Last Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Your high school extracurriculars are an important part of most students lives—and the college search. Spending months or years doing something—from serving in student government to singing in a choir—says a lot about who you are and what matters to you. College admission counselors look at this stuff closely. But when they look at your extracurricular activities, what do they see? 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 of school," unfortunately you're out of luck. On the other hand, if you're the five-time World High School Gaming Champion, you may have something to work with.
You see, when you’re applying to colleges, what really matters with your extracurricular activities are accomplishments you can point to and impress application reviewers with. If you play the piano, that’s nice, and it probably shows you have an appreciation for music, you’re cultured, and you can buckle down and practice doing something. But, at the end of the day, a college admission officer isn’t going to care that much, because lots of people play the piano. If you’ve achieved some distinction in playing the piano—maybe you played in concerts or produced and sold your own recording—then you’re in business. What you want is to stand out from the crowd.
What extracurriculars to focus on
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 win the Intel Science Search or the state swim meet, but you don’t need to. The key is to try a variety of activities in high school and find one you really 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 high school, or be the president of an existing club. Maybe you can organize a region-wide community service project or fundraising event. Some way or another, find something that will show those college admission boards what you’re made of.
Work with what you have as a senior
Of course, by the time you read this advice, you might not have that much time left before applying to college to make any more stunning accomplishments. Ideally, you would start planning for college as soon as high school begins, but that rarely happens in real life. You might have participated in some 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 about their activities. (Also, it’s really easy to do a quick Google search for “your name + accolade.”) What you should do is this: think back on your high school activities and how you made an impact. 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 Pokémon in your area. Focus on specific things you did and beef them up on your application.
How colleges look at your extracurriculars
So how important are these extracurriculars on your college applications? The answer is two-fold: extracurriculars aren’t the end all be all, and yet they’re also 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 a college admission officer. 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, “Well, that’s a little boring.” You’re obviously working hard to do well in school—but that’s not the only thing you care about, right? (Right?!) Though it may seem paradoxical, good grades alone will not get you into college either—although they’re definitely much better than bad grades. This is where the extracurriculars actually are important. If you have good grades and test scores, and you can point to one of those stunning accomplishments mentioned before, you’re going to get into virtually whatever college you want. And maybe even get a scholarship or two for your extracurriculars. Even if you don’t have your own personal trophy room, having a good extracurricular résumé is the piece of the college admission puzzle that, when combined with good grades and test scores, will give you a good chance at getting into just about any college. It lets college admission officers make a connection with you as a real person who could be going to their college next year.
After having provided a run-down of the admission benefits of extracurricular activities, I’ll leave you with one last tip. Extracurriculars are fun! How often in high school do you get to do exactly what you like with people you like? And on top of that, extracurriculars help you get into college. So don’t be too worried about the college admission aspect; get out there and do what you love and have some fun!
If you’re curious about what extracurriculars you could participate in when you get to college, check out The Student Experience section of our Lists & Rankings!