Is it possible to have too many or too few extra-curriculars? How, if at all, should college admissions factor into my thinking about my extra-curricular choices? What are the biggest mistakes students make with regards to extra-curricular activities?
This is a great and important question! Your extra-curricular involvement plays a key role in the college admissions process. At highly selective schools, admissions officers will tell you that over 40% of applicants are academically qualified to get in, but they can’t admit all of those students. That means that they are looking for details beyond strong academic work to create the class. This is where your extra-curricular activities come into play.
The key to choosing extra-curricular activities is to discover the things about which you are most passionate – it’s about quality, not quantity. As a former admissions officer, I would always rather see an applicant with two or three deeply explored activities than a list of ten superficial club memberships. Look for opportunities to do the things you love, to become a leader and to learn new things. It is also important to stay consistent. Too often, students jump around, trying different activities each year of high school. While it is OK to try new activities or join new clubs, it is important to stay consistent with your core activities – those that connect to your passions. Admissions officers will be looking for this steady involvement.
Remember that the summer is an important time to flesh out your extra-curricular profile. In the summer, you can show deeper involvement in an activity or you can establish a new interest.
Finally, as you are exploring your extra-curricular activities, remember to have fun. Hopefully, the things you learn while playing tennis, singing in the school musical, planting flowers at a local community center or editing your school paper will stay with you for your whole life. These activities will help you get into college, but more importantly, they will help you grow!
Emily began advising college applicants in 1999. She is a former Columbia University admissions officer who has read thousands of applications and has served on numerous selection committees. She has a BA in Religion from Vassar College and an MA in Educational Theatre from New York University. She is a member of NACAC and AIGAC.
Essentially, college and university admission officers are looking to see what an applicant does outside of the classroom. The most important consideration to keep in mind is that there are no right or wrong activities.
A student’s choice of extracurricular activities is influenced by several factors, the two most important being interest and time availability.
With regard to interest, students should get involved in activities in which they have a natural interest. Students should not get involved in activities because they think it will look good on their admissions application or because the activity is in vogue. Do not travel to a developing country to help build latrines because you think it will show you as a compassionate person. I remember reading a student’s extracurricular essay when I worked at Yale in which the student began the essay by saying, “I did not select this activity, it selected me.” The student went on to write an honest, heart-felt essay about being a cheerleader for the high school’s losing basketball team. The essay sparkled because of the honesty, passion and excitement that was evident in every word of the essay. In this instance, the student involvement showed intense dedication and commitment. I recall that the student was not involved in many other activities, but it did not matter. I was more impressed with this student’s one activity than with other applicants who had a “grocery list” of activities. When admissions officers consider extracurricular activities, they are not looking for quantity, they are looking for quality.
It also should be noted that some students do not have time to get involved in activities outside of the classroom. There are many cases in which students must go home after school to care for younger siblings or they work part-time (as I did when I was in high school), or they travel a great distance from home to school which limits their extracurricular involvement. It is important for students to know that even if you are not involved in any extracurricular activities, the admissions officer is still interested in knowing what you do outside of the classroom. Sometimes students think that if they are not involved in the traditional extracurricular activities that their activities are unimportant—this is not true! Admissions officers are essentially interested in knowing how the student spends his/her time, so be sure to include activities even if they may be untraditional.
Is it possible to have too many activities? Yes, if the activities interfere with the student’s academic work, then it may be necessary for a student to reduce his/her activities.
Is it possible to have too few activities? No, a student can have one activity, and that one activity can be more meaningful than a dozen other activities.
The biggest mistakes that students make with regard to activities is that they (a) get involved in activities only because they think it will help their chances for admission and (b) get involved in myriad activities because they think quantity is more important than quality.
Students should keep in mind that if an activity is important to them, it will be important to the admissions officer.
Doris is an internationally recognized admissions professional with over 30 years experience working in undergraduate admissions at Ivy League schools and other elite universities. She specializes in providing campus tours of Ivy League schools as well as forums on applying for admission to elite universities. As an educational consultant, she works with students and secondary schools all over the world and regularly travels to Asia.
Many students (and parents) believe that the most important aspect of extracurricular activities is to demonstrate to college admission counselors that the student is “well-rounded.” They therefore try to get involved in many and widely varying activities – sports, student government, choir, community service, etc. – to make their well-roundedness clear. Unfortunately, this can look like dabbling rather than commitment, and colleges are looking for committed students who have passion and enthusiasm for……well, for whatever they really love to do and care about. It doesn’t matter so much WHAT it is; it just needs to be clear that the student is genuinely interested and excited about spending time on this activity. I once had a student who was a very accomplished belly dancer. She wrote a marvelous essay about studying, performing and even competing in belly dancing. She ended up with many wonderful college choices. So when students are choosing their extracurricular activities, they should not choose them on the basis of “what will look good” on their applications, but rather on what they will enjoy doing and what will bring them satisfaction and fulfillment. This is what will enable them to stand out in the crowd because they will really have something worthwhile to say about their activities.
Jane holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from UC Santa Barbara and is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605). She began working as an educational consultant in San Francisco in 1983 where the focus of her work was, and continues to be, on college counseling and conducting psychoeducational evaluations.