You may have heard that extracurriculars are an important part of your high school life. You've probably been bombarded with stories about how everyone who is successful in getting into college played a varsity sport and was student body president and built homes for the poor in Costa Rica.
But do extracurriculars have to be so overwhelming? What are extracurricular activities, exactly? And just how important are they when it comes time to apply to college?
Read on for a better understanding of this important topic.
Your high school years are one of the best opportunities you will ever get to explore new activities, try different things, and see what you're passionate about. Inside the classroom and outside of it, you’ll start to get a better idea of who you are and what drives you.
It may seem odd that colleges are going to be interested in how you choose to spend your free time. The reality is that, combined with your grades and test scores, extracurricular activities are one of the best ways that colleges will be able to get an idea of who you are.
But what are they looking for? And are all activities equal?
What Counts as an Extracurricular Activity?
First, let’s talk about what an extracurricular activity looks like.
The word “extracurricular” can be broken down into its roots for a literal explanation: “extra” means “outside” and “curricular” refers to all of the work you do in the classroom. So extracurricular activities are just activities that you do outside of class. The Common App says that extracurricular activities “include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits.”
Almost anything that you are actively and productively involved in can be considered an extracurricular activity. We have created a list of around 200 activities that you could report on your application to help get you thinking about what you're interested in trying and what you might already have done.
You may be familiar with some of the popular categories of extracurriculars already:
Sports, which includes playing on a school sport team, an intramural team, or a club team outside of your school.
Community Service, which includes any sort of volunteer work, either in your community, on a national scale, or abroad.
Employment, including any jobs or internships.
Arts, which includes visual arts, performing arts, comedy, culinary arts – this list is almost endless.
Hobbies, such as blogging, a film club, hiking, Rubik’s Cube competitions, Cosplay, and more.
Academic activities, such as math or science clubs or competitions, research, or writing.
Keep in mind that colleges are really looking to see activities that have somehow developed talents that you will use later in life, developed your leadership skills, allowed you to show involvement with your community, and allowed you to make an impact. Going to the movies every weekend with your friends doesn’t count. But starting a film club at school for fellow film aficionados definitely does count!
There’s another important thing to note here. What if you didn’t have time for joining clubs or playing sports because you had to work to help support your family, or you spent your afternoons looking after your younger siblings?
Admissions officers also want to hear about these kinds of activities. They understand that not all students have the luxury of pursuing traditional extracurricular activities, and they will think that the way you have spent your time is just as valuable. Try to reflect on what these experiences have taught you that will be valuable for college. For example, you probably have a lot of maturity and a good sense of responsibility for someone your age, and you're good at balancing school work with other commitments. If you’ve taken on a leadership position at work, that’s even better!
Now you know what activities look like. But what do colleges think your summer job is really going to tell them about you?
Why Colleges Like Students With Extracurricular Activities
Colleges love to see that students are active, contributing members of their communities. Even more importantly, they love to see students who are developing their talents and passions.
When a student is actively involved in the community and other activities in high school, there is a good chance that they will be doing something similar in college. Universities like to be known as hubs of activity, charity, and culture, and it’s largely the students that make them that way.
But does that mean that you need to spend all your time doing something that is obviously impacting your community in a direct way, like volunteer work? Should you do something that doesn’t interest you, just because it will look good on your application?
Fortunately, what college admissions officers want to see is very predictable.
What Are Admissions Officers Looking For?
Imagine you're an admissions officer at your university of choice. Every day during admissions season, you’ll go through at least a hundred applications. At the end of the day, you’re down to two applications. You need to recommend one for admission, and reject the other. Both students have high test scores (above 2100 on the SAT) and they each had a GPA of 3.8.
On the activities page on the common app, Student A says that he was a member of the art club, and in the description says that the club is for students who are passionate about having a career involving art. He also volunteered once a month, teaching a one-hour art class at his old middle school.
Student B is also in the art club at her school. In the description, she tells how she helped grow the club from 4 to 20 members, ran several charity projects through the club that raised over $5,000 for art programs for local youth, and arranged an informational event at a prominent art museum to help raise awareness of the importance of art in people’s lives.
Which student do you think is most likely to be admitted?
As it turns out, what you do is not nearly as important as why and how you are doing it.
Admissions officers agree that when they're evaluating student activities, they care less about what the actual activity is and more about what it says about you. Specifically, they're looking for three things: passion, leadership, and impact.
Passion will manifest itself differently for different people, but college admissions officers usually notice it in the amount of time you've dedicated yourself to a certain activity over the years, and in how involved you've been in it.
Are you just doing an activity so you have something to write on your college application, or are you doing it because you couldn’t not do it? This is something that matters a lot to college admissions officers who want to know that you're pursuing something because it's a passion.
Try to find activities that you really care about, and that you feel makes you a more motivated, better person. Admissions officers like it when students are passionate about a certain activity because it means they are more likely to continue doing it in college, and also because these kinds of activities show who you are at your best. These activities will be the best indicators of how you act when motivated and dedicated to something.
Leadership experience includes any time that you have been responsible for a project or for guiding, motivating, or instructing others. Many schools – especially the most highly selective ones – want to see students who exhibit leadership skills because they are hoping that their students will someday go on to be leaders who make differences on a larger scale in academia, business, or research. Therefore, showing that you have the desire and sense of responsibility that a leader needs can be very attractive to admissions officers.
Taking a leadership role in an activity is really going to help you stand out from the crowd. Being the president of a school club will sound better than being a member of the same club. But obviously not all students can be president. So how do you solve this kind of issue? Even in you don’t have an official title, see if it’s possible to be involved as a leader in some way. Talk to the people in charge and see if you can organize an event or lead a fundraiser. Showing you have taken this kind of initiative will look much better than a title with no special activity to back it up.
How have you changed the activity that you have been involved in? How has the activity changed you?
One of the reasons that passion is so important is because admission officers want to see that you have made a significant investment in an activity over an extended period of time. Though you’ll probably experiment with several different activities when you're younger, once you settle on the ones you're most passionate about, officers are going to be looking for how you've made a difference in the activity and how you've changed because of it.
You may have heard that you should prioritize depth over breadth, and this is why. It’s better to select a couple of activities that you can be deeply involved in than to spread yourself so thin that you can do little more than showing up to meetings.
Why does impact matter? Again, colleges are most interested in students who have the potential to be making positive differences on campus, and later, in the world. This kind of thing doesn’t come easily. It usually only happens when someone shows dedication, follow-through, and initiative.
So what kind of person are you? Do you show up and expect someone else to make an activity fun? Or are you going to make sure that you leave your club, team, or research better than it was when you joined it?
The Do’s and Don’ts of Extracurriculars: Key Tips
Now you know what extracurricular activities are and why they are important, both for your personal development and for your college applications. Here are some tips for how you should approach extracurricular activities in high school.
1: Do try as many activities as possible during your freshman year of high school. Try out between 5 and 10 activities depending on how much room you have in your schedule (remember, never let your academics suffer because of too many activities!). There is a good chance that you will discover something new that you had never thought would interest you. Let this be your year of exploration!
2: Do narrow down your extracurricular list to 3 – 5 activities you care most about during your sophomore year. Remember the three most important things are passion, leadership, and impact. Continue to develop your interest in these activities and see if you can take on leadership roles, even if it’s just on small projects.
3: Do focus more on leadership and impact during your junior and senior years. If you have been a part of a club, how can you change it for the better? Also spend time reflecting on how you've changed over the past years, and how your activities have helped you grow as a person.
4: Do let your activities tell your story. Are you very passionate and talented in one area? Or do you show different skills and aspects of your personality through a variety of different activities? Either one is a story that a college admissions officer will be interested in hearing. Also think about how your activities have shown your growth over the years, from experimenting with an activity, to dedicating yourself to it and developing passion, and finally taking on a leadership position and making an impact.
5: Don’t slack during summers. If you have the luxury of doing activities during your summer vacation instead of working, make the most of that time. Try to think of innovative ways to pursue your passion that you can’t necessarily do when tied down with school work.
6: Don’t let your grades suffer. Though extracurriculars are an important part of a college application, they will almost never cancel out bad grades and test scores. If you find that your grades are suffering, cut back on the time you spend on your activities, and make sure that the time you do invest in your activities is well spent making the most impact in the least amount of time.
7: Don't get burned out. It's a good idea to limit your activities a couple you are most passionate about, and a few others that are fun but not stressful. If you try to do everything, you will inevitably get burned out, which could ruin your grades, social life, and excitement about going to college.
Do you need some inspiration? Check out our long list of extracurricular activities to see if there’s anything that interests you.
Are you wondering if you should try traditional extracurriculars, or if you would be better off getting a job? Check out the pros and cons.
If you have a great list of extracurriculars and are ready to fill out college applications, check out our guide for talking about extracurriculars on the Common App.
Want to know what else is important on the college application? Check out our guide to making a well-rounded college application that will get you into as many schools as possible.
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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.