Extracurricular Activities and Your Application Essays

Sometimes, I get frustrated working with students on their application essays. Not because the students aren't trying; that's rarely the case. But because I often see missed opportunities when it comes to extracurricular activities. I see steps students could have taken to push their extracurricular activities from good to great, steps that for whatever reason, the students never took. I'm guessing a big part of the problem is that no one sat down and explained how to plan out extracurricular activities. That's why today, instead of focusing on application essay tips, I'm going to answer 6 questions about extracurricular activities. I hope that this information will help you plan ahead so that you'll have even better experiences to draw from when the time comes to write those application essays.

Extracurricular Activities Question #1: What is an extracurricular activity?

An extracurricular activity is any activity you do outside the classroom. Though your transcript and SAT/ACT scores are “first tier” admission factors, most colleges will also evaluate “second tier” admission factors like application essays, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities. The more selective a college is, the more closely it will scrutinize second-tier factors like extracurricular activities. To get a sense of the relative weight of various admission factors, check out this table.

Extracurricular Activities Question #2: Why do colleges care about my extracurricular activities?

As you'll learn from your college visits, admission officers do not want an incoming class of people who do nothing but study. They want a vibrant academic and social community. Your high school extracurricular activities hint at how you might contribute to that community.

Extracurricular Activities Question #3: What extracurricular activities do colleges want to see?

That’s the wrong question. Colleges care less about what activities you choose than what qualities those activities demonstrate.

Extracurricular Activities Question #4: OK, then what qualities do colleges value?

The 2011 Community Service and College Admissions Survey from Do Something, an organization that helps high school students identify and participate in community service projects, indicates that colleges like to see students describe their community service with the following words:

  1. Passion
  2. Founder/Leader
  3. Commitment
  4. Initiative
  5. Dedication
  6. Impact
  7. Growth
  8. Personal Change
  9. Internship
  10. Coordinated

Though this survey inquires about descriptions of community service, I suspect colleges like to see the same traits in all extracurricular activities. Your goal in participating in extracurricular activities (beyond personal enrichment, of course) is to acquire experiences that help you develop these traits.

Extracurricular Activities Question #5: How do I plan my extracurricular activities?

This is the fun part. Before you apply to college, you’ll have three full years of extracurricular activities. Here’s my suggestion for planning them out.

9th Grade: Explore your interests.

Your goal for 9th grade is to find 2-3 activities you’re passionate about. Find your own path. Don’t do an activity just because everyone else is doing it. Don’t do an activity just because other people say you should. Do an activity because it actually appeals to you.

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 strangers, too. Is there a professor, business person, or community leader that’s doing something you want to explore? Put together a list of people to talk to. Call or email them. Be bold. If you call or email enough people, eventually you’ll get a response.

Sometimes, you’ll discover that an activity you hoped would be interesting is awful. Drop that activity quickly, and move on. Keep exploring. By the end of 9th grade, you should be able to identify 2-3 activities you’re passionate about.

10th Grade: Commit to your interests.

We’ve all heard about well-rounded students. Is that what colleges want? Not really. Colleges want well-rounded classes, not necessarily well-rounded students. Some admission folks say that they want "well-angled" or "angular" students. That's just another way of saying depth matters more than breadth. You’re trying to be a restaurant that serves a couple 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. Few people wake up at the top of their fields. 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.

11th Grade: Improve your community.

Who is your community? It might be your school, your neighborhood, or a group of people with a particular objective. When you define “community” for yourself, you help clarify whom you need to influence. 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.

If you want to improve your community, however, be sure you avoid these three mistakes:

Mistake #1: Don’t hoard your talent.

Some of you have passions that require a lot of solitary time. If you want to be great at piano, for example, that means you’re spending a lot of time alone to achieve mastery. But just as colleges sometimes shy away from applicants who do nothing but study, my sense is that they sometimes shy away from applicants who devote significant time to solitary pursuits. The fear, again, is that these applicants will not contribute to the community. So if you’ve devoted significant time to a solitary activity, make sure you’re thinking of a way to connect that talent to your community. Don’t settle for talent in isolation.

Mistake #2: Don’t chase titles.

Being president of a club is great if it’s an after-the-fact sign of recognitions of contributions you’ve already made. But a title in itself is worthless. Less important than a title is what you do. If you don’t have a title, take the responsibility for coordinating a project. If there’s no project to coordinate, think of one!

Mistake #3: Don’t fall for “pay-to-play” service opportunities.

You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars traveling to another country to impress a college. Actually, since admission committees know that most students cannot afford these opportunities, these opportunities can be a disadvantage. The admission officer very well might wonder, "Instead of spending 2 weeks abroad, why didn't this student get involved locally?" So keep it simple. Unless an international component is a natural outgrowth of your activity, focus on impacting your local community.

Extracurricular Activities Question #6: I’m in 11th grade and didn’t explore during 9th grade or commit during 10th grade. What should I do?

Make the most of the time you have left! I won't pretend that you can duplicate 3 years of commitment over 1 semester or summer. You can't. Sorry. But you can use whatever time you have left to apply the explore-commit-impact approach as best you can. At the very least, focus on deepening your involvement in 1 of your extracurricular activities to demonstrate passion, commitment, or leadership. Also, if you know extracurricular activities won't be your application's strong point, you can take some comfort in knowing that your transcript, SAT/ACT scores, and essay are all important admission factors still under your control.

Final Thoughts on Extracurricular Activities

When it comes to extracurricular activities, I like the advice to "do something you love and do it over a long period of time." That's the main point. If you liked my overview on extracurricular activities, please share it with your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.