College admissions departments are tasked with choosing the best applicants for their schools based on a limited amount of information. To narrow down the pool of submissions, many colleges have lengthy applications that look to gather as many data points as possible about each potential student.
In addition to academic performance, test scores, and essays, impressive extracurricular activities can help a college application stand out from the pile and give admissions officers a clearer picture of what you might be like as both a student and a human being.
How Do Extracurricular Activities Help College Applications?
One of the main challenges that college admissions departments face is accurately assessing your potential as a student based solely on your application. Admissions officers are primarily looking at things like test scores, grades, and activities to get a sense of how you will perform once you are on campus.
A study by researchers at California State University, Sacramento, shows that participation in certain extracurricular activities does have a positive correlation with academic performance, retention, and eventual college graduation. This is one reason why many colleges look at applicants’ extracurricular activities as part of the admissions process.
Quality Over Quantity
One thing that you'll want to remember when considering extracurriculars is that quality matters much more than quantity. Signing up for dozens of activities is unlikely to impress members of the admissions board, as it's unlikely that you'll be able to make a name for yourself in a wide variety of areas. Instead, just focus on a one or two activities and become an outstanding member of the group. It's better to win awards or take on leadership roles in one area than to be a mediocre participant in many areas.
We reached out to college admissions expert, Alice Van Harten, to get a deeper understanding.
"In order to tell a story or make an impact as a college applicant, you have to do more than study: you have to take action to influence the world around you. That’s why pursuing the right extracurricular activities is essential to proving that you are a compelling candidate for top universities.
What do the "right" extracurricular activities look like? First of all, you need to find something you're passionate about (or can become passionate about). There's no sense in taking part in an extracurricular just for appearance's sake. So as you evaluate your hobbies and passions, see if there's any way to become involved in an organized activity that leverages your pre-existing interests and showcases qualities like responsibility, long-term dedication, initiative, leadership skills, and time management.
For example: perhaps you've been dabbling in online chess. You know your school has chess boards set up in the library at lunch time—but there is no formal club for the regular players. You could develop a proposal for a new club, including scheduled events and a small budget, gather signatures, and take the idea to the student council. In the end, you'll have improved your school community, found a new outlet for your hobby, and demonstrated your leadership and initiative."
-Alice Van Harten, College admissions consultant and Founding Partner of Menlo Coaching.
Types Of Extracurricular Activities
When you consider extracurricular activities, you might only be thinking of clubs, teams, or groups offered by your high school. But there are several different categories of extracurricular activities you might get involved with. Here is a breakdown of some of the most common:
- Service activities: These can include collecting winter clothing for needy members of your community through Key Club, joining a Pet Partners therapy animal team, or coaching athletes with intellectual disabilities via the Special Olympics.
- Sports: Colleges will be impressed by not only varsity sports but also club and intramural athletics. Playing ball with your friends in the park won't typically count, but anything that is organized and shows commitment can be worth including in a college application.
- Academic activities: In addition to your schoolwork (represented by your grades), academic activities can include quiz bowl, debate, and Science Olympiad.
- Work: You might not think of a part-time job as an extracurricular activity, but it shows that you are responsible and willing to follow things through, especially if you've built your own business or obtained a leadership role.
- Personal activities: This is a catch-all category that can cover any number of different activities that show off who you really are, and may include marching band, Scouting, or chess club. These activities let your personality shine and show the admissions department your distinguishing talents and gifts.
What Are The Best Extracurriculars For College?
There isn't a single "best" extracurricular for college. But the nature and depth of an activity might help differentiate it from a mere hobby. If you're looking to make a splash with your college application, here are a few qualities that your extracurriculars should demonstrate:
- Leadership: One of the most important things that you can show with your extracurricular activities is leadership. But it's not enough to just be named president of your club; you should also demonstrate how you led and what you learned from the experience when referencing the activity in your application.
- Commitment and time management: There are a variety of ways to show your commitment, but one way might be by being a member of a sports team. That can show not only your interest in working toward goals but also that you can collaborate with others and have the time management skills to balance competing priorities.
- Work ethic: A part-time job shows reliability, financial awareness, and a good work ethic. A smaller percentage of teenagers are working today than in the past. Holding down a job can help set you apart from your peers.
- Volunteering: Volunteering shows a spirit of giving back and demonstrates that you want to be part of a greater community.
The Bottom Line
It's not just grades, essays, and test scores that matter on your college applications. While those things are important, showing that you are well balanced is also vital. Extracurricular activities can play a key role in showing off all the dimensions of your personality.
There isn't a single extracurricular that is absolutely the best; otherwise, everybody would do it. Instead, focus on one or two activities you enjoy and use your time in extracurricular activities to demonstrate leadership, work ethic, commitment, and time management. That will hopefully help you get accepted to your first-choice school.
Dan Miller is a freelance writer and founder of PointsWithACrew.com, a site that helps families to travel for free / cheap. His home base is in Cincinnati, but he tries to travel the world as much as possible with his wife and 6 kids.