Extracurricular activities are a great way to make friends, find a niche, discover your interests, and more. Those vying for a spot in a top 20 college or university already know the importance of these activities in your college applications. It can be stressful hearing how people getting accepted to Harvard and Stanford ran in Student Government elections, competed in the Olympics, and cured diseases at the same time (an exaggerated example). However, with the right guidance and a solid base level interest in something, your extracurricular career shouldn’t be too overwhelming.
First, we need to establish the meaning of an extracurricular. Almost anything that is done outside of a classroom can count. So writing a screenplay, completing household responsibilities (like working a job to pay rent), and competing in a pageant all actually count as an extracurricular activity, according to the Common Application. The Common Application is the commonly used portal to apply to colleges and universities, similar to the Coalition Application and the UC System.
According to PrepScholar, some well known activities include the following categories:
“Sports, which includes playing on a school sport team, an intramural team, or a club team outside of your school.
Community Service, which includes any sort of volunteer work, either in your community, on a national scale, or abroad.
Employment, including any jobs or internships.
Arts, which includes visual arts, performing arts, comedy, culinary arts – this list is almost endless.
Hobbies, such as blogging, a film club, hiking, Rubik’s Cube competitions, Cosplay, and more.
Academic activities, such as math or science clubs or competitions, research, or writing.”
So, what should you do?
Do what interests you! If you waste 10 hours per week on a club you don’t even like, then what is the point? In the traditional ‘get into college’ strategy, people said to be well rounded and do a little bit of everything. Admissions officers now look for depth instead of breadth. If everyone plays JV lacrosse, oboe, and does Key Club, no one stands out. So by going into depth with something you like, you will be remembered as the talented student who likes _____. In the best ‘get into college’ strategy, you will dive deep into your favorite interests – or even two! In strategy 1, you are prepared for college, but you won’t be ready for a career. Why? Because you never dove deep into exploring your interests, and now you don’t know what you want to do. In strategy 2, you have a clear vision. Maybe you found out you didn’t actually like art, or you experimented with geography and now you want to pursue it. In this strategy, you reveal your strengths and weaknesses so that you end up being ready for college, and a career!
Here is how to go about this. First, look at your class schedule and pick the classes that you like most. If there is a subject not taught in school that you like, keep that! Here are some examples.
Student 1, doing the wrong strategy:
“I do Model UN, Key Club, volunteering, basketball, calligraphy club, and National Honor Society. I’m super busy all the time because I have commitments to all of them.”
Student 1’s problem lies in how overwhelming their schedule is. Plus, years later when they want to go to MIT, they won’t be distinguishable from the other 5,000 applicants using the bad strategy with identical profiles.
Solution: Student 1 realizes Art is their favorite class, and calligraphy club is their favorite extracurricular. They drop Model UN and Key Club, since those clubs meant nothing to them. Now Student 1 has 20 extra hours per week of free time, so they decide to do something related to their art passion – creating an after school art program that teaches kids about basic drawing skills. Fast forward to college applications season, and they stand out to the admissions committee at MIT because they do what they love.
Student 2 has two interests:
“I want to be a writing major, but I also want to pursue chemistry. I have no extracurriculars and I’m already in sophomore year!”
Student 2 is clearly fretting about picking one. Why not combine them?
Solution: Student 2 starts a blog (writing) about chemistry, and writes in the newspaper (writing) about breakthroughs in science (chemistry). They also start a chemistry club (chemistry) at school and join the Chemistry Olympiad team, later becoming captain (chemistry). Student 2 conducts chemistry research with Columbia University and their research paper (chem and writing) wins a science fair. Surprise, surprise, Student 2 breezes through the Columbia application and receives an acceptance letter.
Also from PrepScholar, here are some do’s and don’ts of extracurricular activities:
“#1: Do try as many activities as possible during your freshman year of high school. Try out between 5 and 10 activities depending on how much room you have in your schedule (remember, never let your academics suffer because of too many activities!). There is a good chance that you will discover something new that you had never thought would interest you. Let this be your year of exploration!
#2: Do narrow down your extracurricular list to 3 – 5 activities you care most about during your sophomore year. Remember the three most important things are passion, leadership, and impact. Continue to develop your interest in these activities and see if you can take on leadership roles, even if it’s just on small projects.
#3: Do focus more on leadership and impact during your junior and senior years. If you have been a part of a club, how can you change it for the better? Also spend time reflecting on how you’ve changed over the past years, and how your activities have helped you grow as a person.
#4: Do let your activities tell your story. Are you very passionate and talented in one area? Or do you show different skills and aspects of your personality through a variety of different activities? Either one is a story that a college admissions officer will be interested in hearing. Also think about how your activities have shown your growth over the years, from experimenting with an activity, to dedicating yourself to it and developing passion, and finally taking on a leadership position and making an impact.
#5: Don’t slack during summers. If you have the luxury of doing activities during your summer vacation instead of working, make the most of that time. Try to think of innovative ways to pursue your passion that you can’t necessarily do when tied down with school work.
#6: Don’t let your grades suffer. Though extracurriculars are an important part of a college application, they will almost never cancel out bad grades and test scores. If you find that your grades are suffering, cut back on the time you spend on your activities, and make sure that the time you do invest in your activities is well spent making the most impact in the least amount of time.
#7: Don’t get burned out. It’s a good idea to limit your activities a couple you are most passionate about, and a few others that are fun but not stressful. If you try to do everything, you will inevitably get burned out, which could ruin your grades, social life, and excitement about going to college.”
In conclusion, extracurricular activities are a big part of your college applications – they showcase who you are, what you want, and your ambitions. Get creative, use the strategies from above, and don’t take it all too seriously!