The Secret to Winning at College

by
Director of Recruitment and Strategic Initiatives, Case Western Reserve University

Imagine a secret formula that when activated resulted in increased happiness, better academic outcomes, and improved job prospects for college students. Does that sound like a secret you want to be in on?

Here it is: extracurriculars.

That’s right. Writing clubs, intramural hockey leagues, a capella groups, and other such organizations may just be the key to college success (and, of course, fun!).

One of the most fulfilling and enjoyable components of your college experience may involve taking part in the wide variety of extracurricular and cocurricular activities found at most U.S. colleges and universities. Depending on your background, some extracurricular activities offered at the collegiate level may be familiar to you based on previous experience; others might sound unusual. But all hold the potential to help you adjust to college, learn about yourself and others, and enjoy campus life.

There are as many reasons to get involved with extracurriculars at the collegiate level as there are types of activities offered. However, you should consider joining one (or several) for a few reasons in particular:

  • Students who are involved in extracurricular activities are more likely to graduate from their institution.
  • Those students also have more opportunities to develop friendships with other students at their college or university. In addition to creating close ties and providing social support, these friendships can help encourage students’ drive to graduate.
  • Extracurricular activities can provide students with out-of-class experiences that allow them to develop leadership aptitude, self-confidence, and other skills important for college success.  
  • In addition to being important for academic success, these skills might also enhance students’ career aspirations and mobility.

So, how do you find these incredible, almost mystical opportunities? Typically, colleges or universities will offer some kind of activity fair (similar to a college fair), where students can explore a variety of extracurricular options in one setting and student groups can recruit new members. These fairs are often held as part of student orientation or in the first few weeks of the semester and provide new students with a chance to learn about an array of student organizations with a limited investment of upfront time.

Many colleges and universities also have an office of student affairs that can serve as a resource for learning about extracurricular activities on campus. Many schools offer bulletin boards (both physical and virtual) for student groups to advertise events and membership. University social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter share information about extracurriculars on campus as well.

And for a brief look at some of the options available, look no further . . .

Sports

While intensity can range from fierce intercollegiate rivalries to more moderate personal fitness goals, athletic pursuits are a common campus activity.

Varsity sports are the most competitive level of college athletics. These athletes are typically recruited (although it is possible to “walk on” a team) and, depending on the school’s NCAA division, they may receive athletic scholarships. Like varsity sports, club sports are usually intercollegiate, but they are not regulated by the NCAA (or NAIA). While frequently highly competitive, club sports generally demand less of a student’s time than do varsity sports.

Intramural sports are competitions within your college or university. Leagues may be organized around residence halls, Greek chapters, or in open leagues. Intramural competitions will include sports recognized by the NCAA, such as basketball, volleyball, or softball, but they may also include emerging sports with modified rules, such as wallyball, disc golf, or inner tube water polo (one of my personal favorites!).

Most colleges and universities will have some sort of gym or fitness center that offers students an opportunity to pursue personal fitness goals outside of organized athletics too.

Greek life and professional societies

Greek life is one of the elements of college extracurricular life that may be most unfamiliar to students coming from high school, but that is no reason to not consider getting involved. Membership in a Greek organization can be a great opportunity to develop friendships as well as professional networks that will stay with you your entire life.

Greek organizations on campus are typically divided into a number of categories. Social fraternities and sororities are usually just that, organized primarily around social activities. These groups may operate a chapter house where initiated students can live. They may prioritize academic and service projects in addition to social activities.

Academic fraternities are often specific to your chosen field or major; invitations are extended based on academic achievements or GPA. Similarly, professional societies are organized by field. Both academic honor societies and professional societies provide venues to exchange ideas with classmates and colleagues as you develop a professional network.

Arts

A great number of students are highly involved in music, theater, or dance during their high school careers but may choose a non-artistic major in college. That doesn’t mean those students need to abandon their passion for performance. Many colleges and universities offer performing arts groups open to students pursuing any major. These groups may require an audition, or they may be open to anyone.

Cultural groups

Colleges and universities across the United States are becoming increasingly diverse, with students enrolling from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds and, increasingly, from various countries around the world. Multicultural groups on campus often offer programming that seeks to connect students from similar backgrounds and highlight the arts, music, food, and values of the culture they represent. These groups can offer students an opportunity to meet classmates from similar backgrounds and identify support networks on campus. They also present students from all backgrounds a chance to learn about cultures other than their own.

Student publications

Most colleges and universities have their own daily, weekly, or monthly student newspapers, as well as specialty publications that feature student-authored literature, humor, or research. Additionally, many campuses have their own radio and television stations, often with programming developed by students. At schools with academic programs in these areas, participation may be limited to students majoring in similar fields, but at smaller schools, students from a variety of majors may be involved.

Community service

Service to the community is a value instilled in many students during their high school years (or earlier). Students should find ample opportunities to join community service outings in their university settings. Many colleges and universities have chapters of large community service organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, Engineers Without Borders, or Relay For Life, as well as service programs specific to addressing the needs of their communities.

Beyond the groups mentioned here, most colleges and universities will offer a plethora of interest groups that may range from religiously affiliated organizations and outdoor clubs to robotics teams and fans of the films of Akira Kurosawa. There may be a branch of the Young Republicans or Young Democrats political organizations on your campus, or groups that advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ community.

With so many extracurricular options available, it can be easy to overcommit yourself, spreading yourself too thin between your classes, studying, and employment. In my time working with students, I’ve found that those who look to actively participate in one or two student groups on campus during their first semester are able to most effectively manage their workload, enjoyment, and stress levels.

And for students who don’t find an extracurricular activity that meets their interests, most colleges and universities have an established process by which students can form new groups. This process might involve demonstrating interest in the group by collecting signatures and identifying a faculty or staff advisor for the group. The possibilities are practically endless!

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