Getting into your dream school requires more than a stellar transcript and decent test scores. Most colleges also want to see that you’re interested in the world beyond the classroom and that you’re willing to put in the time and dedication to making a difference. While it’s difficult to predict the specific activities each college may want to see on an application, there are some general guidelines to follow when choosing how you will spend your time outside of academics.
What you need to know about extracurricular activities
The #1 rule when it comes to activities beyond the classroom is quality over quantity. Admission committees want to see that you’ve invested yourself in one or two activities that matter to you and that you’ve stuck with them over time.
It’s also important to note that certain colleges aren’t necessarily looking for “what” you do— rather, they’re interested in finding out how you participated and why you chose that activity. In other words, commitment, dedication, and passion will make you stand out. This is especially true if the application process requires an interview because you can almost guarantee that a seasoned admission rep can spot when a student is doing activities for the sake of beefing up their college application.
If you’re unsure where to start or what activities to consider, remember that colleges are looking for students who will be contributing members of their campus communities. You don't need to have a laundry list of activities and accomplishments, but demonstrating enthusiasm about your interests helps a college see how you might contribute to their community.
Top high school activities
While not an exhaustive list, the following activities are a great place to start when deciding how you want to spend your time outside the classroom.
Volunteer work and community service
There are countless ways to get involved in your community, so when it comes to choosing volunteer work, make sure to look for opportunities that align with your interests and help you gain experience and new skills. Colleges are interested in students who look beyond themselves. They want to know the person they’re admitting is interested in making a difference in the world. Some popular options for high school students include volunteering at hospitals, parks, libraries, animal shelters, senior centers, food banks, schools, and churches.
When most students hear the term “leadership” in reference to activities, they automatically assume that it applies to roles such as student government, captain of a sports team, or editor of the yearbook. While those are all outstanding choices for leadership roles, there are tons of other ways to gain leadership experience. You could start your own club at school, create a fundraiser for a good cause, or take the initiative when a local organization is looking for volunteers.
Being involved in your school as part of the student government association is a great way for colleges to see how you can interact with students and faculty. It’s also an excellent way to show how responsible you are and demonstrate your organizational and leadership skills.
Participating in sports, both in school and on recreational or select teams, is an excellent addition to your list of activities. That said, your college application is not the place to list every sport you’ve ever played. Focus on teams or individual sports that you’ve been a part of for several years. Be sure to include any leadership roles you may hold within athletics too. And remember, think outside the box. If you help out each summer with a youth soccer team, make a note of that. If you’ve gone on to win awards that demonstrate leadership, mention those. Being an athletic leader is not just about being the team captain.
If you’re passionate about a particular career and want to learn more about it before heading to college, obtaining an internship is an excellent way to show colleges that you’re proactive and eager to pursue your future goals. Choose one or two summers to dedicate some of your time to an internship experience, and try to carve out time during the school year to continue.
Showcasing your talents through theater, music, visual arts, dance, creative writing, or photography shows colleges the creative side of your talents and demonstrates that you can add to campus life in areas other than academics. Creating a portfolio is especially important if you plan to apply to art schools, so be sure to keep your best work organized.
Academic teams such as Odyssey of the Mind, math team, robotics, decathlon, debate, and sports medicine show colleges that you’re competitive, passionate, and committed to working hard. Plus, being part of an academic team that’s related to what you’re hoping to study in college shows passion and dedication to learning more than what’s presented in the classroom.
Many students don’t have a choice when it comes to working while going to school. If you have a part-time job that limits how much you can do outside the classroom, don’t be afraid to use your experiences working as part of your list of activities.
When it comes to activities, you’re going to have a few classmates who exceed the expectations, but that doesn’t mean what you’re doing is not enough. A well-rounded student (and competitive college applicant) isn’t just someone who earns good grades, plays sports, volunteers, and organizes events at school. To be balanced, you also need to consider your overall health and well-being. Overextending yourself for the sake of a college application is not going to matter if you burn out or end up sick.
Find even more ways to stand out on your applications in our College Admission section.