When it comes to extracurricular activities, student involvement is all over the map. Some teens are barely involved in hobbies, sports, and clubs, while others have so many you can’t help but wonder how they find time to sleep! But in the context of college admission, schools want to learn all about the interests of their applicants. Why? To get to know their prospective students better. 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 campus community.
If admission officers could ask prospective students whether they intended to participate in campus activities in college, almost everyone would reply, “Of course!” Thus, the admission staff will not ask; rather, they’ll try to assess how active and passionate you are about your high school activities and make a judgment as to whether you’ll pursue your interests at the college level. So what exactly are colleges looking for from your extracurriculars? Here’s what you need to know.
Do what you love, not what colleges want
There’s no specific activity that’ll ensure admission to a particular college. You can’t predict when you’re young that a specific college will need a gymnast, a tenor, a diver, or a table tennis player in the admission year you’ll be applying for in the future. Therefore, you should pursue your passions and focus on the things you enjoy. When students discover something they truly love, they come up with creative ideas and excel to a degree they wouldn’t have if they simply were trying to look impressive to an admission officer. Colleges today aren’t necessarily searching for a well-rounded student; they want a well-rounded class. So you can be a specialist—an “accomplished expert”—at something without feeling the need to join nine clubs, volunteer 35 hours a week, and work part-time at your local Starbucks.
Be a leader, not a follower
Speaking of clubs, applicants aren’t fooling admission counselors with that “join six clubs during junior year” strategy just to fill up your Common App activities section. If you participate in a club, become a leader or active member who actually makes a difference. If you’re a club president, be prepared to write about things you changed and accomplished that haven’t been done before. Some students are directly asked, “What legacy have you left at your high school?” in admission interviews. Colleges like to admit movers and shakers! If you don’t hold an official leadership position, then organize an event, bring in relevant speakers, or step up in helping the club raise money for a charity. Put your own stamp on the club and make an impact!
Focus on quality, not quantity
Depth over breadth is crucial! Colleges will consider how you progressed in a particular activity or two, and they’ll evaluate your level of passion and commitment based on that. If you play tennis for your high school team, do you also take lessons out-of-season, teach younger children, or referee tennis tournaments? If you’re researching biochemistry, have you shown a progression in your work and in the commitment you’ve had to the subject over the years? Colleges want to see your focus and dedication, not your willingness to jump into anything just to put it on your applications.
Devote time to hobbies, not just school extracurriculars
Hobbies count as extracurriculars! Whether you’ve visited every baseball stadium in the country, rode every roller coaster on the East Coast, sampled every cupcake bakery in the Midwest, attended auto shows throughout the county, or performed magic at children’s birthday parties, let admission officers know. These are interesting and relevant details about what excites you and what you dedicate your time to, and such atypical extracurricular activities will showcase a unique aspect of your personality.
Utilize your summers, not just the school year
Summer is a terrific time to devote to your interests. Take some time to relax in the summer, of course—you’ve worked hard during the school year. But make sure you spend part of your vacation being productive too. Do something that really interests you and gets you engaged in something valuable—as opposed to watching hours of television every day.
Some final advice
During the pandemic, it’s been difficult for many students to participate in their regular activities. You can demonstrate resilience by turning this tumultuous period into a wonderful time of exploration. Take classes online, use your art or computer skills to help small businesses that might be struggling, teach yourself something you always wanted to learn (like coding, sewing, origami, meditation, etc.), or volunteer virtually. This is a great time to pivot your extracurricular approach and still impress colleges with your interests.
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