What are the best extracurriculars for college? What extracurriculars do admission committees what to see? How do I know I am picking the best extracurriculars for medical school, law school, grad school, or any other advanced degree I plan to pursue after college? How important are these extracurricular activities, anyway? These questions are among the many that students have when they are trying to plan for college. Having the right extracurriculars and knowing how to leverage what you learned from them can not only make your Common App activities section stronger, but it can help your overall application stand out. In this blog, we will tell you why extracurricular activities are so important and what the best extracurriculars for college have in common. We'll also give you strategies for choosing the right activities for you.
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Why are extracurriculars for college important?
Students often wonder if extracurricular activities actually matter that much in the college admissions process, and the short answer is yes! Extracurriculars are an essential part of your college application, especially if you plan on applying to an exceptionally competitive school like UPenn or Princeton or if you are hoping to major in a popular field like Engineering or nursing.
The admissions landscape is always evolving, and over the years, schools have started looking for students with more than just the perfect test scores and top grades. Academic performance is still very important, but most schools have a more holistic admissions process. This means they are looking for students with diverse interests and backgrounds who will be a good fit for the school outside of academics. Your extracurriculars help them determine if that is the case for you.
The admissions committee pays special attention to your extracurriculars because it tells them more about you as a person. By looking at the activities you choose to participate in in your free time, they get to learn about your interests and the key qualities you possess. They can also gauge how you can contribute to your future college campus community. Essentially, your extracurriculars are one of the application components (along with your college essays and letters of recommendation) that the admission board looks at to determine the characteristics that you will add to their student body. Different schools may value traits, but generally speaking, they want to see at least some of the following characteristics:
What exactly are extracurriculars for college: The 3 types of extracurricular activities
Students often make the mistake of thinking that their only options for extracurriculars are the clubs offered by their high school, volunteering, or working with well-known organizations like Habitat for Humanity. In fact, an activity doesn't need to be sponsored by your high school or a specific organization to be considered among your extracurriculars for college. Working part-time, certain forms of travel, book clubs, selling paintings or jewelry online, creating a small business - all of these activities can count as extracurriculars, and some of these activities may even be more impactful than the activities you would participate in at school.
There are different types of extracurricular activities that you can pursue based on your interests and the qualities or skills that you want to highlight. Most extracurricular activities fall into at least one of the following categories:
- Academic extracurricular activities
- Community extracurricular activities
- Personality extracurricular activities
These extracurricular activities typically revolve around a specific academic field and help you develop your knowledge in that field, among other skills. These activities demonstrate a commitment to learning beyond the classroom and an interest in furthering your education. They are a great way to show the admissions board what you are capable of intellectually and that you possess the qualities required to do well in specific fields. For example, if you plan on majoring in engineering, being an active member of the robotics club shows curiosity, creativity, and it tells the admissions board that you already have some experience in the field.
So, if you know what field you wish to major in in college, consider joining an academic, extracurricular activity or signing up for a summer program for high school students related to that subject. If your school does not have one, you can create one or look for one outside of your school. For example, if you intend on studying literature or English, creating a book club or joining a book club is a great way to show your passion and commitment.
Examples of academic extracurriculars for college include:
- Model United Nations
- Study-abroad/exchange programs
- Spelling Bee
- Quiz Bowl
- Other Trivia competitions
Does your chosen college ask for a high school resume? This infographic is for you:
These are the activities that show your community spirit and altruism. They typically involve volunteering, community service, or other forms of community engagement. Colleges value these activities because they show that you care about your community and other people. They also tell the admissions board that you are more likely to get involved in the campus community as well. It’s important to remember that the term community doesn’t only refer to an entire city or nation, you can be active in your school community, your district, your city, your religious group, or even your ethnic group. Getting involved with a community that is part of your identity can be particularly good for your application because it highlights your background, and it can make for a great college essay topic.
The activities in this category are especially great extracurriculars for those who are considering careers that involve working with or for the community, such as nursing, pharmacy, or medicine. For example, if you're still trying to decide if medical school is right for you, then volunteering at a local hospital or vet clinic may help you decide while simultaneously helping you build your future medical school resume.
Examples of community extracurriculars for college include:
- Volunteering for organizations( food banks, family shelters, Big Brother Big Sister, etc.)
- Student body government
- Marathon for a cause or fundraising
- Organizing community events
- School event planning committee
- Military programs like Junior ROTC
- Community festivals
- Church youth group
- Community youth band
- Community government
- Working with social justice organizations or groups
These are the extracurricular activities that emphasize to colleges who you are beyond your grades and test scores. They are based on your interests or skills, making this a very broad category because it includes many different activities. If you're applying to schools that use Common App, for example, then the definition for an extracurricular activity is pretty generous.
The Common App says that extracurricular activities "include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits." In other words, almost anything that you are actively engaged in outside of school can be considered an extracurricular actively engaged in and committed to can be considered an extracurricular activity. The key to determining if an activity counts is to look at the time commitment and dedication required and the activity format. It should be something that requires a significant amount of time, and is performed in an organized or official capacity.
For example, you can't count the amount of time that you spend learning how to perfect your makeup for fun as an extracurricular activity, but if you started a YouTube channel on beauty tips and built an online community, then you can certainly count that as one of your extracurriculars for college.
Examples of personality extracurriculars for college include:
- Chess club
- Mountain climbing
- Fashion design
- Graphic Design
- Jewelry Making
- Community Theater Program
- Video Game Development Club
Some extracurricular activities will fall into more than one of the categories listed above, and others won't fit into any of them. For example, you might have a part-time job with some form of community involvement. Or you might get a summer internship that allows you to develop a specific academic skill. Both of these activities would still be considered extracurriculars for college.
Do you have questions about the college application process? This video can help:
What are the best extracurriculars for college?
When it comes to extracurricular activities, it is important to know that quality is always more important than quantity. Colleges aren't looking for a laundry list of extracurricular activities; they are more interested in how committed you are to these activities and how they shaped you as a person.
There is a common misconception that students should enroll in as many extracurricular activities as possible to appear well-rounded and impress the admissions committee. Most of the time, this strategy is actually counterproductive because students end up with a long list of unrelated extracurriculars, and the admissions committee can immediately tell that they only participated in these activities to improve their chances of admission.
The quality and the duration of your commitment to your extracurricular activity matter much more than how many you have on your list. The commitment you show in your extracurriculars for college over a more extended period is more impactful than being a member of many different clubs for a short period. The admissions committee wants to know what you learned, how you've grown, and how you might add depth and breadth to their student body. So, look for activities you can do over a long period of time, and put your best foot forward to show progress and growth.
Additionally, remember that your participation efforts in extracurriculars offer a perspective of who you are as a person and what you are interested in. It is simply not possible for one student to be passionate about twenty different things and be able to show the same level of commitment and dedication to all 20 specialties. Colleges want to see you use extracurriculars to pursue your passion, have meaningful experiences, increase your knowledge in your academic interest, or showcase leadership abilities. By focusing on the extracurriculars that allow you to pursue your interests and passion, you are more likely to have a list of extracurriculars for college that have a common theme and that demonstrate a specific set of skills and traits.
For context, take a look at these students' list of extracurricular activities and pay attention to what their choice of activity tells you about them:
The reality is that based on this list of extracurriculars, student B would be the more attractive candidate. This is not because of a particular club or extracurricular activity but rather because of what we can learn by looking at their list of extracurriculars. If this applicant is able to reflect on these experiences and discuss them adequately in their college essays, then their application would be significantly strengthened. That said, by looking at the list of activities alone, we can learn the following:
- They were committed to each extracurricular activity for a long time.
- They showed initiative and leadership potential.
- They had a part-time job for a long time, showing responsibility.
- The extracurricular activities suggest a strong academic interest in the humanities.
We're not saying that being well-rounded is a bad thing. Instead, we're saying that you can benefit from showing deep interest in particular areas of study or hobbies instead filling your schedule with many different activities that you're not interested in. We recommend exploring a few different things during your first year of high school and then committing to a few activities that you will be able to enjoy, learn from and grow within. Before you commit to a specific extracurricular activity, ask yourself the questions and proceed only if the answer to most questions is yes.
Choosing your extracurriculars for college is actually a lot easier than it seems. While the activities themselves matter because they say something about your interests, it is the time, dedication, and growth that really matters. So, make sure you focus on a few extracurricular activities that you are genuinely interested in, commit to them, and show initiative and leadership skills as you participate in them. Remember that Quality is more important than quantity, and you will be well on your way to building a list of extracurriculars for college that will impress the admissions committee.
1. How competitive is college?
Colleges can be quite selective, but the level of competition you will face depends on your chosen school and field of study. Some of the top colleges in the country have acceptance rates lower than 5%, like Columbia and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for example.
2. How important are extracurriculars for college?
They are pretty important. Your extracurriculars tell the admissions board what you choose to do in your free time. It gives them a chance to learn more about your interests, personality, and sense of commitment.
3. How many extracurriculars do you need to get into a good college?
When it comes to extracurriculars for college, you need to remember that quality is more important than quantity. Participating in three extracurricular activities for a long time and showing improvement is better than ten short-term activities that aren't related to each other in any way.
4. What are the best extracurricular activities for college?
The best extracurriculars for college are the ones you are interested in. The activity itself is not as important as the level of commitment you show for those activities, the skills you develop, and how you can apply those skills.
5. Should I select extracurricular activities that will make me look well-rounded?
We don't recommend choosing various activities simply because you want a well-rounded high school resume. This usually ends up looking forced, and the admissions committee can tell that it is an admissions strategy. It would be best to pick activities based on your interests and career goals. Find ways to grow and show innovation or leadership potential in those activities.
6. Do I need volunteer experience to get into a top college?
Volunteer experience is a great way to show altruism, which is especially great for students who are hoping to get into medical school in Canada or the US, for example. However, if you are unable to or don't want to volunteer, then there are other community engagement activities like fundraising or working part-time for a local business that helps the community.
7. Is travel considered an extracurricular activity?
This depends on the purpose of your travels. For example, if you take a trip with your family to visit other family members, then that wouldn't be considered as an extracurricular activity. However, educational trips for school or to explore and learn about a different culture, for example, would be considered among other extracurriculars for college.
8. I'm an international student. Should I get more extracurricular activities to be competitive?
Unless otherwise specified by the school, international students do not need any additional extracurriculars for college. You should follow the same guidelines we've provided above and learn how to write a college essay that will highlight your experiences.
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