Top Tips for Selecting High-Impact Extracurricular Activities

Today’s students have to balance many competing obligations. With rigorous course loads, standardized test prep, family obligations, and after-school jobs, they often don’t have much time for extracurricular activities. Yet, as we’ve noted before, extracurricular commitments are a crucial part of the college admissions process. With limited time and energy, students (and their parents) often ask us, “How can I identify high-impact extracurricular options? What activities can I carry out that will make a real difference in the college admissions process?”

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES: RULES OF THUMB

The answers to these questions are, of course, different for every student. There are, however, several useful rules of thumb that students can use to determine whether their activities will have a significant impact during the college admissions process. When assessing extracurricular activities, we’d recommend asking yourself the following questions:

IS IT ORIGINAL?

Admissions officers see countless students who participate in Key Club, write for their school newspaper, or are members of their school’s Robotics Team. As a result, while these activities can provide helpful evidence of your interests and involvement in your school community, they generally won’t excite admissions officers. 

This isn’t to say that you need to give up these activities, especially if they are important to you! That said, you should ask yourself whether you could explore your interests by taking on more unique activities. Could you launch a service project to address a local issue or support an underserved community? Apply to be a freelance writer for your city’s newspaper? Carry out an independent research project on robotics, with an eye towards publishing your work? Pushing yourself to look beyond school clubs and to be creative with your activities will help you to stand out from the crowd during the admissions process.

DOES IT HIGHLIGHT YOUR ACADEMIC PASSION?

As we’ve noted before, admissions officers are looking for evidence of students’ passion for particular academic subjects. By developing an especially strong extracurricular background in one or two disciplines, students can provide evidence of their love of learning and give admissions officers a sense of their possible college majors.

For this reason, we recommend that students pursue activities that align with their passions. Do you like creative writing? If so, why not attend writing-focused summer programs, edit your school’s literary magazine, and submit your own pieces for publication and awards? Or perhaps you prefer international relations. If so, Model UN, an internship at an embassy, and a published research project on the dynamics of an international crisis would provide great support for your stated interests during the admissions process.

extracurricular activity quality

IS IT SELECTIVE?

The most impressive activities are often highly competitive. After all, everybody wants to take part in them! Participating in selective extracurricular activities — whether that’s competing on a national academic team or obtaining a high-level research position — allows you to impress admissions officers with your commitment to a particular subject and makes it easy for admissions officers to identify you as a top student in that field. Keep in mind: while all selective activities can be helpful, there’s a big difference between activities that are selective within your school and activities that are selective at the state or national level. From an admissions perspective, the larger the applicant pool, the more impressive your involvement.

WILL IT LEAD TO ANY AWARDS OR PUBLICATIONS?

Awards and publications can also help to differentiate you from the many other students interested in a particular area. When faced with numerous college applications from students interested in biology, for example, admissions officers are likely to prioritize students who have won science fairs and published articles in peer-reviewed science journals over students who have simply enjoyed their biology classes. As with selectivity, admissions officers distinguish between small-scale awards (winning school essay contests, publishing on a blog) and high-level awards (winning national competitions, publishing original research in peer-reviewed journals). 

DOES IT ALLOW YOU TO DEMONSTRATE LEADERSHIP?

Admissions officers want to put together a class of engaged and inspiring students who are likely to do great things. To this end, they often look for students who are natural leaders, actively pursuing subjects that are important to them and encouraging others to join them. Students applying to college can demonstrate their leadership potential by serving as president of their class, school clubs, or local organizations. They can also launch initiatives that are important to them, founding clubs and service groups or developing free workshops for underprivileged students. In addition, students can demonstrate leadership by carving out space for themselves in local or national organizations, serving as teen liaison to the town council or spearheading a movement to get young people involved in a political group.

DOES IT SIGNIFICANTLY BENEFIT YOUR COMMUNITY?

While it’s wonderful to help people in need around the world, admissions officers pay particular attention to students who work to improve their local communities. After all, college campuses are communities in and of themselves, and admissions officers want to enroll students who will make their campuses more supportive, inclusive, and productive. 

With this in mind, we encourage students to look for opportunities to help out the people around them. Is your community facing a significant environmental threat? Are you living in a food desert? Are families in lower socio-economic brackets going without important resources? Once you’ve noticed an issue, come up with some ways that you might help to improve it and put them into action. If you can substantively better your surroundings, admissions officers will take note.

ARE YOU LIKELY TO BE RECRUITED FOR IT?

As we’ve discussed before, recruited applicants have a significant advantage when it comes to admissions. Because they have a talent that the school needs, they are given priority during the admissions process and are sometimes admitted despite lower grades and test scores. As a result, pursuing activities that can lead to recruitment (such as athletics, debate, etc.) can be very rewarding.

It’s worth noting that, in order to reach the level of official recruitment (especially for athletes), students have to devote significant time to that activity, often participating in multiple leagues and attending tournaments and camps. This extensive commitment to one activity can certainly pay off, but it can also lead to lopsided extracurricular records that disadvantage students who are not ultimately recruited.

NAVIGATING THE EXTRACURRICULAR LANDSCAPE

In providing this list, we hope to give students some general guidelines to use when navigating the extracurricular landscape. We’re not encouraging students to give up activities that they enjoy, but we hope that asking these questions will lead students to enhance and supplement their profiles in productive ways. As for students who would like personalized guidance on developing a strong extracurricular background: we’re here to help!

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