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

What sort of extracurriculars are college admissions committees really looking for? Which ones are right for YOUR child? Here’s why extracurriculars are so important and a few reasons your student might benefit from (and enjoy) the many various 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?

Basically, they need to be able to picture your kid as an active, valuable part of their student body. 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 you 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?

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 new 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 going beyond them. 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).

Of course, this all hinges on one key point: your kid actually enjoying the activities. An unmotivated kid going through the motions because you’ve pressured them into an EC for fear that they won’t make it into their dream school won’t take those extra steps, which largely defeats the purpose. Teenagers being teenagers, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. With that in mind, you’ll want to propose a range of extracurricular activities and find the ones that are right for YOUR kid. But don’t worry, the following list has got you covered.

Some Extracurricular Ideas

Sports

Arguably the most ubiquitous of extracurricular activities, for good reason. Joining a sports team requires dedication and builds teamwork skills like cooperation and communication. With commitment comes improvement, allowing players to move through various roles on the team and eventually into leadership positions. Being on a sports team demonstrates that students work well with their peers and can communicate in multiple modalities.

Bonus points:

Students get a great workout + stress relief, and recognition for individual and team achievements

Examples:

Club or intramural teams; freshman, junior varsity or varsity teams of any sport

Also explore:

Student government, special-interest clubs, community service

Community Service

There is a huge range of potential service activities. Service opportunities can arise from clubs organized at school, community groups outside of school, or volunteer opportunities that a student seeks out on their own. Service is a great way to supplement classroom learning and help students understand the real-life application of what they’re studying. Benefits of volunteering include team-building skills like cooperation and problem-solving and tangible skill sets such as gardening or working with children.

Bonus points:

Learn new skills, work with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet

Examples:

Volunteer at a public library or food bank, work with an organization like Best Buddies, join a community service club in your high school. Check out dosomething.org for more great ideas!

Also, explore:

Student government, activity-based clubs, academic clubs

On-Campus Organizations

Organizations that are run by students and focused on the school community are often a strong contender because they offer more opportunities for leadership. Student government, National Honors Society and student publications allow students to work together for the advancement of the whole student body. By taking up leadership positions and working for specific goals, students learn time management and long-term planning and work for the needs of their school community.

Bonus points:

Work towards a community goal, become a leader among peers

Examples:

Student government, school publications, National Honors Society, Key Club, 4-H

Also explore:

Community service, academic clubs, special-interest clubs

Academic Clubs

In any club with an academic bent, students supplement classroom learning and develop academic skills that will be invaluable in college. They can explore specific topics in extra detail, or learn about a broader range of topics than they usually would. Students develop skills like public speaking and academic writing and discussion, giving them a huge leg up when they reach college classrooms. This works particularly well if their proposed major lines up with their high school activities!

Bonus points:

Public speaking (!!!), awards and recognition for academic achievement

Examples:

Debate Club, Academic Decathlon, Math Team, Model UN, Science Olympiad

Also explore:

Student organizations, community service, special-interest clubs

Performing Arts

As art, high school performing arts often get a bad rap for being ill-attended and not quite up to the production values we expect from adult performers. On an application, however, high school performing arts are extra special because the people involved have to really care about what they’re doing. They speak to a student’s passion, dedication and a desire to include anyone who’s interested.

Students who participate gain self-confidence, hone a personal craft over years of practice and become part of a community dedicated to a greater artistic project.

Bonus points:

Share your work with others who appreciate it, hone your craft alongside your peers

Examples:

Drama club, orchestra/band, dance team, theatre performance

Also explore:

Community service, special-interest clubs

Special-interest Clubs

Many high schools have clubs for almost anything – anime/manga, old English literature, LGBTQ alliance, international cooking club, et cetera. A special-interest club is a great way for students to supplement other activities, or take a leadership position in an area they are passionate about.

These clubs tend to be more freeform than others, with activities dependent on who’s in the club and what they want to do. Such structure – or lack thereof – gives students ample opportunity to take initiative and plan an event or project alongside their peers.

Bonus points:

Freedom to participate as you choose, meet others who share your interests.

Examples:

Literally anything!

Also explore:

Community service, performing arts, sports, academic clubs, student organizations.

Action Items

All in all, high school (and especially freshman years) is the time for your kid to explore every interest they may have! Share this information with them and work together to figure out what they DO and DON’T enjoy. Here are some pointers on how to take their 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 along with your kid!

  • 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.
  • Lean into your competitive spirit 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 talked to 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 off campus, 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 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 your kid is 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!

 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!