How do Colleges Look at Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities carry around 20 – 30% weightage in college admissions. Given the fact that many colleges are going test-optional, extracurriculars are bound to become more significant in the holistic admission process. Previously, we discussed how to plan extracurricular activities for college applications. In this post, we try to decide how colleges look at extracurricular activities.

How Colleges Look at Extracurricular Activities

Co-authored by Tanmoy Ray

What are Extracurricular Activities?

An extracurricular activity is anything that falls outside the scope of a regular curriculum box. Though it typically doesn’t carry academic credit but can be related to school. For example, athletics and student clubs are considered extracurricular activities. Hobbies, interests, and volunteer work outside of school are also considered extracurricular activities.

Working a part-time job, caring for an elderly relative, volunteering, or creating your own small business, dog walking, social media monitoring, or selling your artwork online — can be counted as extracurricular activities.

While these hobbies/activities may be fun for you or something you are keenly interested in, they also help colleges determine you as a person. These are a great way of showing your dream schools what you deeply care about, and how committed you are to them. That being said, not all hobbies fall under the category of extracurricular activities.

For instance, you might like watching movies in your free time. But, it cannot be considered an extracurricular activity. However, what if keeping this interest in mind, you start a blog on movie reviews? This here is called blogging and is considered by various colleges as an extracurricular activity.

Why do Colleges Give Weightage to Extracurricular Activities?

Extracurricular activities are not the most important factor in a college application. Coursework, GPA, and essays, for instance, bear more weight. However, this is not to say that extracurriculars have little or no impact on the admissions decision a student ultimately receives.

Why are Extracurricular Activities Important in college admissions

With the number of applications going high, admissions officers are relying more heavily on extracurriculars to determine whether a student will gain admission. In a world of rising application numbers and an increase in the number of students reporting stellar test scores and top grades, admissions officers are relying more heavily on extracurriculars to determine whether a student will gain admission

Additionally, if you participate in or lead extracurricular activities, you possess qualities and professional skills. Colleges (or admission officers) look for drive, leadership, passion, time management, and commitment in potential students. These qualities are not achieved in academic settings but through experience and participating in high school extracurricular activities.

According to the College Board, schools look to extracurriculars to determine the characteristics they will add to their student body, such as leadership and a thoughtful commitment to service.

What do Admission Counselors Say?

Admissions counselors say extracurriculars can play a decisive role, especially when they might contrast sharply with other aspects of a student’s profile.

For instance, admissions counselors may have reservations about a star student who has not contributed to his or her community in a meaningful way. On the other hand, extensive community involvement can work in the favor of an applicant who does not stand out academically.

While college admissions officers review applications, they prefer to see students who possess well-rounded backgrounds. They keep in mind grades, test scores, extracurriculars, essays, and letters of recommendation which are highly important, and neglecting any of these pieces weakens the application and lessens the chances of getting into a top university.

How do Colleges / Admission Officers Evaluate Extracurricular Activities?

When admissions officers view a resume thoroughly, they look for prominent patterns among the activities a person has been involved in. Participating in different activities may convey the message that an individual is science-oriented, musically inclined, athletic, a humanitarian, etc.

The variety on your resume is certainly beneficial.

Being able to list physical as well as intellectual endeavors can show balance, for instance. Rather than getting involved in many extracurriculars, focus on the ones of your interests and talents. Keep in mind two factors as you select extracurriculars – your intended career path and your secondary passions.

Tiers of Extracurricular Activities

  • Tier 1: Extremely rare extracurriculars that show brilliant achievement or leadership qualities are highly accepted by colleges. For example, various prestigious achievements and awards, winning national competitions, etc.
  • Tier 2: These extracurricular activities demonstrate great levels of achievement and leadership. However, they are a bit more common than rare extracurricular activities. Examples include a leadership position at a well-known organization or club, sports distinctions, music distinctions, winning regional competitions, etc.
  • Tier 3: These activities are usually more common but still show a student’s interest in that particular thing. These may be anything ranging from a minor leadership position at a well-known organization or club to a smaller distinction in sports or music.
  • Tier 4: These kinds of extracurricular activities are the most common ones. Chances are that various applications may have these on them, and this the admissions committees see them often. These may be anything ranging from general roles in sports clubs, volunteering, theater clubs, musical memberships, etc.

What do Colleges Look for in Applicants?

Colleges look for applicants who are committed to the extracurriculars they choose and the best way to show this is through the length of your participation in an activity. The longer you have been involved in a pursuit, the better it will look on your resume.

To highlight the extracurriculars you have been most committed to, list activities in descending order. This way, you can direct the admission officers’ attention to the most important items. It is advisable to omit short-lived extracurricular activities from your resume.

Colleges are not on the hunt for academically gifted students with a specialty. They are looking for students who will make an impact on campus. They want students who will come to their campus and leave a mark – influencing the campus culture for the better.

So, basically, admissions officers are often looking for applicants who have demonstrated initiative or leadership in other aspects of their life – often through extracurricular involvement. This can mean running for club president, organizing a fundraising drive, or simply working behind the scenes to ensure that everything your activity involves runs smoothly.

Leadership and initiative come in many forms, it is not about just having a certain title or position, but being creative with ways to become a leader and make an impact.

Key Factors Colleges Look for in Extracurriculars of Applicants

  • Complementary Activities
  • Patterns or Inter-related Themes
  • Commitment
  • Leadership Positions
  • Community Involvement and/or Social Impact

Examples of What Colleges Look for in Extracurriculars

  • Ivy League Schools: National or World Class Titles/Championships, Intel/Siemens Competitions, Winning Science Bowls, Research at Top Universities or NASA.
  • MIT and CalTech: Similar achievements but in science-related fields, and even more intensive.
  • Top 20-30 Schools: State-level Athletes, City’District Champions, Qualifying for National Competitions, Playing in Band at famous clubs, Participating in prestigious summer programs, assisting a Professor with his/her search at a local college, etc.
  • UCs: UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz expect state/regional level performers. However, for other UCs including UCLA, extracurriculars are less important. Academics and essays carry the maximum weightage.

Advice for High School Students on Extracurriculars

It’s okay if you are not a star athlete or musician. Try to develop an academic passion.

Yearbook, debate, soccer, and building shelters for the poor are not academic passions. A college’s listed majors are academic passions.

Choose a combination of classes and AP tests that align most closely with this passion. Because any university likes to see you actively pursuing a depth of study that your high school cannot offer, take intensive college classes outside of school (edX, Coursera, Harvard Extension), especially if your chosen passion isn’t even a class taught at school, like Arabic or classics. Read Best Free Online Courses for High School Students to Stand Out in College Applications.

  • If your academic passion is computer science, spend your time outside of school writing programs, learning 3 – 5 computer languages, winning coding competitions, developing apps, and getting an internship with a major tech company.
  • If your academic passion is politics and economics, become the president of MUN, start a blog about international political and economic trends, write lots of essays about politics and economics and enter them into competitions, and get a summer internship at the White House or a think tank.
  • Likewise with English, math, history, music, etc. You can elevate any academic passion with activities that deepen and enhance it.

Extracurriculars are interesting and impressive and add dimension to an applicant, but the reason why super-curricular ultimately trump extracurriculars is that colleges will be far more impressed by your sustained interest in something you can major in at college than your volunteer hours.


Extracurricular activities give students an outlet to express themselves outside of the classroom. Activities like sports, art, music, volunteer work, and more allow students to engage in initiatives that bring them joy, challenges, social stimulation, and more. Activities that students really enjoy can allow them to take a break from the stresses of high school academics and recharge.

Your extracurriculars must represent achievement in the form of commendations, prizes, awards, election to leadership positions, or other recognized forms of accomplishment. Beyond that, it can be in any area of interest: athletics, the arts, creative pursuits, entrepreneurship, public service, or organization.

Extracurriculars can also allow them to make new friends and engage in experiences that they might not have otherwise. Engaging in activities that bring students joy and fulfillment can have a positive impact on their mental health and overall happiness. Extracurricular involvement plays an important part in not just the college admissions process, but students’ high school experience as a whole.

Featured Image Source: Quora

References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

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