How Much Is Too Much? The Art of Balancing Extracurriculars And Interests In High School

Student Standing On Head

There’s no denying how important extracurriculars are when it comes to a student’s college application. 

They help students gain leadership skills, show their eagerness to engage in their communities, and thus, give them a competitive edge in the overall college admissions process.

However, the emphasis on the importance of extracurriculars has caused some kids to go too far in the opposite direction: taking on too much and spreading themselves too thin. There are only so many hours in a day, so if a student has 50 activities listed on their application, chances are that the admissions committee is not going to believe that they were REALLY involved in any of them. Trust us, an adcom can spot applicants who have spent four years padding their resumes from a mile away.

So, how many extracurriculars is too many? How should a student go about choosing the right extracurriculars and engaging with them in the right way? Let’s take a look at two different example student profiles to illustrate how too many activities can indeed be a bad thing:

Sally's Student Profile

Sally is a good student. She’s driven, curious and is passionate about getting involved. The problem is, she’s TOO involved. She’s a member of the Student Union at her high school and participates in Model UN. She takes piano lessons, and flamenco lessons, and plays on a recreational soccer league. Oh! And when she has time, she volunteers at the SPCA, but to be honest she hasn’t been there in months. And she had a part-time job working as a receptionist at a law firm because she was thinking about being a lawyer, but she ended up quitting because her grades started to slip. 

When Sally sat down in the fall to fill out her college applications, she felt pretty confident at first. She had filled so many of those little extracurricular boxes! But then, she realizes that her grades and SAT scores weren’t as strong as they could have been because she never had any time to study. And when she tried to write her application essays, she realized that all of her experiences in high school were so superficial and that she never really committed to anything long enough to create an impact, for herself or anyone else.

Even if Sally does NOT realize this, chances are the admissions committees at the schools she’s applying to will. And her chances of getting accepted to a top school might be slimmer than she originally thought.

Carlos Student Profile

Carlos, on the other hand, only participated in four or so activities in his entire high school career. He played football in the fall and ran track in the spring, lettering in both. With plans to study business, he joined the finance club sophomore year and eventually became president his senior year. He started playing guitar in elementary school and continued to take lessons throughout high school, playing in his free time to relax and occasionally in concerts. With a balanced schedule, Carlos was able to study hard for the SAT and keep his grades up his junior year.

When Carlos sat down to get started on his applications, though his list of activities wasn’t miles long, he had so many accomplishments and passions to speak of: numerous games and meets won as an athlete, a leadership position in the finance club, and a love for music. Writing about these interests came easily to him, and he’s able to paint a clear picture of his personality and goals. College admissions committees can clearly see through his essays that he’s driven, committed and mature, and Carlos is admitted into his first choice school.

So which student are you? Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re choosing extracurriculars, classes, etc.:

Five Signs You’ve Taken On Too Much

  1. You feel fatigued — Are you having to stay up really late to get your homework done or prepare for exams? Or are you simply having trouble sleeping because your mind is restless? This could be a sign that you’re involved in too much.
  2. You feel rushed — Are you always late to meetings? Or rushing out early? If your calendar is overbooked, with overlaps everywhere, it is definitely time to start trimming the excess.
  3. You don’t feel like you’re really excelling at anything — “Practice makes perfect” may sound trite, but it’s true. No one ever made an impact or became really good at something by doing it every once in awhile. By committing to just a few activities and seeing them through, you may discover a talent or a passion you didn’t even know you had!
  4. Your grades are slipping — Did you bomb a recent test, not because you didn’t care but because you simply didn’t have time to prepare? Have teachers been complaining that your work looks sloppy? Extracurriculars are important, but they are not the primary reason you are at school — your education should come first!
  5. You don’t have any “me time” — There is a great deal of research that supports slowing down and taking time for oneself. No, you don’t necessarily have to meditate, but you should have at least one day per week where you can sit quietly and read, hang out with your family, or catch up on your favorite TV show.

Every student is different — some thrive on busier schedules, while others need to move at a slower pace to do well. Find a balance between school and outside activities that allows you to mature, succeed academically, and engage in creative pursuits with your community.