“But what about the kids who start charities and do cancer research?” a mother asked me recently. She, like many others, was concerned about how her daughter’s list of extracurricular activities would stack up next to a group of lauded, accomplished high school seniors. The truth is that there are going to be those occasional applicants whose reach extends well beyond their high school community – Guinness World Record holders, inventors, policy changers – but they are certainly not the norm. Perhaps more importantly, in this case, is how these applications are viewed in the admissions process. As exciting as it may be to see one of these students come across your desk, it is by no means the expectation of any reader that all students will have taken their activities to this level.
Before we dig too deeply into the details of extracurriculars in the college admissions process, it’s important to step back and think about the big picture here: why do extracurriculars matter at all? College is higher education. Education is primarily associated with academics. But a college is more than an academic institution; it’s a community. Colleges want to bring people to their campuses who will contribute beyond the classroom. By putting an emphasis on your activities, the admissions process acknowledges the value of what you do when you’re not at a desk. Anyone can tell you the things you stand to learn from service, a season of sports, or the spotlight on stage can be greatly impactful and college is no exception. When admissions committees take an evaluative approach to your list of extracurriculars, they’re looking first for your potential to contribute. A few simple categories can help a reader or committee understand how great that potential is:
It’s easy to assume that when a college admissions officer tells a room full of people they want to “see leadership by senior year,” as I told many students and their families over the years, that they want you to be president or chairperson of the clubs you’ve been involved in. For some students, this will be an easy path to follow. For others, leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being out front conducting meetings; it means supporting the club’s forward momentum in different ways.
In any activity, there are behind-the-scenes students who hold everything together. In committee we used to call these students “gluey kids.” It’s important to recognize that people in positions other than president can be leaders too. The other piece that factors into titles and leadership position is your school culture and size. Context can inform every piece of the college application. It is often much easier for a student in a small school with lots of activities to have a full list of extracurriculars and titles than it is for a student applying from a large high school. Not all schools will have the room in their reading process to examine your extracurriculars with such depth but everyone will be aware of the different possibilities for leadership.
One way for colleges to gauge how important your commitments are to you is how long you’ve been involved with them. This is not to say that you should choose not to start something new your senior year – if you want to pursue something new, go for it! You should also have a few activities that you’ve stuck with over the years. This could be soccer, debate, a religious youth group, key club, or a job. It’s nice to see a list that encompasses commitments within and outside of your school community. Committees can assume that if you’ve been involved with an activity for a while, that it’s something you genuinely care about.
You can help admissions officers understand just how important something is to you by being very thoughtful when writing describing your activities. The Common Application asks you to list “Details, honors won, and accomplishments” and I would argue that the most important word here is details. Don’t write simply “Was elected Class President.” Tell us the details of what your responsibilities actually are. Do you lead student government meetings? Are you the student liaison to the principal? As captain of the soccer team, do you organize captain’s practices in the summer? Do you mentor younger teammates? These details help the reader picture not only what you do, but why it matters.
Depth vs. Breadth
I had a colleague who used to say, “We want to admit a well-rounded class of individuals, not a class of well-rounded individuals.” It’s ok if you have one passion that you’ve pursued to the max. You can be what we call a “pointy kid,” who is essentially the opposite of well-rounded. If debate is your thing, 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. The only thing I would advise for the pointy kids out there is make sure that you relay that you are still open to trying new things when you get to college. Curiosity and openness are traits that help a student to succeed on a college campus.
Demonstrating an instance of a time or way you showed initiative is important in a college application. If an opportunity doesn’t exist for you and your peers, did you do your best to make it happen? If you’re in a club right now that’s not very active, what can you do to make it more interesting and extend its impact? If you and your friends are interested in poetry and photography, can you start a literary magazine? While these may seem like big undertakings, they don’t have to be. A lit mag can be an annual publication and instead of worrying how to pay for the printing, why not make it digital? Invite students from journalism courses or the yearbook club to help you with layout. You likely have quite a few resources available to you. Taking initiative does not mean you have to do it alone!
Why do colleges and universities even care about what you do outside of the classroom? Your activities are a reflection of your interests and priorities and, therefore, an indication of the potential person you could be in your new community. While academic success is hugely important in determining who to admit to an incoming class, the reality is that your time in the classroom is only a part of your college experience. Colleges want to bring students to campus who will help to not only make new things happen but also to keep current things going. Participate in the theater productions as a non-major! Write for the newspaper! Play lacrosse! Organize a study group! You have the potential to have an impact on your college campus in your own way. Help admissions officers see that by putting the time into preparing your activities list in a way that accurately shares what you’ve done.
Your extracurriculars are one of many parts of your college application. A stellar list of activities won’t make up for a weak essay, out-of-parameter testing, or a transcript riddled with poor grades. They can, however, enhance your fit at the right institution when everything else is in line. It is a part of the process to treat with care. Pursuing interesting and exciting activities is also an opportunity for you to find out what you love doing. As you investigate new opportunities in high school, or how to frame the work you’ve already done for the application process, keep in mind the simple things colleges like to see and get going!