How to Plan Extracurriculars for College Admissions

It’s a well-known fact that US colleges are genuinely interested in who you are and what matters to you. US colleges and universities ask the most personal questions and ask extensively about student hobbies and extracurricular activities. Extracurriculars account for about 25-30% of your college application. In fact, with more colleges going test-optional, extracurriculars will carry more weightage in the college admissions process. So, in this post, we will try to give you an overview of how colleges look at extracurriculars, what extracurriculars look good in college applications, and how to plan extracurriculars for college admissions.

Overview of Extracurriculars for College Admissions

Co-authored by Martin Walsh, Ruchi Saran, Parinita Gupta, and Sonali Mitra

A student applying for college wants to impress the admission makers with their marks and wins in classrooms. However, colleges want well-rounded students with a few extra marks. The extra is made up of extra-curricular activities.

Let’s look at an example – Laura vs Alisha:

There are two students for selection in college, Laura and Alisha. Alisha has 95 % marks but has not participated in any extra-curricular activity. Laura, on the contrary, has 90% marks but had been director of the drama team and made her team win in many competitions.

Who do you think will get chosen?

Laura will be chosen because she has a specific interest [drama] and has shown her leadership skill by acquiring a trophy.

Another Example – Tara vs Sid:

Let’s take Tara and Sid who are in Grade 11 and both have applied to the University of Michigan for a computer science major. Both Tara and Sid have excellent grades and Sid has an ACT score of 36 while Tara’s ACT score is 34. Sid is a tennis player and has won many Inter-School matches and teaches the local kids’ tennis while Tara has spent her last 5 years building an app for her school to track the school buses and is the founder and President of her girls Robotics club. She also raised $1500 to teach the local girls how to code.

What College Admissions Offices Look for in Extracurricular Activities | Extracurriculars for College Admissions

If you were the college admissions person whom would you give admission to? Sid or Tara?

Tara right, even though Sid has a perfect score he has not shown any interest in his major, and his passion for tennis is not aligned with his major. If Sid was a national tennis champion, the college would accept him and want him to represent the college and he would be spending 4-5hours practicing daily.  On the other hand, Tara has not only shown dedication and commitment but also leadership qualities by starting the club and raising funds.

How important are Extracurriculars for College Admissions?

For sure academics are important. However, extracurriculars are just as important if not more important than academics. More or less, all Top World 250 Colleges/Universities care about extracurriculars. If you are targeting Ivy League & Elite colleges, then extracurriculars are bound to play a much bigger role.

The reason is that every applicant has outstanding academic grades and standardized test scores. Grades and test scores are black and white with no gray area, which makes them easy to compare against the admission standards of potential schools.

Hence, everyone becomes too identical for these colleges to determine who really deserves to be in their college program.

Social Work and Community Development Internship for High Schoolers

Additionally, the colleges are not only looking for students with strong grades, they also want to admit applicants who will be interesting, dynamic members of the community. Certainly, every evaluation process begins with grades but the next step involves careful consideration of the applicant’s involvement in extracurricular activities.

Why are Extracurriculars Important for College Admissions?

  • Extracurricular activities show colleges a wide range of aspects and characteristics that form a positive impression, such as being willing to learn new skills or work with others as a team.
  • These activities might also show colleges that you’re involved in your field or area of interest beyond taking classes, such as being part of a local or after-school science club or taking part in math competitions outside of school.
  • Your extracurricular activities on your college application should also provide colleges with information on your interests outside of your field, which helps show that you’re a well-rounded student.

How Extracurriculars can Boost Your College Admission Chances

  • While grades are black and white, extracurricular activities give a student depth and demonstrate a more personal picture to admissions officials.
  • Colleges are not simply searching for academically excellent students; rather, they’re looking for well-rounded students who will get involved in and engage with their campus communities.
  • Even in the most academically selective schools, a strong extracurricular profile can help a student stand out from a pile of academically excellent applicants. 

Myths and Facts around Extracurriculars for College Admissions

Some students feel pressure to do “everything, ” thinking that the colleges are looking for a teenage “renaissance person;” the next Leonardo Da Vinci so to speak. Other students have heard that it is important to be exceptionally good at ONE thing to get into a top university.

They use all of their free time focusing on robotics, math club, or a sport. Some have bought into the community service myth, believing that the school will choose that student who has spent an inordinate number of hours building houses for the homeless or feeding the poor.

Sadly, these myths cause unnecessary anxiety about what colleges are looking for and push applicants to devote time to something they mistakenly believed will be valued in the application evaluation process.

The reality is there is no ideal mix of extracurricular activities that will guarantee admission to the college of your dreams. Therefore, students should pursue activities that truly interest them.

“Some students feel so much pressure to get into the “right” college that they want to make sure they do everything “right” – even do the “right” extracurricular activities. Fortunately, the only right answer is to do what’s right for you – not what you think is right for us.

MIT Admissions Officer

“Stanford students have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. What you make of an experience matters to us, not simply the experience itself”

– Former Stanford Admissions Officer

How do Colleges look at Extracurriculars?

Here’s a bubble to burst. Colleges do not seek a well-rounded profile of students who have participated in a multitude of extracurriculars; rather what matters here is their cohesiveness of them. Of course, it’s not a bad thing to perform and take part in numerous extracurricular activities.

Colleges look at what extracurriculars are you passionate about and whether or not the institution and its program would be the right fit to help you excel further. They simply want to nourish your existing talents and guide you to the right path best fit your career and passion. Here is a more detailed article on How Colleges Evaluate Extracurriculars.

Through extracurricular activities, colleges want to assess the following:

  • Leadership Potential
  • Long-Term Commitment
  • Initiative and Self-Motivation
  • Excellence

Quick Tips on Extracurriculars for College Admissions

  • Choose your activities because they really delight, intrigue, and challenge you, not because you think they’ll look impressive on your application.
  • Go out of your way to find projects, activities, and experiences that stimulate your creativity and leadership, that connect you with peers and adults who bring out your best, that please you so much you don’t mind the work involved.
  • Some students find room for many activities; others prefer to concentrate on just a few. Either way, the test for any extracurricular should be whether it makes you happy – whether it feels right for you.

“First, do not try to do EVERYTHING unless you are interested in everything. And, do not force yourself to become a specialist, unless you are truly passionate about chess or robotics, painting or poetry. The truth is, what the colleges are really looking for are teens that fearlessly try things; students who really commit to a project or activity. Figure out what you care about and then do those things with gusto, integrity and commitment.”

Martin Walsh, Former Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Stanford University

What Should You Do?

So, let’s say that you’re very good at painting and that’s the extracurricular you have while applying for the robotics program at Stanford. They’re simply going to reject you because your interests and passion simply do not align with what Stanford can offer and what you truly need and desire. In this case, chances are you would be selected at Harvard for their fine arts program.

Ironic, isn’t it? Harvard accepting you while Stanford rejecting you? This is exactly how things work. There are going to be people telling you that there’s some code or a standard format in which they evaluate your extracurriculars and your academics to consider your admission into their institution, but there’s no such thing.

Striking the Balance Between Breadth vs Depth

Make sure you find lots of ways to explore it – MUN, Debate Club, competitions, mentoring younger debaters, writing an opinion column in the paper, etc. Then you should figure out one activity that you are most passionate about, do it over a longer period of time, and continue to be better at it.

“We want to admit a well-rounded class of individuals, not a class of well-rounded individuals.”

Former Assistant Dean of Admissions, Swarthmore College

What Extracurriculars Look Good for College Applications?

Now, here is the BIG question – what are the best extracurriculars for college applications?

Here is a list of impressive extracurriculars for college admissions:

  • Student Government / Societies
  • Academic Clubs
  • Debate Teams
  • Music and Visual & Performing Arts
  • Internships
  • Research Project / Paper Publication
  • Cultural Clubs
  • Volunteer Work and Community Service
  • Student Journal / Student or Local Newspaper / Blogging
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Athletics
  • Part-Time Job
  • Creative and Technological Skills
  • Summer Program
  • Travel

Now, please be advised that just mere participation in a few of the above activities would not impress the admissions committee. You need to be genuinely passionate about what you do, be good at them over a period of time, and excel in it.

Yes, tangible achievements and social/community impact would be the key. Depending on your accomplishments, your extracurriculars would be stacked in one of the four tiers of extracurriculars.

Four Tiers of Extracurriculars for College Admissions

Examples of Tier 1 Extracurriculars

  • Athletic achievements – national-level basketball or tennis player
  • National recognition for musical prowess – winning a prestigious award
  • First place at the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO), qualifying for the International Biology Competition (IBO) or winning a Microsoft/Intel Award
  • Attending a distinguished and selective summer school program
  • Volunteering with high social impact – collecting non-perishable foods for a community following a natural disaster to turning a love of soccer into an effort to build fields in underserved communities.

Examples of Tier 2 Extracurriculars

  • Holding a leadership position, like President or chair, in a well-respected club such as the Model UN, debate team, or Science Olympiad.
  • Successes on the playing field and on the stage—for example, making an all-state selection in football, band, or orchestra—are also excellent examples of tier two extracurricular activities.
  • Winning a regional competition, such as a Junior Science and Humanities Symposia (JSHS). 

Tier two extracurriculars are endeavors that show high levels of achievement and leadership and are impressive accomplishments to have in a student’s profile. The difference between tier two and tier one extracurricular activities is that they’re a little more common. 

Note: Just participating in a standard volunteer opportunity with no leadership role or major impact will likely be classified as a tier four extracurricular activity.

Examples of Tier 3 Extracurriculars

  • Holding a minor leadership position in clubs like the Model UN, debate team, and science olympiad.
  • Possessing a position such as treasurer or secretary in a club
  • Athletes who didn’t qualify for an all-state team but earned distinctions like a player of the week award can slide their sports into tier three.
  • Similarly, musicians who didn’t qualify for an all-state band or orchestra but did get selected for a selective regional ensemble can count their musical pursuits in tier three. 

Tier 4 Extracurriculars

  • General membership in the aforementioned clubs like the Model UN, debate team, and Science Olympiad
  • Participation in sports; like being a member of the track team or taking karate for five years
  • Involvement in the marching band or learning piano outside of school
  • General volunteering (food bank or senior center) and community work (with a local NGO) for 6 – 12 months

How to Plan Your Extracurricular Activities in High School?

Start as Early as in Grade 8

  • Remember, it’s never too early to start.
  • Try to explore and engage in various activities that you like. At this stage, it’s okay if you don’t find a burning desire or passion. This is the time to figure out what you like and don’t like.

Try to Find Your Own Path in Grade 9

  • Your goal for 9th grade is to find 2-4 activities you’re passionate about.
  • Start by looking at activities you’ve already been doing. And check out what school clubs have to offer. If you have an interest in mind but are unsure how to pursue it, talk to teachers, counselors, mentors, and relatives to get suggestions. 
  • Talk to a professor, business person, or community leader that’s doing something you want to explore.

Commit to Your Interests and Create a Spike in Yourself in Grade 10

  • As discussed earlier, colleges want well-rounded classes, not necessarily well-rounded students. After all, depth matters more than breadth. 
  • You’re trying to be a restaurant that serves a couple of fantastic dishes, not a buffet that serves dozens of mediocre ones. That’s why your goal for 10th grade is to commit to 1-2 activities you’re passionate about.
  • Think about how you will deepen your commitment to your interests.
  • Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean it will always be glamorous or that you’ll enjoy every moment. You might have to spend time doing tasks no one else wants to do. That’s OK, so long as you’re increasing the chances you’ll get a more exciting opportunity later.
  • If you’re doing research, for example, you might have to run the same experiment multiple times with slight variations before you get the chance to publish a paper. But because you have passion – genuine interest – you can stomach commitment – sticking it out.

Improve Your Community and Create an Impact in Grade 11-12

  • Your community could be your school, your neighborhood, or a group of people with a particular objective.
  • Your 11th-grade goal is to use your extracurricular activity to improve your community. That is, the community should be different because of your involvement.
  • You should be able to point to something and say, “Without me, this never would have happened.” If you can make that statement, you’re the type of person that’s contributing to your community.
  • Once you get into Grade 12, you should focus more on the college application process itself.
  • Grade 12 could be the time to ultimately submit that research paper or achieve a milestone that you had set up in Grade 9/10 – say, winning an award, raising $20,000 for a particular cause, or getting 10,000 subscribers for your Blog or YouTube channel.

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

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