How to Stand Out through Extracurricular Activities

Till now, we have been discussing what extracurricular activities you should steer clear of and analyze typical mistakes made while taking up extracurricular activities, the drawbacks of pursuing such activities, and the options of what else you can otherwise participate in.

Let's now discuss the preferred extracurricular activities that you can participate in. The suggestions are based on our experience of providing counseling to numerous students who successfully accepted at reputed colleges. 

Rest assured that you will not be copying a successful student's path – your pursuit of extracurricular activities will remain unique.

Time is your most valuable resource

We all know that there are just 24 hours in a day, but most people allocate their time and achieve things in more or less the same manner – they are not focused on aptly utilizing their time.

Usually, people who have achieved success are very calculating in allocating time to various things during the day. They only spend time on things they enjoy doing and mingling with people they want to be with. To further reiterate this, we suggest you read a blog called "No 'yes.' Either 'Hell Yeah!' or 'No.'"

The writer opines that you should be clear about your priorities and say a 'no' to everything that doesn't excite you. By doing so, you'll have all the time to do all those things that you want to pursue and find joy in doing.

Even adults who attempt to make time for the things that matter to them usually find it challenging to live up to it. So as a high school student with multi-tasking and over-enthusiastic contemporaries, choosing to utilize your time intelligently can feel like a burden.

We suggest that you feel your way around varied extracurricular activities if you are still in early high school. However, if you have progressed to a senior class, you must become focused on pursuing activities that will make your extracurricular profile look splendid, unique, and fascinating.

 Ensure that you drop all those activities that take up too much time and won't reflect well on your extracurricular profile.

Some timely advice:

Allocate time in your timetable to pursue something that is of significance to you. Do this for a couple of hours twice or thrice a week. Treat this as a break that you are taking to pursue something that means a lot to you. 

Use this activity to advance in that activity and feel satisfied with time well spent. This activity naturally can't include activities like watching TV or sleeping.

However, sticking to such a timetable can be challenging for you, especially if you have over-anxious parents. Within a week or two, they'll most probably push you into doing something substantial and concrete after watching you 'pottering around' as they'd see it. They'll be obviously comparing the activities that your contemporaries seem to be marching ahead with.

But it's up to you not to buckle under such peer pressure. You must be passionate about how you utilize your time and participate in awe-inspiring activities. By struggling to keep up with the Joneses, you'll be doing exactly what you set out not to do – you will be disrupting your chances of being accepted at a reputed college.

Some tips to make time for yourself:

An aside – Some of the tips listed below may conflict with what your parents, counselor, and ambitious but over-worked students will recommend. 

But these tips will help you in utilizing your time aptly and catching the attention of the college admissions staff with your outstanding extracurricular activities.

Control homework time

Instead of dragging through your homework, you should utilize every minute of your homework time productively. To achieve this, you can:

  • Ensure you've eaten well before you begin studying – work gets done efficiently on a full stomach
  • Turn off the phone or put it away when you are studying
  • Do your homework by yourself in a place where you'll be undisturbed and necessarily away from your computer
  • Unless you must use the internet to research for a project, don't refer to the internet. In doing so, you'll most probably digress into inconsequential web browsing – the most accessible bait is the social media
  • Take short 5-10 minute breaks every 45 minutes, so you are up and alert
  • If you have many activities that need to get completed, don't get enticed into spending time out in between activities. Your time-out activity of messaging or social media chats will always rob you of time
  • It's best to complete your homework at school itself

Discard unimportant programs to lighten your burden

Generally, in the hope of assurance of being accepted at a reputed college, students tend to take on the most challenging courses. They try to enroll for every AP/IB course offered at school. But this may not be the smartest thing to do. 

Why should you take on courses that don't interest you? E.g., when you sign up for the science group of courses, you don't necessarily have to take up all that gets offered. Choose only those subjects that interest you and which are relevant to your academic goals.

We suggest you take fewer – but relevant courses so that you don't spend precious time on so many courses. Then, you will have more time on your hands to pursue singular extracurricular activities.

You may question this suggestion since so many competing with you for a seat in the reputed colleges will also take up similar challenging courses. So your counter-argument to our suggestion will probably be that you have a good chance of standing apart from the laundry list of challenging courses in your academic profile. 

But in reality, this won't make a lasting impression on college admissions staff – College will perhaps recognize you for your efforts only within your school.

Within the same subject group, you may opt for a subject simply because you need to fulfill a necessity – and it may not really inspire you. 

It is entirely acceptable if you opt for a course that isn't so difficult, time-consuming, and will still eventually work well in the way it fits into your academic profile.

To enhance your extracurricular profile, you may have enlisted for a bunch of elective classes. E.g., music, art, dance, football, or drama, and you may not find many of these activities exciting anymore. Acknowledge your disinterest and discontinue all such activities that don't excite you, and you'll see that you have more time on your hands to pursue what matters to you.

When you do away with unwanted electives and choose those electives that are easier and simple to handle for you, you will spend more time on your studies. In doing so, instead of being cramped with avoidable activities, you will have more spare time to pursue your interests.

Not excellence but successful results should be your focus

You are most probably influenced to aspire for A's and 5's in your AP/IB programs and fantastic scores in all the standardized tests, not just by what you see many students doing but also because your parents and counselor encourage you to aim high.

But do you know that it is sometimes all right to get lower grades like a B+ or A- in your AP/IB course? Besides, if your SAT/ACT score is around the 25th percentile of the college's range of test scores, it doesn't mean you've lost the chance to be accepted at a reputed college. A stray lower grade will not spell doom.

We are not for a minute suggesting that you give up working hard and accept the outcome of the time and effort that you put in. You should be realistic about your potential and work hard to achieve the best possible grades that you can. 

So, rather than spend many months preparing so that your SAT/ACT scores or your grades are enhanced marginally by just a few points, from what your core competence is, your time will put to better use by volunteering, in artistic pursuits, or some other interests.

Some of the highest achieving students with the best SAT/ACT scores, high school GPA, and super grades in the AP/IB course find themselves left out by reputed colleges. Surprised?

The top colleges are always on the lookout for well-rounded students, not students who only focus on grades and test scores. They are willing to accept students with lesser grades and scores if they show promise of being experimental and open to new things while participating in extracurricular activities.

An aside:

When you aspire for excellence in academics, it is akin to 'Contesting in challenging fields' that we have already debated earlier. If you want the top colleges to identify you by your excellent GPA and standardized test scores, you will need to be a super-achiever with straight A's, a dream high school GPA, an ideal SAT/ACT score, 5's in the AP/IB course, etc.

It is a backbreaking challenge that very few students who apply to the top colleges have the potential to achieve. In your effort to project yourself as one of the best applicants, you will be left treading on the uncertain ground with going little scope to change tactics if things aren't working favorably for you.

Grab an opportunity by its horns

Let's re-visit the blog called "No 'yes.' Either 'Hell Yeah!' or 'No.'" that we discussed earlier. You should appreciate and imbibe the suggestion to say 'No' whenever apt. Not only is it essential to discard those activities that aren't as interesting to you, but you should also perfect the art of saying 'Hell Yeah!' and jump in when a rare chance comes knocking.

We have already discussed how you should take small steps while pursuing something that interests you rather than attempt to leapfrog in such activities. Even as you are steadily moving towards your goal, you may stumble upon something that inspires you, and you may want to pursue that.

Grab whatever really inspires you – don't expect such opportunities to pre-announce their arrival. Recognize it and allocate as much time and effort as you can to it.

Suppose you have a liking for the sciences and have pursued some individual research and have come up with some significant results – however small it may feel. In that case, you should prepare a paper on it and share it with prominent science magazines or even start your blog about it. 

Yes, this will take up considerable time and not leave you much time to pursue other activities, but your doggedly pursuing this singular extracurricular activity will reflect well in your extracurricular profile.

Such changes to demonstrate your outstanding commitment and hard work to accomplish your goals will go a long way in placing you above many before the college admission staff. So when you spot such an opportunity, take it by the horns and do your best.

Stay connected to your mentors

Once you have spent ample time and effort in feeling your way through some extracurricular activities and have honed skills, you will recognize what interests you and what to cast aside. So you will be ready to pursue your favorite extracurricular activities with more enthusiasm.

At this point, while you are still in high school, you should connect with your mentor and allow them to charter the path you should follow to make your pursuit of extracurricular activities a more advanced and successful place.

Before looking for a mentor, you should be assured about your passion and focus on the extracurricular activity. While you can't just shop for a mentor, look for someone who will encourage and stimulate you in your pursuit. And he should feel satisfied that he is only nurturing you and not carrying your load. So don't look for a mentor until you are ready.

Your extracurricular activity will dictate who your mentor should be. If you are keen on participating in scientific research, you should identify some of the best minds in the academic arena and then approach them to mentor you. Or for instance, if you are keen on fundraising for rural education, look for NGOs working in this space and approach the project leader to mentor you.

It is easier said than done. Especially when you have no experience in reaching out to unknown people for support, asking such favors from total strangers can be very intimidating. 

To ease the strain, you should look for a personal connection while choosing a mentor. Your parents, relatives, neighbors, high school staff, or friends will definitely be able to help you with this.

However, if you are unable to reach out to any of the likely mentors, then you will have to contact them directly – via email. Be aware that these individuals will get swamped with work-related emails, and attending to your email will be of low priority to them. 

You should keep your email brief, to the point, and friendly – they should get the gist of your request at a glance and yet should warm up to your need.

Email samples

Dear Dr. Sen,

I'm currently studying at The Cathedral & John Connon School – I've attached my resume and have been an avid bird watcher. I'm interested in the migration and breeding patterns of the greater and lesser flamingoes and recently read your article about this.

I'm keen to learn more about this and hope there is a chance for me to work as an unpaid research assistant with you. If this a workable option, please let me know:

  • What my duties as a research assistant will be?
  • Do you have other assistants who are undergraduate or graduate students who can mentor me?

However, if you will be unable to take on a student like me, it will be helpful to suggest any person you know who is looking for a research assistant. Also, please advise me on any more available reading related to this subject.

If you require any further information, do email me.

I'm keenly awaiting your response.



Stay positive even if the possible mentor fails to revert. Most professionals have hectic schedules, and responding to a high school student's request is not very important. Keep at it, and you will eventually find somebody who enjoys mentoring.

Make it an extracurricular event – not just an activity

When you opt to tread along the road less traveled, what you achieve will naturally be distinct and dissimilar from what other applicants will chronicle.

Instead of participating in numerous extracurricular activities with minimal attention and energy, immerse yourself in what really interests you and what you enjoy doing. When you are open to exploring something wholeheartedly, it can open up different avenues to explore with the realm of that one activity. 

So instead of being just an extracurricular activity, you may well have a task/assignment on your hands.

Here's how you can make it happen.

Task-centric outlook

There's no hard and fast rule of the nature of interesting and outstanding extracurricular achievements. The medley of such extracurricular activity can be keeping a blog, establish an NGO, managing your own research and broadcasting it too, and more.

Such tasks will be time-consuming – it could mean putting in months or even more dedicated time to see it through, but you will not feel overwhelmed by it and will be able to participate in other activities too.

Affiliated achievements

Perhaps, you are passionate about extracurricular activities that are not out of the ordinary. You may be keen on extracurricular activities like cricket, the guitar, drama, or art and see no chance of making an impression since there is scant hope of ever being considered the best in your chosen activity.

How can you be the best when you are pursuing it as an extracurricular activity? To participate in any such extracurricular activity that you enjoy and are passionate about. Being the best in it isn't essential from how it reflects in your extracurricular profile for college admissions.

To make your mark and be noticed in the crowd, find ways to involve yourself in other facets of the extracurricular activity. Rather than participating in many unrelated extracurricular activities, find affiliated areas that you can take on. In doing so, you will project a more successful extracurricular achievement.

E.g., if you enjoy cricket, besides playing the game, fundraise to buy cricket kits for the underprivileged and set up a team for them.

Or if you like playing the guitar, besides performing at nursing homes, you could give music lessons at the local orphanage.

Or, if you are keen on theater, you could generate awareness with street plays about social causes by using your creative skills.

Or if you like painting, instead of limiting your talent to a small canvas on an easel, paint your neighborhood with relevant messages and involve other youngsters too.

As you can see, there's no limit to what you can do while pursuing just one extracurricular activity. All you need to do is be open to exploring unchartered possibilities.

Both the task-centric and the affiliated achievements outlooks need you to be passionate, committed, enquiring, and tireless in your pursuit. Just trash the misplaced belief that you will get considered successful only if you are brilliant at something.

Participating in such an activity is not a cakewalk. And you will certainly not taste instant success. Your triumph may come to you in the form of a free internship or volunteering for an organization. Invariably, such jobs are nothing more than donkey work. 

While working as a high school research assistant, the chances are that you will get assigned to collecting data or monitoring whatever specimen gets researched. After establishing an NGO, finding support can be challenging.

Rome wasn't built in a day. It takes time, effort, and conscious training to become adept at something. So you should simply keep at it with the single-minded intent of getting better at it with every passing day. With this approach and mindset, you will eventually achieve recognition.

When things click, they have a way of causing a chain reaction. Once you got recognized for your efforts – even if it is in a small way, mentors will also take notice of you. 

Tables will turn in your favor - people will allow you to deal with more responsible work, offer you a chance to participate in work, and help you in other ways to broaden your knowledge and thereby achieve success.

Let's go back to the example of Sara, who got accepted as a research assistant by Dr. Sen. Initially, Sara was given the mundane task of collecting and compiling data – all this was done under the keen supervision of her mentors – the graduate and undergraduate students. 

Sara put in time diligently every Friday and Saturday and subsequently progressed to being taught to analyze the data collected.

Since she was passionate about the research subject – migration and breeding patterns of flamingoes, she came up with other ways of enhancing research. Dr. Sen acknowledged her inputs by asking her to put together a report on her recommended research for a reputed publication.

When you immerse yourself in an extracurricular activity, the chances of your succeeding in it will be higher, and you certainly will be unable to describe in one sentence how you pulled it off. 

When the college admission staff comes across such instances where they can't put down an application by calling out the student's achievement in a sentence, such an achievement will attract more attention than if a student has achieved success in the difficult activity.

Such unconventional successes will make them pause and ponder over it. They will discuss how the student could have achieved such success, his strategy in achieving his target, and why he chose to participate in the activity.

When the college admissions staff encounters such an instance where a student has opted for an uncommon route and succeeded, they sit up and take notice and get down to analyzing the student's journey – and thus pay more attention to him.

Summer pursuits

Generally, students get worried that they are doing nothing during the summer. So they rush into a bunch of activities like interning at an organization, volunteering with an NGO, taking on a summer program at a reputed college, or taking on a part-time job.

There's nothing wrong with these activities, but you will be way off the mark if you think it will impact college admission staff. Your summer pursuits are not exclusive to what you do during the rest of the year.

College admission staff often evaluate college applications of students who have pursued a summer course at a reputed college or chosen to do volunteer work in perhaps some African countries. 

Believing that they have done something different, they even include dull and commonplace college essays with their application to demonstrate their keen involvement in such activities.

In reality, when you think about it, summer is perhaps the only chance you get to do what you never find time to do during the rest of the year. Utilize this time to pursue activities that will attract college admissions staff. 

Or, you could examine and try out activities that you have put on hold in the past for lack of time, or better still, you could plunge further into what you have been enjoying doing since you will have nothing to interrupt the time you spend on this activity.

If you have a passion for the environment and tree planting, you should intern with a local NGO that has done meaningful work and perhaps employ some of your ideas in their project. In doing this, you will benefit from the association. 

Instead, choose to volunteer in building shelters for the underprivileged in some distant countries for a short time. It will not add up to much in your extracurricular profile since it will not match what you are intensely devoted to.

Further, suppose you have introduced your tree planting initiative in schools in your neighborhood. In that case, you can introduce it to more distant schools through contacts (from teachers) and also use social media to generate awareness and offer to test the initiative in other schools during summer.

For instance, if you are interested in biology and have access to only elementary school programs, it makes sense to pursue a summer program in biology at a reputed college. It will be even better for you if you can work as an intern in a company and demonstrate your talent and learn on the job.

Or, for instance, if you have volunteered by gathering other students and painted the walls to beautify your neighborhood and then organized an art camp to raise funds for donating art paraphernalia to slum children, your activities will be in sync with your passion for art and will demonstrate your focus and intent.

Whatever you do in summer should have a connection with your core passion or commitment. Even though it may look different on the face of it, there should be a connection, and it should look outstanding in your extracurricular profile.

An aside:

There is no merit in splurging on a costly summer program at a reputed school or traveling to distant countries for short-term volunteering activities. While such fancy outings may sound and look good to read, they will not impress college admissions staff. 

They will see through such an attempt to jazz up an extracurricular activity and all the more so if there is no connection with the student's extracurricular profile.

It will be worthwhile only if it is related in some way to the student's extracurricular activities.