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The Extracurriculars

Updated: May 19, 2022

As the school year comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about my graduating seniors and how they’re excited (and a little nervous) to go off to college. I will miss this group of young adults. Not only did they work hard to achieve their goals and get admitted to colleges they had fallen in love with; they were also kind, thoughtful, and a joy to guide through the process.

Now I get to do it all over again with my next group! In addition to drafting and writing college essays this summer, my students will be working on another important piece of applications: describing their extracurricular activities. Students, read on for some general tips on extracurriculars, from choosing activities as a freshman, to telling colleges about them as a senior.

1. Pick things that you think you'll enjoy doing. This seems pretty obvious, but for younger high school students, especially those who aren’t chasing a sport into ninth grade, getting involved can feel daunting. Find a friend, hit your school’s activities fair, and sign up for a few things. You may end up dropping an activity or two, but you also may find something you love doing.

2. Once you have an established, committed activity, add something new. If you are a three-sport athlete, or if you play one sport year-round, add a community service project or try something completely new. Always wanted to be in the school play and think you'll have time this quarter? Go ahead and audition, or sign up to paint the sets! If your school doesn’t sponsor a club in something you’re interested in, start it yourself: one of my students co-founded his school’s weightlifting club for this very reason. Starting a new club takes initiative, a quality college admissions officers value highly. Just make sure you leave enough time to study (see next tip).

3. Don’t overextend yourself outside of the classroom. In reading applications, admissions officers weigh grades, course rigor, and sometimes test scores more than anything else. Colleges make exceptions for recruited athletes, musicians, performing and visual artists, and a few others, but the majority of applicants need to have allocated most of their time and effort toward academics.

That said, sometimes academics and extracurriculars complement each other perfectly, and colleges strongly encourage these pairings. The robotics team is a great choice for the budding engineering major enrolled in AP computer science, for example. Got your Spanish Seal of Biliteracy? If so, you're probably already in Spanish club and Spanish National Honors Society (or you should be!).

Whatever activities you choose, demonstrating a strong commitment to a few activities is preferable to having superficial involvement in ten. Even better is landing a leadership role such as a team captain or an officer in student government. Bottom line: quality is much more important than quantity when it comes colleges assessing your activities.

4. Look beyond school for things to do. Remember, extracurriculars don’t just have to involve your school or club sports. Colleges love jobs and internships, even part-time summer experiences. Also, any volunteer activities that you spearhead on your own, without the structure and organization of your school, will appeal to admission officers.

5. Report your activities wisely. Applications don't provide a lot of space for you to explain what you do outside of the classroom. The common app allows you to report up to ten activities (which is plenty in my opinion), but each entry is limited to a mere 150 characters. Make those precious words count; use specific details and strong verbs to describe your accomplishments, especially your leadership roles. (For some helpful tips on how to optimize your common app activities section, see Ethan Sawyer’s article: Finally, make sure you have a trusted adult like me proofread your activities descriptions.

When it's time for colleges to review your applications, your outside-of-class activities will be part of a holistic review process. Like the essays and the letters of recommendation, the extracurriculars provide a qualitative picture of the student that transcripts and test scores don't necessarily illuminate. So, coming back to the beginning of this post, nurture the activities that you love, or that you love MOST of the time, because it will pay off later.

Good luck! As always, please reach out with questions or concerns about college applications/admissions.

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