Extracurricular activities are activities that typically take place outside a classroom. According to the Common App, extracurriculars are activities that include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, etc.

Most well-known and top-rated colleges receive applications from incredibly accomplished students for mostly the same number of spots. How do applicants set themselves apart? How do admissions officers decide which student is the better investment?

Note - Before we get into extracurricular activities, I would just like to say that nothing can replace your high school grades and the results of your standardized tests (ACT/SAT). Your grades are still important- an excellent extracurricular profile will just make your application look good and make it stand out from the rest of the applicants. Do not take your grades lightly. You must enrol in challenging courses and do well in them if you aspire to attend top schools. Easy course loads, as well as low grades or test scores, cannot be overcome by developing a standout extracurricular profile.

However, it’s equally important to emphasize that doing well in challenging courses and on standardized tests like the SAT or AP Exams is not enough to get into elite universities. To stand out from the competition, you must pursue interesting activities in a focused way to demonstrate expertise, initiative, leadership, impact, and other positive qualities.

Most applicants are highly accomplished, and they have excellent stats while participating in various extracurricular activities. Therefore, a unique extracurricular profile will help the admissions officer pick you.

Typically, colleges would prefer a student with an average score of 85% and a lot of involvement in extracurriculars as compared to a student with an average score of 90% with no involvement. Also, colleges would rather admit two students from the 99th percentile in a particular field than admitting two students from the 80th percentile in various fields.

Colleges believe that what you do before college reflects what you will continue to do in college. College administration officers like students who are active and are contributing to the community. They believe that there is a good chance that applicants who are active and involved in the community will continue to do so in college. Therefore, extracurriculars can help you get into good colleges. But, how do you decide when to focus on school work instead of extracurricular activities?

Colleges understand that not all students will get time for traditional extracurricular activities. Sometimes, obligations to family or financial constraints might restrict a student from taking up extra activities. Therefore, any way you use your time in a constructive or valuable manner will be acceptable by the college. For example, taking care of the family or working a part time job are responsibilities that display maturity. This will show colleges that you are capable of being responsible and making serious commitments. 

A study in the US showed that students taking up extra curriculars have a better chance at scoring well in exams. The logic behind this study was that sometimes extracurriculars help you feel better about yourself, which in turn helps you get better grades. Think about it this way- playing a sport makes you smarter than watching TV/movies. If you like watching movies, you can form a club for movies and increase the members of this group. This will also be considered an extracurricular.

What do Colleges want to see?

When admissions officers see a list of extracurricular activities that is very common, it becomes difficult to differentiate between applicants. Thus, while looking at applications, colleges are looking for students who are specialists in their chosen fields and have a deep and interesting reason for engaging in it. 

Colleges care less about “what” activity you do and care more about “why” and “how” you do. No activity has more importance over the other, as long as your reason behind it is strong enough. There are three main things that colleges are looking for: Passion, Leadership and Impact. The “why” and “how” define these three points.

Passion – Colleges believe that your passion is something that will create a drive in you to accomplish great things. They believe that this passion will most likely continue to drive you in college as well. Therefore, make sure your activity is not only for fun but also for passion.

Leadership - Leadership experiences include any time that you have been responsible for a project or for guiding, motivating, or instructing others. Many schools – especially the most selective ones – want to see students who exhibit leadership skills because they are hoping that their students will someday go on to be leaders who make differences on a larger scale in academics, business, or research. Therefore, showing that you have the desire and sense of responsibility that a leader needs can be very attractive to admissions officers.

Impact - One of the reasons that passion is so important is because admission officers want to see that you have made a significant investment in an activity over an extended period of time. Though you’ll probably experiment with several different activities when you're younger, once you settle on the one you're most passionate about, officers are going to be looking for how you've made a difference in the activity and how you've changed because of it. Admission officers want to know about you, who you are and what made you like this. 

How to explain your activities on your application?

Letters of recommendation - You can share your project with teachers and guidance counselors who, in turn, can write about the projects in their recommendation letters

Common App Essay (i.e., personal statement) or supplemental essays - If a project took substantial time to complete, it may be worth writing about it in a reflective matter. You can also mention how you came across this project and what you learned from it.

Common App Additional Information Section - Unlike an essay, the Additional Information Section is optional and should not be written in an essay form. It should simply provide a brief explanation—about a paragraph long—of the project.

Interviews - Although not every school requires one, an interview is an excellent time to share the details of an unusual project.

Extracurricular Tips  

  1. It does not matter what extracurricular activity you select. I cannot stress this enough. Colleges want to see what drives you, they want to know what you are passionate about. They don’t care what you choose to do, they just care about the “why”.
  2. Colleges don’t like seeing the most basic extracurricular. For example, if you play a musical instrument, they want you to use that to do something on a larger scale. Host a talent show with an ulterior motive, for example, awareness for breast cancer, or anything along these lines.
  3. Colleges want an activity that is not easily explained. Activities that have a high-threshold are more impressive as compared to low-threshold activities. Colleges want to hear about your activity and wonder how you pulled it off. The more interesting it will be, the higher will be your chances of getting admitted. 
  4. Focus on only a few activities. Don’t be the jack of all and master of none. Pick 3 – 5 activities and narrow your focus on them. Specialize in one activity: colleges would rather you master 1 activity and be in the 99th percentile than be decent in several activities and be in the 80th percentile.

What you should and shouldn’t do

  1. Do as many activities as you can in the 11th grade to save time to focus on academics in the 12th. 
  2. Narrow your focus to 3 – 5 activities that you care about the most and try to master them. 
  3. Let your activities tell your story. What you choose to stick with defines who you are; your passion speaks for you.
  4. Don’t let your grades suffer. 
  5. Don’t waste your vacations. Use your holidays to explore your interests and then focus on them. 
  6. Don’t forget to enjoy the process, because this time will never come back! TIP - Trust the process!

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