Why are Extracurricular Activities Important in the College Application Process?

extracurriculars college high school

In short, extracurricular activities are really, really important. Yes, test scores and grades are important, but those statistics alone are not going to get you into your dream school. Given how competitive highly-ranked colleges are to get into these days, having extracurricular activities will really break or make an application. There will always be way more students with excellent stats than there are spots available for them in a given class, so you need to stand out through your activities. 

When students finally arrive on campus, most of their time is NOT spent in the classroom. Admission committees (Adcom) want to know that the students they admit will positively contribute to campus life. In addition to academics, they’re evaluating the potential impact that each applicant will have on campus, and what they’ll bring to school besides their academic prowess.

Why Do Extracurriculars Matter So Much In The Application Process?

Extracurriculars help the adcom get a sense of an applicant’s interests, skill sets, and general personality. Is a kid only involved in music but plays multiple instruments and has started a jazz band at school? Are they instead involved in multiple activities including leadership roles and community service, each with a different focus? Do they play one sport really intensely, and also participate in math competitions? Each of these combinations gives insight into an applicant’s personality and interests, both of which the adcom wants to know about just so they can get to know your kid – it’s that simple!

Extracurriculars, and the stories and experiences that come along with them, give great insight into how applicants address challenges, manage stress, pursue goals, participate in communities, work with others, and utilize many other non-cognitive skills that are crucial to their success in college. Extracurriculars also serve as a storytelling platform for your child – anything they’ve experienced through an extracurricular activity is fantastic fodder for a college essay! The experiences and challenges inherent in extracurricular activities can demonstrate how students will deal with the many challenges to come in college. Adcoms want to know that students will not only survive those challenges but also thrive within them and, again, contribute positively to the communities that they’ll become a part of on campus.

When should students begin thinking about their extracurricular activities?

Ideally, at the start of high school. This is the first step (and longest) step in the college preparation timeline. Students should be active throughout all four years, with leadership positions along the way. Remember that a student should be trying to tell a story with their activities so doing a bunch of activities for the sake of doing them is not a good plan! This is the number one mistake we see with candidates who come to us too late in the process…and most wish they had a time machine to go back and receive this advice 😉 The time one commits to an activity matters: depth is more significant than breadth. 

It’s totally natural to try out a lot of things at the beginning of high school. That’s really the only way for a student to figure out what they want to do. But as a student tries out new things, they should notice what they care about and what they don’t care about, and shave their activities down to the things that matter to them most—eliminating anything that’s just there to “look good.” By senior year, a college should be able to see what a student cares about and how they got there. It’s ok if that path is a little bit windy. Don’t feel pressured to know what you’ll do for the rest of your life.

What counts as an extracurricular activity?

Basically, anything one does with some level of structure outside of classes and studying is an extracurricular activity. This could be community service, school clubs, sports, performing or visual arts, leadership positions of any sort, and anything else you can come up with. 

What are the Best Extracurricular Activities for Ivy League Admissions?

We get this question a lot about what extracurricular activities students should or need to do to get into a top school. The truthful answer is that there isn’t an algorithm, formula, or specific combination of extracurricular activities that MUST be done to be considered. In fact, most students who get into these schools don’t fit into any mold…they STAND out. They’re unique. Remember, these schools get thousands of applications for very few spots. Do you think they really want a student who looks like everyone else? How would they decide who to accept? 

The most common mistake we see is a student doing many activities just to show that they can do it all…or doing what everyone else is doing. Lots of activities that students do to impress colleges (student council, mock trial, debate) don’t tell colleges very much about them, and may not be teaching a student very much about themselves. Colleges are looking for commitment and genuine interests sprinkled with some creativity and initiative. This means that the activity can’t consist of bare minimum participation. If a student is volunteering once every several months at a homeless shelter, for instance, an adcom wouldn’t be able to piece together that they care about the homeless situation in their state (since many students volunteer this infrequently). Instead, they need to throw in some spice and bring their personality to whatever it is they are doing. This means not only being a part of Key Club for three years in high school, but also pursuing leadership positions or taking initiative to start new projects. The best kind of profile shows a student taking an idea further over time, pushing deeper rather than broader. Ideally, their interest should become more particular and nuanced with each new activity. When done authentically, this process ends with a “niche” profile, in the sense that your student is doing something only they could do. 

Of course, this all hinges on one key point: your kid actually enjoys the activities. An unmotivated kid going through the motions because you’ve pressured them into an activity for fear that they won’t make it into their dream school won’t take those extra steps, which largely defeats the purpose.

What Extracurricular Activities Should I do for College?

Great question! If you read through this article, you’ll know it’s not a simple question to answer in a blog post and that the answer will vary depending on the student and their interests. Sign up for a free consultation today to talk to one of our college experts and we’ll set your student up for success.