Extracurricular activities and involvement outside the classroom are essential components of the college application process. Colleges want students who are talented academically, but they also want students who will participate in the life of the college on multiple levels, be good roommates, and get involved in activities on campus. Extracurricular involvement is one way that you can demonstrate to admissions offices the kind of person you might be in college. As you prepare to begin the school year and are wondering what activities to pursue, here are answers to some common questions about extracurricular involvement.
What “counts” as extracurricular involvement?
Extracurricular involvement is any activity not immediately related to a high school course or class assignment. This can include school clubs, athletics (varsity or not), outdoor activities, summer programs, community service, work experience, family responsibilities, internships, religious activity, political involvement, music, theater, art, debate and academic competitions, and a host of other things. There are really no limits to what can be considered extracurricular involvement. It is up to each student to find and pursue the activities they are most interested in.
Which activities are best?
Some students wonder if certain types of involvement are better than others, or if colleges require certain types of activities. Colleges do not have preferences for specific types of activities. Instead, they would like to see commitment and increasing depth of involvement over time, no matter what you’re involved in. Instead of trying to choose activities because you think that’s what colleges want to see, choose activities of personal interest to you. If you enjoy your activities, you’ll be more likely to stick with them and show the level of commitment and consistency that colleges really want. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Model UN, community service, or a part-time job; more important than the activity itself is that it has some real meaning for you in terms of your interests or personal development.
How many activities do I need?
There is space to list up to 10 activities on the Common Application, but you don’t need to fill up all 10 spaces. It’s better to have a shorter list of activities with more in-depth, long-term participation than a long list of activities with less meaningful participation. However, in general, you should aim to have at least a few substantial “core” activities, and a couple of additional activities.
How important are leadership titles?
Students often assume that it’s crucial to hold a leadership position in their extracurricular activities (Team Captain, President, etc.). But the truth is that your position is far less important than your actual involvement. You might just be a member of a club, but if you routinely step up to organize events or recruit new members, you are demonstrating leadership. And on the flip side, you can have the title of Club President without actually going out of your way to do much! In addition to describing your activities on the Common Application, many schools will ask you for short supplemental essays about your extracurricular involvement. This is where your actual contributions are going to make a world of difference; whether you have a title or not, the depth of your commitment will determine whether or not you write a compelling essay.
When should I get started?
We recommend starting to explore extracurricular activities as soon as you enter high school (if not earlier). In choosing your activities, it’s okay to start broad and see what really sticks. If you explore several areas of interest early on, you’ll be able to narrow it down to the most meaningful activities later. Extracurricular activities can be wonderful because you have a lot of options, and with more activities moving online, just about everything is accessible. A word of caution, though: this freedom also presents its own set of challenges. It’s often easiest to just sign up for activities at your school, whether or not they’re the most interesting or important to you. Even if there’s something you know you want to pursue, it can take real time and effort to get an activity off the ground outside of school. You’ll have to research organizations that might facilitate the kind of work you want to do and then make sure their schedule fits with yours. Give yourself plenty of time to not only start the activity, but to do something substantive with it.
Remember, extracurricular involvement holds importance beyond strengthening your college applications; it also helps you develop as an individual. Participating in activities outside the classroom can give you self-awareness, maturity, time management skills, and leadership skills. If you pursue extracurricular activities motivated more by your interests than what you think colleges might want, your genuine enjoyment and excitement will show in your college applications, giving colleges a better understanding of who you are and how you might fit into their community.
Tailored advice about your college applications, including guidance on extracurricular activities, is available through our services at Expert Admissions.