What sort of extracurriculars are college admissions committees really looking for?
What sort of extracurriculars are college admissions committees really looking for? Which ones are right for you? Here’s why extracurriculars are so important for getting into college, and how they can help you figure out something just as important: what really interests you.
Extracurriculars show who you are to colleges, and they also show who you are to yourself. Nobody finds out their life’s purpose by sitting in a room and thinking about it—you have to try lots of things to figure out what fits you best, the spot in the world perfectly suited to you. The more you know about that spot of yours, its nuances and crevices, the more you’ll stand out to colleges. They want students who know who they are!
Why are Extracurricular Activities Important to Admissions Committees?
When students finally arrive on campus, most of their time is—surprise!—NOT spent in the classroom. 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 beyond. They want to know what you’ll bring to school besides your smarts and twin extra-long sheets, and what you’ll bring to the world after you leave school.
What Extracurriculars Should I Do?
In short, the best activities are the ones that reflect YOU. You heard it here. If you’re doing Model UN and Student Council just to check off the boxes for your college application, you will be miserable and it will show. The point of doing extracurriculars is NOT to demonstrate that you can endure five hours of activities a day: it’s to show how you mean to use your talents to change the world around you. That’s why how you write about your extracurriculars in the college essay is just as important as what you do. Colleges aren’t just looking for a list of everything you’ve done—they want to know how your activities have changed you and how they’ve shaped what you mean to do in the future.
So…what counts as a regular extracurricular, and what’s a super awesome get-you-into-college-right-this-second extracurricular? Many great questions – you’re so smart!
Anything you do 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. But, if you’ve gotten this far, you probably already have 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?
The answer is both simple and complicated: colleges want genuine interest. In theory, that should make your job easy—anything that interests you is exactly what you should be doing! But sniffing out your true interests can be a surprisingly difficult task. You have all sorts of noise around you telling you what you should be doing—robotics, math competitions, mock trial—and it’s very easy to miss the true passions buried inside you. For example, maybe you love knitting and reading books about monsters. It’s what you would be doing with every moment of the day if you had the choice, but it doesn’t sound as prestigious or glamorous as winning a debate competition. A little voice inside you says that it doesn’t count, that it’s not important enough—don’t listen! That thing you love should be exactly what you’re doing, especially if it doesn’t make sense. All you need to do is find the right container for it: like a YouTube book club where you knit sweaters in the image of your latest monster-read. The more you love what you’re doing, the more it will reflect you, and this is precisely what will impress colleges. If you’re bored going to mock trial practice, the adcoms are snoozing right along with you!
Whatever you do, you need to sprinkle it with some creativity and spice, bringing your personality into your work. This means not only being a part of Key Club for three years in high school, but also hosting a Kitty Bingo fundraiser for the local animal shelter. It means not just playing tennis for ten years, but also starting a summer camp coaching kids who might otherwise never pick up a racquet. Basically, it means taking whatever the basics are, and going beyond them. Not only will adcoms love it, you will learn how to bring yourself into whatever you do, contributing ideas that could only come from your head.
But perhaps you don’t know exactly what’s in your head. You’re still figuring out what interests you, or you’re looking for how to turn a basic activity into something more. Look no further, we have a list of ideas for you!
Extracurricular Activities Examples and Ideas to Dig Even Deeper
If you’re just getting started, the first thing to do is look at the student organizations at your very own school. It’s the easiest way to try out a bunch of different activities and see what fits your personality best.
However, this shouldn’t be where you end your extracurricular search. Lots of students rack up positions from a pretty narrow list of activities—mock trial, national honors society, key club—and they all start to look the same to adcoms. Think of the clubs at your school as a sampler pack, a way of testing out a slew of identities before deciding where to focus your energy.
Dig Deeper: Once you find a club that really interests you, think about how you might continue doing the same thing beyond your school. For example, if you find that you love mock trial, you might see if your attorney general has a high school internship program or consider volunteering for a political campaign.
Community Service or Volunteer Work
Community service is a great starting place if you’re looking to dip your toes into your first activity. Like student clubs, it’s a great way to explore a huge range of interests in little bursts. Almost any passion can be converted into a service activity. Do you love animals? You can volunteer at your local shelter. Do you care about clothing? A local donation center would love for you to lend a hand.
Community service is also a great lily pad if you’re looking to leap from school activities into internships or research experiences out in the world. It can be difficult to get a company or a professor to take a chance on a high school student, but doing service activities shows that you know how to work in an adult setting. As you build your network out in your community, you’ll also start to find more opportunities word-of-mouth, and you’ll have professional references that you can offer as you cold email for more competitive opportunities.
Dig Deeper: Service organizations usually have more resources and influence than clubs at your school, which means they’re a great springboard for launching initiatives of your own. No one is going to ask you to do this, so you have to be on the lookout for opportunities to hop in. Perhaps you want to start a fashion show at that local donation center, or organize Puppy and Tea Saturdays at the animal shelter. Whatever it is, it should be something that genuinely thrills you: not a fundraiser that you’re slogging through for brownie points.
If you’re thinking about starting a sport in high school, it’s probably not the best way to spend your time. Sports are very good at teaching you how to organize your time and set goals, but they’re not very good at giving you a taste for what you might actually want to do with your life (except for maybe a few of you more physically-talented peeps – mussssst be nice). Unless you’re dribbling like LeBron James and playing at a level where you’re likely to get recruited, it can be difficult to stick out, even if you get leadership positions like team captain. Of course, if you already play a sport and love it, you should keep playing, even if you’re not great at it. You’ll just want to find ways to show the depth of your love beyond just playing on a team.
Dig Deeper: If you’re playing at a high level, you should of course join whatever programs will make you even better for recruitment season. And even if you’re not the best pitcher the world has ever seen, you can turn your love for sports into all kinds of initiatives that will mean something to colleges. For example, you might consider starting a summer camp, teaching classes at a community center, or coaching a Special Olympics team.
Lots of STEM students spend time studying for competitions like AMC. These competitions are a great way to show your ability if you perform well, but they can be a little bit risky—because they don’t mean much if you’re not hitting the top. And even if you do perform well, keep in mind that these competitions only show that you have talent: they do not show what you mean to do with your abilities, which is an important piece of the puzzle. If you think you have a good shot of doing well at a competition, go for it, but also save time for activities that help you figure out what problems interest you most.
Dig Deeper: If you’re the kind of student who’s interested in STEM competitions, you’re probably also the kind of student who would enjoy doing research with a professor. This kind of experience can give you a deeper sense of community as you dive into your intellectual pursuits. It can also help you understand how to make a career of solving problems that fascinate you.
If you love art, one of the best things you can do is explore it through as many forms as possible. You’re still finding your point of view, and right now any new input you give yourself—by trying your hand at watercolor, or taking a filmmaking course—can only help you deepen your voice. And who knows, you might be surprised by what forms fit you best!
At this stage in the game, you might be wondering if art is a practical way to spend your time. Maybe you love acting, but you’re pretty certain that the life of the starving artist isn’t for you. That doesn’t mean you should drop it! Lots of students are admitted to top schools based on talents that don’t ultimately map onto their careers in obvious ways. Doing what you love right now is the best way to make sure that you stand out to colleges—which means that putting time into your art can be the best way to get into a top school and a top job. You might also find that the perspective you develop as an artist now helps you stand out from blander job candidates later on—people like hiring people, not robots!
Dig Deeper: If you’re doing art alone in the comfort of your home, you need to find ways to make it visible to the outside world. That might mean entering competitions like the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, joining your school newspaper, building sets for a community theater, creating a performance series at your school—truly anything that brings your art into a broader community!
How You Can Maximize Your Current Extracurricular Activities
High school (and especially freshman year) is the time for you to explore every interest you might have! As you begin trying things out, here are some pointers on how to take your activities to the next level. Keep in mind that these are just ideas, a few examples – take these and run with them, and come up with even more creative ideas of your own!
- Link a couple of activities to one another – Use your connections with two communities to create a larger community dedicated to something great. Example: One of our students 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 them for a few hours.
- Take it outside! If your club or activity mostly focuses on projects within your school, find a way to take your activity into another community. Can you dedicate yourself to neighborhood volunteer projects, engage with other clubs, or do projects with other organizations? The more you can take your club’s work beyond your school, the more you’ll learn about the kind of projects that most interest you in the world!
- 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 proceeds going to charity, 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 you’re interested in something that’s missing from their school or community, encourage them to find a few friends with similar interests and create their own!
And finally, as you start trying out new activities, make sure to leave some time to sniff the roses. Remember, it is more important (and impressive) for colleges to see that you do a few things very well, very seriously, and at a very high level, than it is for them to see you do a thousand things in a mediocre way. Too much breadth/extracurricular craziness on a resume will make you look like you’re just trying to “pad” your application, instead of actually showing true involvement and passion. Adcoms will see right through that, and you can show your passion much more effectively if you focus on pursuing a few important activities very seriously rather than participating in many activities at a superficial level.
The more you have pursued your interests and poured your true self into your activities, the more genuine your application will seem, and the more successful it will be. Real 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!