a club to help students with their math homework.
Whether or not you’re hoping to attend an Ivy League school, you should still try to show leadership and make an impact in your extracurriculars. If you’re not gunning for the Ivy League, you don’t have to worry about focusing on one area of expertise. However, you still need leadership experience because it’s impressive to all colleges, and, as I said before, it can help you get accepted or make up for another area of your application if it isn't quite as strong as you'd like it to be.
Which way do you go to get leadership experience?
How Can You Get Leadership Experience?
If colleges want to see meaningful leadership experience, you should try to get it! But how can you become a leader? Your first thought might be to think of traditional high school leadership activities such as being on student council. Student council is not necessarily the best leadership experience for all applicants. There are many other ways to show leadership. Below, I give you my top four options:
Option #1: Become a Board Member, Club President, or Team Captain
You can become club president or team captain by getting good at whatever the main club activity is, cultivating relationships with teammates or other club members, and doing more work than is just required. Show that you're willing to do more work than expected by offering to help with the events (come early, help with set up/organizing, help with clean up, etc.).
Don’t expect to become club president immediately as a freshman. I recommend you try to work your way up to becoming a top leader in the club. Start in a smaller position such as secretary or treasurer your freshman or sophomore year, and then move up to vice president and then to president. All during this time you need to be making relationships with teammates or club members and show you're willing to work hard. That was my strategy to become my high school’s student government president, and it worked!
Option #2: Start a New Club in Your Area of Interest
Before founding a new club, brainstorm what you'd want that club to be, come up with ideas for what the club's purpose would b,e and talk to people with similar interests to see if they'd be interested in the club. For more information, read about how to start a club in high school and check out our list of clubs to start in high school.
If you’re nervous or unsure about starting a new club, consider first trying to plan a new event or project for an existing club. For example, if a math club exists, consider planning an event at which the math club offers free tutoring to other students struggling with math. If your planned event goes well, you’ll feel that much more confident and ready to start your own club.
Option #3: Lead a Project in Your Area of Interest
Before leading a project, you should help a current club or charity plan an event or host a fundraiser. That way you can learn how to organize a successful event or fundraiser. You'll see how that person did it, get advice, and see how successful they are. Talk to classmates about what kind of fundraiser they'd enjoy, and see if any classmates would be interested in helping you.
Option #4: Increase Participation in an Activity
In order to make a real impact, I'd suggest trying to get the number of participants or attendees for a club, fundraiser, or similar event above 50 (100 or more is better). Before you attempt to increase participation, you need to see how that event or club runs. Offer to help the person currently responsible for planning that event or the person who is responsible for club recruitment. See what they do that works and what they do that doesn't. Ask people who attend club events what they liked, disliked, and what suggestions they have for improvement. Take all of this into consideration when trying to increase participation in a club or event.
DISCLAIMER: I do recommend joining student council if that’s your “expertise.” If you’re hoping to be a political science major in college and want to be a politician someday, go ahead and join student council and make that your “expertise.” If you need advice on how to run for student council, check out our other article. However, don’t just join student council to add to your list of extracurriculars and to make yourself seem like a leader.
How Should You Decide Which Leadership Activities to Do?
I've listed a whole bunch of options above, but which should you do? Take the time to make a list of all the potential leadership opportunities in your area of interest. Check out my examples to help get started:
- Expertise: Film
- Potential Leadership Roles:
- Become a board member of the film club that currently exists at my school.
- I like foreign films. I’m going to create a foreign film club where we watch a new foreign film every week and discuss it.
- I am going to start a donation drive where I collect people’s old VHSs and DVDs (along with DVD and VHS players) and donate them to a local hospital so the patients will have movies to watch.
- Expertise: Art
- Potential Leadership Roles:
- Become a board member of the art club that currently exists at my school.
- Host a student art sale at a local gallery to raise money for breast cancer.
- Organize and teach a weekly painting class at a local nursing home.
- Expertise: Science
- Potential Leadership Roles:
- Compete in Science Olympiad.
- Organize and teach a weekly science class after school to elementary school students.
- Start a robotics club or team.
- Expertise: Politics
- Potential Leadership Roles:
- Compete on the debate team.
- Join the school newspaper and start a political column.
- Start a Democrat/Republican/Independent club or a general politics club.
I’d recommend trying to come up with at least three ideas, but five or more is ideal. Why do you need so many ideas? Not all ideas will be winners.
You need to analyze what you’re most interested in doing and what’ll be impressive to colleges. What will be impressive to colleges? A leadership experience in which you’re active and made a tangible difference. As I said before, you need to have impact, and it should be measurable and make a tangible difference.
For my collection drive idea (in the film section), while it might work, I may not be able to collect all that many Blu-Rays, DVDs and VHSs as many people are now just buying films through Apple TV/Roku. If I only collect 20 movies, that will not be very impressive to colleges and will not make a tangible difference. However, if I do decide to do the drive and manage to collect 1,000 movies, that’s a tangible difference.
Try to narrow your choices down to 1 or 2 that you know you’re passionate about and that you know will be impressive to colleges.
Tips on How to Follow Through With Your Leadership Activity
Once you narrow down your choices to the final one or two that you’ll do, how should you go about actually developing your leadership in these areas? I recommend writing down what you plan to do on a piece of paper and putting it somewhere important (like your desk) where you’ll see it every day, so it’ll keep you motivated. Tell your parents/guardians about your goal. They’ll be impressed, and you’ll be more motivated now that they know your plan.
Create a timeline of goals or an action plan to meet in order to execute your plans. Start with today (whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior) Create actionable goals for today. Make these something you can do right now: “I’ll join the math club.”
Create goals for later this year. Once you join some organization(s), you can then start looking for or creating leadership opportunities: "I'm going to run for math club treasurer."
Next, create goals for next year (and every year you have left of high school) to build on that initial leadership experience and expand your impact. “I’ll run for math club president, and I’ll start a charity drive for graduating seniors to donate their calculators to students who can’t afford one. I’ll recruit other math club members to spread the word about the calculator donation drive by making announcements in their classes and giving fliers to their teachers to put up in their classrooms.”
Why is creating a timeline or action plan important? It’s easy to procrastinate and avoid taking the leap to becoming a leader. It can feel daunting. It’s hard to imagine being elected president of a club when you’re not even a member yet or when you haven’t held a position or planned an event. However, your action plan should show you that your goal is achievable! You just need to take the appropriate small steps to get there.
How to Include Leadership Experience on College Applications
On your college applications, you’ll be able to list your leadership experience under extracurricular activities. You’ll only have 150 characters to describe your activities, so use those words wisely.
With these 150 characters, you should try to describe what you did in your leadership role (what events did you plan/run), and describe your impact (how much did you fundraise, how many people showed up to your event). You will not be able to use complete sentences!
Start with an action verb such as created, executed, planned, or developed. Here are some examples:
- Extracurricular: President of the Foreign Film Club
- Description: Founded club, grew to 15 members, raised $5000 to direct foreign film, won 1st prize at local film festival.
- Extracurricular: President of the Art Club
- Description: Doubled membership from 20 to 40 members, raised $2000 for brain tumor research through a student art sale.
- Extracurricular: Speech & Debate Competitor
- Description: Placed 1st in the Blue Key Speech and Debate tournament in Congress competition 3 years in a row.
Essentially, you want your 150 characters to show your leadership and your impact. For more in-depth information, read our guide on How to Write About Extracurriculars On College Applications
If you feel you need to say more, you can add it in the additional information section of your Common App (it’s under "Writing"). However, only add more if you truly have new information to add. For example, if you wrote: "Founded club, grew to 15 members, raised $5000 to direct foreign film, won 1st prize at local film festival", you don’t need to explain that you set up an Indiegogo page to raise the money and that you created a teaser/trailer for the Indiegogo fundraiser. However, if you also organized a film screening for charity and raised $10,000 for lymphoma research, then make sure you add that! It’s brand new information and very impressive!
Don’t worry if you feel like you didn’t get to explain your activity in enough depth. You can potentially write about it as a part of your Common App Essay. One of the Common App Essay prompts asks you to discuss an accomplishment. You can talk about your leadership role as an example of an accomplishment. For more advice on how to write a great college essay, check out our other guide.
You should learn more about what makes an amazing extracurricular activity for you college applications. Also, learn about how many extracurricular activities you need for college.
Interested in learning about unique extracurricular opportunities? Learn more about job shadowing, community service, and volunteer abroad programs.
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.