The Importance of Extracurricular Activities in the Admission Process

Co-Founder, Director of College Admissions Counseling, One-Stop College Counseling

When it comes to extracurricular activities, student involvement is all over the map. Some teens are involved in very few; others have so many that we can’t help but wonder how they find time to sleep! But in general and in the context of the college search process, prospective applicants develop assorted interests, and colleges want to hear about them. Why? Well, it’s one more way to get to know the student better. In addition, once admission officers establish that a student can thrive academically at their school, they immediately look to determine how that student can contribute to the college campus environment. What will the student do to enrich the lives of the other students?

Obviously, if an admission officer asked prospective students whether they intended to participate in campus activities, almost everyone would reply, “Of course!” Thus, the admission staff will not ask you; rather they will try to assess how active and passionate you are about your high school activities and then make a judgment as to whether you will be continuing your interests at the college level.

So, what exactly are colleges looking for from your extracurriculars? Here’s what you need to know:

  • There’s no specific activity that will assure your admission to a particular college.
  • There is no way to predict when you are younger that a specific college will need a gymnast, a tenor, a diver, or a table tennis player in the future year that you will be applying. Therefore, you should pursue your “passion.” When students choose something they really and truly love, they come up with creative ideas and often excel to a degree they wouldn’t have if pursuing an activity they’re just doing to beef up their application.
  • Colleges today aren’t necessarily looking for a well-rounded student; they want a well-rounded class. So you can be a specialist, an “accomplished expert,” without feeling that you also need to join nine clubs, volunteer 35 hours a week, and work part-time at the local Starbucks.
  • Speaking of clubs, no applicants are fooling admission counselors with that “join six clubs junior year” strategy in order to fill up the common app activity section—counselors know what’s up! If you participate in a club, become a leader who actually does something. If you’re the club President, be prepared to speak/write about things that you changed and accomplished that have never been done before. If you don’t hold an official leadership position, then organize an event, raise money for a charity. Make a difference!
  • Depth over breadth! Colleges will look for how you progressed in the activity, and they will evaluate your level of passion and commitment. If you play tennis for your high school team, do you also take lessons out-of-season, teach skills to younger children and referee tennis tournaments? If you are conducting cancer research, have you shown a progression in your work over the years?
  • Hobbies count! Whether you’ve visited every baseball stadium in America or rode every roller coaster on the East Coast or sampled every cupcake bakery in the Midwest or attended auto shows throughout the county or performed magic at children’s birthday parties, let admission officers know! These are interesting and important details about what makes you tick, and such atypical extracurricular activities will showcase a unique aspect of your personality.
  • Some students use the summer to more thoroughly pursue their interests. Take some time to relax in the summer, but make sure that you spend part of your vacation being productive. Do something that really interests you—as long as it’s not watching hours of television!

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