First of all, let's clear up what "extracurricular activities" are. If you're thinking, "Hey, I play video games a lot and that's outside the school curriculum," unfortunately you're out of luck. On the other hand, if you're the five-time World Gaming Champion, you may have something to work with.
You see, when you’re applying to colleges, what really matters about your extracurricular activities are material accomplishments that you can point to and impress application reviewers with. If you play the piano, that’s nice, and probably something you enjoy. But a college admission officer isn’t going to care that much; lots of people play the piano. If you’ve achieved some distinction in playing the piano—maybe you played in concerts or produced your own bestseller recording—then you’re in business. What you want is to stand out from the crowd.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Uh oh, I’m not a virtuoso violinist, hence I’m screwed for getting into colleges.” Don’t worry. In high school there’s plenty of time to develop a great extracurricular résumé. The thing is, no matter who you are, there is some activity you can be great at. You might not be able to win the Intel Science Search or the state swim meet. You don’t need to. The key is to try a variety of different activities in high school and find one that you like. Then put a lot of time into it. Chances are, you will find after a little while that you are making some noteworthy accomplishments in that activity. If you aren’t, you ought to push yourself every now and then. Ask yourself, “How can I be more involved with this activity?” Maybe you can start a club at your school, or be the president of the club at your school. Maybe you can organize a region-wide community service project. Some way or another, find something that will impress those college admission boards.
By the time you read our sage advice though, chances are you don’t have much time left before applying to college to make any more stunning accomplishments. Ideally, one would start planning for college as soon as high school begins, but that rarely happens in practice. You might have participated in certain fairly common activities in high school such as holding an office in student government or working for your school newspaper without winning any spectacular accolades. So what can you do to buff up your résumé and make your activities sound better? First, don’t make anything up. Colleges will check what you put on their applications, and it is not unheard of for students to be rejected because they lied on their activities list. What you should do is this: focus on something particular from those activities and how you made an impact on it. Maybe you wrote an article for the school newspaper that exposed a controversial policy, or maybe you lobbied the school administration to put a vending machine in the cafeteria. Perhaps you run the definitive website on Pokemon card games. Focus on specific things you did, and try to play that up on your application.
But how important are extracurricular activities for getting into college? The answer is two-fold: extracurriculars don’t matter at all, and yet they are all-important. If you don’t have good grades and test scores, extracurricular activities will get you nowhere. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your great résumé will make up for a bad GPA. If you’re getting straight C’s and D’s, no amount of community service will make up for that in the eyes of college admission. No matter what, your grades and test scores will be the bottom line for getting into college, so don’t blow off your work. Now, having said that, if all you do in high school is get good grades and test scores, some admission officers will be likely to think, “How boring.” Though it may seem paradoxical, good grades alone will not get you into college either (although you stand a much better chance than with bad grades). This is where the extracurriculars really are important. If you have good grades and test scores, and you can point to one of those stunning accomplishments mentioned before, you are to get into whatever college you want, whether it’s Harvard or the state university. Even if you don’t have the trophy room factor going for you, having a good extracurricular résumé is the piece of the puzzle that, when combined with good grades and test scores, will give you a good chance at getting into any college. They let college admission officers make a connection with you as a real person who could be going to college next year, not just a couple numbers.
After having provided a run-down of the admission benefits of extracurricular activities, we leave you with one last tip. Extracurriculars are fun! How often in school do you get to do exactly what you like, with people you like? And on top of that they help you get into college! So don’t be too worried about the cutthroat–admission aspect; get out there and have some fun!