Extacurricular activities are one of the most important parts of your college application and an even more important part of your high school experience. By participating in clubs, sports, theater, volunteer programs, and other extracurricular pursuits, you are learning new skills, interacting with diverse people, and engaging in your community.
College admissions officers do not see students simply as academic machines. While grades and test scores are undoubtedly the most important factors in your college application, admissions officers want to accept students who are active, creative, and engaged in the world around them.
“Some big colleges will have so many applications to review that all they might be looking for during the application review is the transcript and test scores,” Ryan Cassell, president of the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling (SACAC), said. “But other colleges tend to look at a variety of other factors — certainly (students’) leadership outside of the classroom, their involvement and letters of recommendation.”
So when they look at an applicant’s profile, admissions officers want to see someone who participates in at least a couple of activities outside of school hours. All extracurricular pursuits, from part-time jobs to piano lessons, can add to your college application.
There are several ways to make your high school extracurricular activities stand out in your application, even if you don’t have the flashiest resume. As a rule of thumb, colleges want students who are deeply involved in a few activities and who are engaged in their high school communities. If you can demonstrate this about yourself, then your application is in good shape.
Here are nine tips to help you make the most of your extracurricular activities in high school.
Participate in extracurriculars that you enjoy
First and foremost, you should always enjoy the extracurricular activities that you participate in. When a college looks at your extracurricular activities, they want to get a sense of who you are and what you will be doing as a student. According to Yale, your extracurricular activities should “demonstrate a deep commitment to and genuine appreciation for what you spend your time doing. The joy you take in the pursuits that really matter to you – rather than a resume padded with a long list of activities – will strengthen your candidacy.”
There is no point in committing time and energy into an extracurricular activity that you don’t enjoy just to make your college resume more appealing. Colleges seek out students with a variety of interests and extracurricular pursuits. Commit your energy to organizations and activities that are meaningful to you and that you intend to continue into your college career.
Take on leadership roles
Simply joining a club won’t show admissions officers what you have accomplished as a part of that club.
Harvard’s admissions website, for example, asks applicants:
● “Have you taken full advantage of opportunities?”
● “What is the quality of your activities?”
● “Do you appear to have a genuine commitment or leadership role?”
By taking on leadership roles in clubs and extracurricular activities, you can demonstrate your contributions to the club and show colleges that you can lead groups. If you’re struggling to rise up to leadership positions in your extracurriculars, you can always take matters into your own hands and start your own club or organization. Colleges love to see students take initiative and form groups or build programs that they’re passionate about.
Pursue opportunities to volunteer or make an impact on your local community
Volunteering is not inherently better on a college application than any other extracurricular, whether it be a sport or a position with the school newspaper. However, volunteering does show colleges that you have an interest in helping others.
Some students will take part in international volunteering trips, where they travel with a group to volunteer in disadvantaged communities around the world. These can be wonderful, life-changing experiences and students should pursue these opportunities if they can afford it. However, some admissions officers often see these volunteering trips as a perk of the rich or as “voluntourism.”
Volunteering in your own community can be more meaningful. Committing your time regularly to an organization or cause that you care about demonstrates to colleges that you have a sincere interest in volunteer work. For example, working in a long-term volunteer position at a local food bank shows a deeper commitment to volunteer work than participating in an expensive, week-long volunteering trip does.
Participate in the arts
While academics are definitely the most important factor in a college application, colleges also want to foster a diverse and creative student body. As a result, interest and engagement with art is always a positive on a college application.
If you are passionate about an art form, whether it is visual art, drama, or music, you should absolutely explore it outside of the classroom. Join your school’s theater program, play in the marching band, or take painting classes outside of school.
Participate in activities that highlight your aspiring career goals
Colleges like to see some career interest and ambition from applicants. Participating in
extracurricular activities that reflect career exploration and goals will show colleges that you are eager to dive into professional projects. For example, if you are interested in politics, you may want to participate in Model UN or get involved with a political campaign. If you’re interested in business, you could consider joining a business or investment club or even starting your own small business.
These kinds of activities show schools that you are not just abstractly interested in a career field, but that you are also actively working on gaining experience. Furthermore, if you’re applying for a specific program, such as a journalism school or a prestigious engineering program, having extracurricular activities pertaining to your major shows that you have a real interest and dedication to the subject you are going to study.
Many students take on part-time jobs during the school year and summer to make some spending money or to help their family out with expenses. On a college application, a part-time job generally won’t add much to your academic profile, but it can still be valuable to admissions officers. Work experience demonstrates qualities like independence, responsibility, and workethic.
Working to save up money for college indicates to college admissions officers that you are dedicated to your education and are willing to work toward those ends. Furthermore, it shows that you are capable of handling a demanding schedule between school and work hours.
That said, part-time work should never come at the expense of academics. Allowing your grades to slip in order to keep your part time job will hurt your chances of getting into top schools. Furthermore, even if you are working a job, you should still commit some time to other extracurricular activities if it fits within your schedule.
Get an internship
Like working a job, getting an internship in high school demonstrates independence and responsibility. Getting an internship shows that you are comfortable putting yourself out into the professional world and are capable enough to actually enter the workforce. Furthermore, it shows that you will be ambitious in pursuing professional opportunities while in college.
Getting an internship is not necessary until you are in your sophomore or junior year of college. However, getting one in high school allows you to build a network early and gives colleges confidence that you will be an active and ambitious student.
Take college courses, if available at your high school
Many colleges and community colleges allow high school students to take college-level courses at their institution. These kinds of courses are called dual-enrollment classes, and they allow high school students to explore more advanced material and even earn college credits.
Taking these courses can help you prepare mentally for the pace, material, and style of teaching that you will find in college classes, so you’ll be more familiar with the type of work you will do once you reach college. If you do well in the course, admissions officers will look at you as well-prepared for college coursework.
Taking a dual-enrollment class also shows that you are willing, and in fact eager, to be challenged academically and capable of taking the next step in your education. Colleges will always see academic ambition as a positive trait.
Choose depth over quantity of activities
College admissions officers value quality over quantity when they are evaluating an applicant’s extracurricular activities. It is more important for applicants to focus on a select few important extracurricular positions where they can grow into positions of leadership in the group than to participate more casually in many different activities.
Furthermore, if you participate in a bunch of extracurricular activities that have no relation to your stated interests or aspiring major, colleges will have a difficult time determining what you are really interested in. In the worst case, you might come across as unfocused to some admissions officers. Devoting a lot of time and effort to extracurricular programs that you stay with throughout high school speaks more to colleges about who you are.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t try new programs out! Most competitive applicants will have participated in 8 or 10 extracurriculars over the course of high school. You don’t need to stick with all of them, but it is a good idea to have at least one or two activities that you are more deeply involved in and participate in throughout high school.
High school extracurricular activities (that you enjoy) can help you express yourself to college admissions officers. Highlight them in your college applications to demonstrate your leadership skills, interests, and ambitions.