Helping Your High School Student Choose The Best Extracurricular Activities

What sort of extracurriculars are college admissions committees really looking for?

Choosing High School Extracurricular Activities

We all know extracurricular activities are super important for college applications. The real question is, WHY? What are admissions committees really looking for in that list of activities? How can you help your kid impress the heck out of them? The answers to these questions are pretty straightforward, so let’s dive right in!

1. WHY do admissions committees care so much about extracurriculars?

When students finally arrive on campus, most of their time is – surprise! – NOT spent in the classroom. It sounds crazy, but hear me out – it’s not that academics aren’t the number one focus in college. It’s just that there are only so many hours that can be spent in a lecture hall, classroom or library, and students have to do something in the rest of their waking hours –extracurriculars! Adcoms want to know that the students they admit are already in the habit of pursuing non-academic interests, and they’re looking for proof that admitted students will positively contribute to campus life. In addition to academics, they’re evaluating the potential impact that each applicant will have on campus, and what they’ll bring to school besides their smarts and twin extra-long sheets.

2. Why do extracurriculars matter so much in the application process?

Extracurriculars help the adcom get a sense of an applicant’s interests, skill sets, and general personality. Is a kid only involved in music but plays multiple instruments and has started a jazz band at school? Are they instead involved in multiple activities including leadership roles and community service, each with a different focus? Do they play one sport really intensely, and also participate in math competitions? Each of these combinations gives insight into an applicant’s personality and interests, both of which the adcom wants to know about just so they can get to know your kid – it’s that simple!

3. What sorts of things do they want to know about my kid’s extracurriculars?

This is super related to the last point – they want to know your kid. Extracurriculars, and the stories and experiences that come along with them, give great insight into how applicants address challenges, manage stress, pursue goals, participate in communities, work with others, and utilize many other non-cognitive skills that are crucial to their success in college. Extracurriculars also serve as a storytelling platform for your child – anything they’ve experienced through an extracurricular activity is fantastic fodder for a college essay! The experiences and challenges inherent in extracurricular activities can demonstrate how students will deal with the many challenges to come in college. Adcoms want to know that students will not only survive those challenges but also thrive within them and, again, contribute positively to the communities that they’ll become a part of on campus.

4. What counts as a regular extracurricular, and what’s a super awesome get-you-into-college-right-this-second extracurricular?

Basically anything your kid does with some level of structure outside of classes and studying is an extracurricular. This could be community service, school clubs, sports, performing or visual arts, leadership positions of any sort, and anything else you can come up with. But, if you’ve gotten this far I’m assuming that everyone has that part down. Let’s take it further – what will really impress the adcom and make them feel that tingly *ooh, I want to meet this kid* buzz that will help you get an admission letter?

In essence, they’re looking for commitment and genuine interests sprinkled with some creativity and initiative. This means that the activity can’t be bare minimum participation. Instead, the applicant needs to throw in some spice and bring their personality to whatever it is they’re doing. This means not only being a part of Key Club for three years in high school, but also pursuing leadership positions or taking initiative to start projects. It means not just playing tennis for ten years, but participating in local competitions, joining a local team, or coaching tennis to kids at a summer camp. Basically, it means taking whatever the basics are, and amping them up. Not only will adcoms love it, your kid will learn positive life lessons and form good habits – killing two birds with one giant EC stone (or several small ones).

Now that we’ve got the basics of why ECs are super important for college apps (and life in general!), let’s dig in to see how you can help your kid take their activities to the next level. Keep in mind that these are just ideas from my little brain – take these and run with them, come up with even more creative ideas along with your kid, and share them with us in the comments!

  • Link a couple of activities to one another – use connections within one community/activity to link it with another, and create a larger community dedicated to something great. Example: one student was volunteering at both an animal shelter and a children’s hospital, and was able to use connections at both places to organize a puppy day at the hospital. The shelter brought puppies to the garden of the hospital, and patients, their families, hospital staff, doctors and nurses were all able to stop by and play with the puppies for a few hours!
  • Take participation to a higher level by going to competitions or showcases, or creating a competition with other high schools in your area! Example: a high school dance team couldn’t afford to attend regional competitions, so they linked up with other high schools in their district and hosted their own competition. It was less high-profile than the regional one, but took huge initiative, cooperation and creativity from the students involved. So impressive!
  • Take it outside! If your club or activity meets in a classroom or other indoor space all the time, find a way to take your activity outside of that space or into another community. Can you dedicate yourselves to neighborhood volunteer projects, engage with other clubs that meet outside, or just switch up your meeting place? This is a simple change, but gets the juices of creativity and initiative moving for students who may be more shy or reserved.
  • Leverage your activity to raise money for a great cause – sell things that your club makes, raise money with a tournament of your sport/game, have an arts or performing arts exhibition with charity donations, or take your cooking club to a local food bank or community center. This can help you engage more people in your activity, and involves skills like organization, event planning and initiative! It’s a great way to get more people involved both externally and internally.
  • Lastly, create a new club! If your kid is interested in something that’s missing from their school or community, encourage them to find a few friends and create their own!

All in all, adcoms look at extracurriculars to get a sense of who an applicant is. The more a student has pursued their interests and poured their true self into their activities, the more genuine their application will seem, and the more successful it will be. Beyond the basics of having a few activities that students participate in regularly, see if you can help your student come up with ideas for how to make those activities even more exciting, and more impressive to the eyes that will be scrutinizing their applications. Genuine enjoyment in the activity will come across in the application, so that’s always the best way to go!

Go forth, enjoy the ECs, and let us know which ones you’re extra proud of!

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