Being open to any criticism and addressing it is the best way to get started with putting your misplaced notions about extracurricular activities behind you.
Let's first focus on the inappropriate methods that students generally resort to and thereby become part of the herd instead of standing out in the crowd. If you have done any of the things listed below, simply put it behind you and move forward with the awareness that you need to change tracks to make a lasting impression.
Questioning what extracurricular activities you should pursue or how to go about it
By raising such a question, what you are actually asking is the approach you should select. You are probably looking for a strategy rather than trying to make up your mind about extracurricular activities that will showcase you either as an all-rounder or as a master.
There is no such thing as a time-tested method to pull off a successful extracurricular profile.
Each student's path is unique and different – you can't try to go piggyback on the methods employed by a student who got accepted at a reputed university. His journey in extracurricular activities will be very different from yours.
For instance, you may be assessing what summer activities you should take up. If you are inclined towards science, you could take on a summer science program at a reputed institution to enhance your knowledge and skills in the subject, leading to participating in competitions and research programs, etc.
But the same program may not be the right choice for you if the institution is offering the summer program to underprivileged students with an average to below-average educational history. Your takeaway from such a program will not justify the time and effort spent on it.
Whenever you ask yourself what extracurricular activities you should pursue, decode them to indicate that you are without focus. You must be able to spot openings that are a good fit for you, even if it takes you some time to find that groove. It's better to be a slow starter rather than jump into the first thing you feel will make a good impression on your college application.
Perpetually tagging on to everything that comes your way
Students who are outstanding and driven tend to become taggers. They are so intent on dazzling everyone with their repertoire of skills that they simply tag on to every opportunity that comes their way.
So who is a perpetual tagger?
He'll have his fingers in many pies. E.g., he'll be part of the basketball team, a member of the student government body, intern at a reputed institution, volunteer at the local orphanage, participate in debates, do community service at a nursing home, and may even find his way into the school band.
In all likelihood, he'll also be pursuing the maximum number of AP/IB programs.
Such a perpetual tagger who gets bogged down with innumerable extracurricular activities will get constantly strapped for time.
He'll be so tied up with practice sessions, being present at meetings, preparing for activities, etc., that he'll be most probably burning the midnight lamp to complete homework and will have spare time to participate in an independent task.
With all the hard work and time spent, he will still fail to showcase his ingenuity, intent, tenacity, and academic goals to any admissions staff. The perpetual tagger will merge so well with the crowd of similar applicants that the admissions personnel will totally miss his efforts.
What's the point of striving so much to become a part of the herd?
Usually, a perpetual tagger is seen as a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. College admissions staff usually conclude that such an applicant has taken the easier well-trodden path and hasn't really embraced challenges to demonstrate that he is special.
To acquire such a profile, a student must devote considerable time and effort and may not necessarily find the outcome completely advantageous.
In all probability, a perpetual tagger is simply following the footsteps of his elder siblings or school seniors because he has been witness to their getting successfully accepted. So he trusts the time-tested method and feels secure in the following suit.
He'd instead follow this path blindly since he has evidence that it has worked in the past. But like we've earlier mentioned, this doesn't work anymore. Getting accepted at colleges is challenging, and you must demonstrate that you are special, outstanding, and not just another all-rounder.
Having a herd mentality may make you feel secure, but you will simply merge with the crowd – you will positively not attract any attention.
Here's how you should go about it
All college admissions offices want students who dare to let their imperfections show. They are more willing to admit students who are motivated, driven and have a questioning mind and stretch themselves to resolve a problematic situation or pursue something that interests them.
So it would help if you aimed to display your willingness to let go of safe routes and take challenges head-on. Participate in activities that mean something to you even if it is challenging and hard to excel in.
The idea is to show that you don't mind making mistakes as long as there is learning in it and they are not stupid but intelligent mistakes. In doing so, you will have demonstrated that you understand that it is essential to make mistakes in your stride when trying to do something different.
Being fixated on the final objective or following an annual extracurricular activity schedule
Many students think it's wise to plan on what extracurricular activities they will pursue during their high school years and maybe even participate in a significant activity so that You won't miss it.
Once you are in high school, it's wiser to pay more attention to what interests you and what you are drawn towards. With time, you will clearly see what absorbs and excites you. It's smarter to be guided by this and pursue what interests you and trash all the remaining clutter. This process could well be your extracurricular activity filter.
Instead, if you chalk out an annual extracurricular activity plan with an objective for each of your high school years, you will be making a big mistake. What appeals to you now may look dull four months down the line.
And if you are planning on activities years in advance, how can you be sure that your objective will remain constant? May it change in the second year? So then what happens to your plans?
Here's how you should go about it
The most appropriate strategy is to begin by pursuing a few things that you really love doing. With time you'll let go of a few of these activities when you realize that they are not as enjoyable as they initially seemed. Once you've recognized what really interests you, throw yourself into it.
Don't for a moment wonder if you are throwing caution to the wind by not following a planned schedule and doing things in a structured manner.
You will actually be pursuing your interests methodically, taking one step at a time without pondering about set objectives for the following year. You will most probably accomplish much more than you had thought possible by pursuing what you enjoy doing.
Instead of planning to build a substantial stock of extracurricular activities through your high school years which may not see the light of day for many reasons, it's wiser to begin without a colossal plan.
Simply pursue what interests you and overcome hurdles and failure if necessary so that you are well-grounded and prepared to take giant steps to become a master in something.
In doing so, you will have acquired excellent expertise in the thing that you love doing. It will lend more clarity to your academic and career goals and help you surpass your contemporaries.
Trying hard to identify your passion
Somewhere, phrases like 'listen to your heart,' 'pursue your passion' have found social acceptance and favor and have been the bane for so many people.
Many go about identifying their passion like something that they could choose a shelf display or an online catalog. Some others believe in waiting for that fine day when it dawns on them about what they are really passionate about and will then pursue it wholeheartedly.
But here's an aside: Some people are aware of what they really love doing. But despite being aware of what they want to pursue, they will still have to iron out ambiguities and knowing clearly what they want to do.
E.g., a person who loves drawing will still need clarity on what he should engage in – drawing on paper, digital illustration, or animation. Waiting to be struck by light to know what passion to pursue is like staying in the dark.
Most of the successful students are those who throw caution to the wind and simply plunge into something that interests them even if they are marginally good at it. Once they become seasoned in it, they naturally become passionate about it and are drawn more deeply to it with time and experience.
I'll offer an example from my professional career to demonstrate the point. Even though I've been helping students get into top colleges since 2004, I only started writing about college admissions in 2014.
Back then, I wasn't very good at it. However, I kept writing because I wanted to provide valuable guidance for students, parents, and guidance counselors everywhere. Eventually, I became skilled at writing and developed a passion for it.
As I write this guide, my insights got featured on The Washington Post, US News & World Report, New York Post, and many other prominent websites. If I had waited to follow my passion for writing, I probably wouldn't reach thousands of families with this information.
Here's how you should go about it
You should purposefully and intentionally go about identifying your passion.
Instead of taking on numerous extracurricular activities, waiting for what truly interests you to show up, or simply shooting in the dark and pursuing some activities, it's wiser to take calculated decisions on those things you enjoy doing and take it forward.
When you immerse yourself in such activities, you will most probably get so identified that the admissions staff will remember you by it. For instance, they may say – 'That's the student who taught basic computers to slum children every summer' or 'That's the young lad who trekked to raise awareness about malnutrition or 'That is the enterprising girl who set up a system to send wedding leftovers to the hungry.'
The chances are remote that any admissions staff will recollect your unexceptional participation in the school drama or dance troupe.
Some extracurricular activity options to help you get going:
Take up reading on subjects that appeal to you and hold your attention. But steer clear of what you've already read as a child. The idea is not to brush up on what you've read in the past but to read about things that will broaden your outlook.
Read self-help books – there are ever so many books in the 'How to' series that can enhance your knowledge about so many things.
Get into the habit of reading international news, podcasts, blogs on subjects that interest you, and popular fiction too. Further, make time to read the Economist and such publications that will enrich your mind.
If you have learned music, dance, or participated in theatre or sports, this is the time to take it to the next level. Besides resuming being trained in such activity, spend time by yourself to improve on what you have already learned – simply attending training sessions of activity doesn't add up to anything.
You may even want to consider other new activities – e.g., after having learned to play a stringed instrument, you may also want to try your hand on the drums.
Attend current issue meetings
You should also spend some time attending meetings conducted by various clubs in every city to discuss current issues, to check if your interest lies in such matters. You could even volunteer for such discussion to become aware of your inclinations.
Interview for knowledge
You most probably dream of working with a large company – and usually, such companies do not provide any space for high school students to get a feel and understanding of it. So take up the challenge of reaching out to the top executives in such companies and interview them for information.
Volunteer and/or intern for free
Just because you wish to project yourself as a 'do-gooder' doesn't mean that you take up the first volunteering option that comes your way. It's not mandatory that you must volunteer at the local orphanage or nursing home.
Instead, see how you can put the activity that interests you to good use.
If you are proficient with computers, you can spend time teaching underprivileged students and uninitiated senior citizens. You could perhaps even consider working as a summer intern in an IT company to gain more knowledge in this activity that interests you.
Squandering time on mundane and ordinary activities
Generally speaking, extracurricular activities that are favored take up considerable time and energy and impede your studies.
E.g., if you are focused on cricket, you'll be putting in a couple of hours of net practice along with watching the game online or on a sports channel and discussing technique, etc., with your teammates and coach.
And then, after all that, you'll reach your study table after dinner, to catch up on homework and more, when you will be actually ready to call it a day.
Sports is great as an extracurricular activity, but all popular sports take up a lot of your time and reflect on your study. Even though you'd have taken up sports to enhance your college admissions profile, it will land up affecting your studies and perhaps your grades too.
It will also not help you project a singular extracurricular profile since it's a me-too activity you will have signed up for. You'll find yourself hard-pressed for time for your hobbies or your family and friends.
It doesn't mean that you should steer clear of such activity that robs you of precious time. You should pursue it if you genuinely enjoy such activity, but be aware that while it will be a time-consuming activity, it may not help in a singular extracurricular profile.
You should limit yourself to being involved in one such time-consuming activity – at the most. If there is any activity that you like only marginally, is time-consuming but a favored activity, we'd still suggest that you junk it.
Contesting in challenging fields
Let's discuss the unique case of ace cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and his fellow player and classmate Vinod Kambli. When they began participating together, initially in inter-school matches and after that at zonal and state levels, each played well and complemented each other.
But Sachin Tendulkar had the edge over Vinod Kambli, which brought him international renown while Vinod Kambli got left behind. Today Sachin Tendulkar's net worth is pegged at $170 million, while Vinod Kambli's is a fraction of it.
It proves that someone who is recognized and is a master in his field could amass immense wealth. So you should aspire to become a master in your chosen field.
Invariably, students who get accepted at colleges not only have excellent grades and test scores but are also masters or big shots. College admissions staff will easily recollect the star's performance in their field - e.g. – 'the girl who didn't let wedding leftovers get trashed' or 'the lad who trekked to generate awareness about malnutrition. We've already elaborated on this earlier on.
Here's how you should go about it
If you are at your wit's end while selecting an activity from many things you enjoy doing, it's wisest to go with what you are the best in.
If an extracurricular activity is popular and pursued by numerous students, you will be one in the crowd with a remote chance of drawing attention. E.g., since debating is much favored and followed by multiple students, if you were to take it up, it will be an uphill task for you to surpass so many contenders and to be considered the best.
With all your striving, even if you make it to the national best debaters category, it won't be good enough to make reputed colleges take notice of you.
We aren't trying to steer you away from choosing to debate as an extracurricular activity. It simply depends on how you approach it. If you have chosen to become a debater because your best friend is in it, you should pursue it for amusement rather than seriously as an extracurricular activity.
But if you think you have it in you and are good at debating, you should look for various supporting means to showcase your talent. You could make good use of the digital medium to get going. E.g., create a 'How to video series on debates and upload it on the Internet.
You could also set up discussions between local specialists or personalities about current events or issues that interest many people. Besides creating an occasional live debate series, you can use other social media handles to popularize your efforts.
In taking such steps, you may not directly project yourself as being good in debates – but the admissions staff will refer to you as the whiz kid who used the digital medium to popularize a video series on arguments.
So without actually becoming the best debater, you will still make your mark in debates. A word of caution is necessary here – do not 'over try' to pursue an extracurricular activity that is relatively unheard of to be different and thereby catch attention simply.
The admissions staff is seasoned and catches on to such things instantly. E.g., as a recognized mimic, you may win accolades locally, but if it is not related to your other pursuits or your personality and background, the admissions staff will see through it.
Deglamorizing an activity as a 'pastime.'
You may have formed a preconceived notion – perhaps influenced by your parents or counselor, that certain extracurricular activities essentially have the potential to influence the admissions staff.
Participating in the school sports team or a summer program, being part of the student government or robotics club, etc., are some of the incorrectly presumed extracurricular activities favored by admissions staff instead of photography, writing blogs, etc.
You should now do a spot of introspection – list the extracurricular activities that you are currently pursuing. Once you've done that, put down how you spend your weekend – do you hang out with friends? Or do you spend a lot of time playing the guitar/piano or painting?
Do you consider your weekend activity to be just a pastime?
Why do you consider it not being of much consequence and that you cannot club it with your 'important extracurricular activities?
Here's how you should go about it
When you have already spent considerable time and effort on an activity and have become devoted to it, you should optimize its potential. When you have already identified something that interests you, why should you wait for some other interest to manifest?
You may not become the next Eric Clapton while strumming your guitar, but there are ways you can make a mark with your musical talent. You could teach music at the local orphanage or have a monthly musical hour at the children's cancer ward.
When you participate in such musical activities, it will translate to more than just playing your guitar – it will show how enterprising you can be.