By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling
With college admissions getting more and more competitive, extracurricular activities have become an increasingly important way to stand out from the pack. Colleges are paying close attention to what applicants do in their spare time–after school and during summers–and yet it’s not simply a matter of piling on the activities, playing as many sports as possible, and racking up the internships. Colleges value extracurriculars that show an applicant’s true passions; they should reflect who you are. What do you like to do? What sort of activities pique your interest? What is important to you? Whether you are in the marching band, Science Olympiad, or a varsity sport, whether you volunteer on weekends, work in a lab, or give tours in a local museum, extracurriculars help build and strengthen character. Colleges see your list of activities as a window into who you are as a person, your interests, commitments, and ethos. There are no shortcuts here. By starting early, focusing in, and really developing your interests, you can distinguish yourself in the applicant pool. And understanding how colleges judge extracurricular activities can ensure that you’re on the right track. Below are six fundamental pointers. You need not follow them all, but they’ll give you a good sense of how admissions officers think and how best to approach this crucial part of your college application.
1. It’s about quality, not quantity
The Common Application allows applicants to list up to ten different extracurricular activities. While it might be tempting to fill up every single box, it’s important to remember that colleges don’t want a laundry list. Instead, they want to see consistency, commitment, leadership, and achievement. Have you consistently pursued a specific activity, deepening and developing an interest? Have you taken on a leadership position within an organization? Have you demonstrated excellence and achievement, maybe even receiving awards and honors related to your extracurricular activities? Admissions offices look for these markers to distinguish those who are truly devoted from those who are simply padding their resume. They care far more about the quality of your activities than about their quantity. Instead of trying to bite off more than you can chew, pick a few extracurriculars that really light you up–and stick with them! And remember that achievement and leadership can come in many forms. A recent student of ours loves theater, but was not so keen about being center stage. She instead found a home backstage, first helping out with sets and lighting, taking on increasingly larger responsibilities, and ultimately becoming head stage manager for her high school’s main stage production. Another student got cut from the soccer team in ninth grade, but continued to pursue his passion by becoming team manager, the announcer for big games, and a regular sports columnist for the school paper. So, pursue your passions, and always look for opportunities to develop them in your own personal ways.
2. Select extracurricular activities that relate to your intended field of study
Colleges are drawn to students who have already demonstrated interest in their proposed field of study before applying. Are you interested in pursuing medicine? Volunteer your time at a senior assisted living center or hospital. Politics? Work for a local campaign. Business? Don’t just get an internship; get a job to learn what it’s really like to work and join the Future Business Leaders of America, your local DECA chapter, or another business-related organization. Arts administration? Try working at a local museum, theater, or an arts camp. Find activities that will not only make you more knowledgeable in those areas, but might even further fuel your passion (or expose you to aspects you hadn’t even considered before). You can also show intellectual initiative by pursuing research opportunities or taking classes or workshops at your local college. (Find more about these academic-oriented endeavors in our “Summer Experiences” blog.) Allow your extracurricular activities to help you discover things about yourself, what you’re interested in, along with what fields of study or career path you might not want to pursue. It’s better to decide when you’re a junior or senior in high school that you don’t want to pursue a certain career or subject than when you’re a junior or senior in college. And that kind of experience can even prove to be great fodder for a college essay! At the end of the day, colleges want to see evidence of authentic experiences that have helped deepen your knowledge, enriched your perspective, and enabled you to grow as an individual.
3. Show initiative, even start something from scratch
Do you have a growing interest in foreign films? What about climate change? Chances are, there are things that you’re passionate about for which your school does not yet have an established club. This is a great opportunity: consider starting your own club! Find out if you have peers with similar interests, take initiative, and develop an argument for why your school needs that kind of club. Find a teacher or administrator to pitch the idea to, and show them how such a club would be beneficial for the school community. Then, market the club through social media and word-of-mouth, draft bylaws to follow, and decide what specific activities the club will pursue. Starting a club can be very fulfilling, but remember: for it to matter, it must be legitimate, with a track record of initiatives and accomplishments, and you should start as early as possible in your high school career. This shows real dedication–and you won’t run the risk of graduating before it gets off the ground. If a new club is not in the cards, might there be a non-profit organization you admire, or maybe you’re heavily involved in one already? Volunteer regularly and over a significant period of time, raise awareness about the organization’s cause, rally your peers to volunteer too, gather community support, and start up a donation drive or fundraiser campaign. Not only will you be learning executive planning, you’ll also make an impact on your school and community. Colleges love self-starters and look for students who take this type of initiative. Start advocating for small changes in your school to show you have what it takes to push for larger changes in the future.
4. Get involved in activities that reflect your personality and character
Do you play an obscure instrument, perform in a traditional dance group, build funky Raspberry Pi devices? Have you produced a short film or started an entrepreneurial venture? Do you run a quirky Instagram account with thousands of followers? Colleges like to see students pursuing their individual interests, especially things that are original or unique, defy conventional identity norms, or are just a little different from all the rest. Certainly follow your passions, whether they are common or unusual, but if you’re deciding between several paths, the less traveled ones definitely have advantages. Join a women’s rugby league. Host a weekly podcast. Play in a punk band. Learn to knit and make hats for preemies. Find an outlet that allows you to show off your personality and lights a fire within you. Not only do these activities pique the interests of college admissions officers, but they can help you answer the perennial essay question, “What makes you unique?” Don’t be afraid to be bold and choose a non-traditional extracurricular activity.
5. Show leadership
One of the most essential ways to demonstrate your dedication and resolve is to exhibit leadership in your extracurricular activities. This is another reason why starting early and maintaining focus is so advantageous. It not only shows sustained commitment and independence, but enables you to build on your experiences, develop your interest, assume more accountability, take the lead, and make a real impact. If your main pursuit is a club or other organization, this can be an official elected or appointed position (e.g., President, Vice President, Secretary, or Treasurer). If you’re volunteering at a non-profit, you can take on more responsibility, maybe even supervising other volunteers. It is also important to remember that real jobs–scooping ice cream, doing yard work, working in retail–also qualify as extracurricular activities. And colleges are increasingly impressed by students who have pulled up their sleeves and maintained a job–the grittier the better! (You can find more on this too in our “Summer Experiences” blog.) Being valued by an employer and moving up the ranks is conclusive evidence of increased responsibility. Whatever the pursuit, though, be sure to pursue it wholeheartedly and always be on the lookout for ways to show leadership. It’s what distinguishes the dabblers from the truly focused and determined.
6. Help out in your community
It is wonderful to hear about those kids who discover a new gene or start a national gun-regulation movement, but this often fuels unrealistic extracurricular expectations and an excessive amount of pressure. Most high school students pursue less lofty achievements–and that’s okay! Focusing on the local is not only much more reasonable for most, but doing so can lead to significant opportunities to grow and distinguish yourself. Colleges love when a student has an impact on his or her local community. Again, volunteering is a wonderful way to do this. From cooking and serving meals at community kitchens to working with younger students in a mentorship program to assisting in a construction project for Habitat for Humanity, there are many different nonprofits, charities, and community organizations that are in need of help. Find a cause that you’re passionate about, and find ways to get involved and make a difference. Colleges want students that are not just academic achievers, but good citizens. Give back! It will benefit your community–and also feel good.
Again, you do not need to do all of the things listed here. And do not choose your extracurricular activities just because they look good on your resume. Authenticity is key–both from the college admissions perspective and, more importantly, for your own growth and enrichment. In the end, choose to pursue a few things that spark joy in your life, and then really commit to them. Colleges are bound to take notice.