Extracurricular Activities for College Admissions

Every year, high schoolers are faced with a deluge of possible extracurricular activities. From sports to clubs to internships to volunteer opportunities to camps to early-college programs, the options are seemingly endless and often overwhelming.

Thus, every year both parents and high schoolers alike come to our office to ask us the same question: how many and what kind of extracurriculars should they do to optimize college admissions success?

The question is a good one but also misses the mark. The truth is that college admissions officers don’t use a secret algorithm to count the number and type of activities an applicant has done. Instead, they look to extracurriculars to form a cohesive understanding of the applicant’s unique interests and to get a sense of how they would add to the college environment. As a result, they’re looking for a unique story of passionate curiosity, not an optimized list that meets rigid criteria.

Unfortunately, many parents and high schoolers still believe that colleges are looking for a specific type of well-rounded student that checks off a few boxes. In effect, they come to our offices with a curated list of extracurriculars that are brimming with a range of disparate activities – from volunteering to sports to academic clubs – that definitely illustrate a commitment to extracurricular engagement, but simultaneously obscure any specific interests. 

If this sounds like you, then don’t worry. The reason so many believe that colleges are looking for a specific kind of well-rounded student is that throughout much of the 20th century, colleges did seek specific kinds of applicants. For example, in Creating the College Man, a comprehensive study of the cultural representation of college students in America, author Daniel A. Clark notes that “the college man [was expected to] be the vigorous athlete and the civilized scholar, the genteel leader and the modern professional” (9). In other words, the ideal college student of the past was expected to be a little bit of everything. 

In turn, the idealized college man was memorialized in cultural representations throughout the century. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise to Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, the ideal college man was depicted as someone equally as capable of being secluded in a library as socializing in a clubhouse or trotting the globe. The 1903 to 1905 covers of The Saturday Evening Post’s college edition paints a clear picture of this renaissance man. There, readers saw college students as sophisticated and refined scholars, who were also both athletic and worldly. There seemed to be no realm this student could not conquer, and throughout much of the century, these disparate qualities were prized by admissions officers. 

The Saturday Evening Post’s college edition

That time has passed, though. Today, admissions officers seek specialized students, who participate in extracurriculars that demonstrate their specialized interests. Rather than seeking to admit a class of homogeneously well-rounded students, admissions officers now seek to craft well-rounded incoming classes of students that each offer something different. They want to create dynamic collegiate environments filled with students that have already begun focusing on their area of study through their high school extracurriculars. Thus, an applicant that has only five extracurriculars all devoted to political engagement is more compelling than a student with ten extracurriculars devoted to nothing in particular. 

This does not mean that well-rounded students don’t get to go to college, merely that passionate specialists have a leg up. Admissions officers want to create a dynamic educational environment, in which each student offers something different. As a result, students with bright and individual passions help admissions officers more easily craft the kind of class they want to see at their school. 

How Ivy Scholars Helps Students Craft Extracurriculars. 

Typically, hearing that their multitude of extracurriculars might actually hurt their college admissions chances causes some students to initially panic. Don’t worry. 

Over the years, Ivy Scholars has crafted an approach that can help all students gain a handle on their extracurriculars. It begins with one question.

Right now, are you a specialist or a generalist? 

A specialist is a highschooler who has dived deeply into a single passion, which is reflected in their focused list of extracurricular activities. While they may have a secondary interest, there is a clear theme present in their extracurriculars that showcases what they spend time on and what they care about. 

The generalist is a high schooler that is a jack-of-all-trades, who is involved in multiple activities. These activities don’t usually interrelate very much and there is no clear sense of what the applicant cares about specifically. This is closer to the well-rounded students that colleges once greatly valued. 

If an applicant is already a specialist, then they should continue to pursue activities that deepen their current interests. If a specialist is currently applying for college, then they should focus on crafting descriptions for their extracurriculars that illustrate the concrete skills they employed in the activities. However, if a student is not currently applying for college, then they should use their time to join activities that will further deepen their interests. 

Generalists have a very different task ahead. If a generalist is currently applying to college, then they should carefully craft their extracurriculars to note specific skills that could have application elsewhere. For example, if a student is considering a business major, but has little direct business experience, then they might consider highlighting the fundraising efforts they headed as Vice President of their biology club. Creating a thematic thread throughout different extracurriculars is a good way for a generalist to focus their activities list. 

Generalists who are not currently applying to school, meanwhile, should use their time to experiment with different interests to find one that they can explore in greater depth.  In reality, this is most high school students: it is entirely normal to have no clue as to what the future holds at this age. 

These students should take a brief period for experimentation, dabbling in projects and activities, so they can figure out what strikes their fancy. The ideal period for this personal exploration is between eighth grade and Freshman year. 

Here are some examples of extracurricular activities for students to begin exploring:

  • Try a physical activity they have never done (rock climbing, salsa dancing, Jiu-Jitsu). 
  • Take an online course exploring an academic topic the student is interested in at school. 
  • Volunteer to help an organization, either for a cause they care about, or one which simply catches the eye. 
  • Join a club, and see if what they’re doing interests the student. The student should go outside their comfort zone, and try things they never considered before. 

This is not a mandatory checklist, rather it is meant to inspire any student’s future explorations. Here are some questions to guide this search: 

  • What are you interested in already? 
  • What is your favorite subject at school? 
  • Of the activities you currently do, which is your favorite? 
  • How do you enjoy spending your free time? 

If a student already has interests, then they can be explored in more depth. Focus on activities they enjoy and take them to the next level. Are they a video game enthusiast? Why not get involved in modding, or even coding, video games? Are they interested in politics? Politicians always need volunteers, call a local politician or state representative and see if they have programs for high schoolers. 

There are no activities which are inherently bad, but some can be pitfalls. Many team sports, while enjoyable, are oversaturated. While colleges once valued well-rounded students with an athletic bent, today admissions officers only really value highly accomplished athletes that could be recruited. Is it impossible? No, but extreme talent, effort, and luck are all required for sports to be a successful student’s main focus. 

Even still, those students who do spend a significant amount of time in sports should make time to develop their academic interests through outside extracurriculars. If an applicant is a noteworthy athlete, then, they should try getting involved in coaching or refereeing games for younger children, especially in the off-season. 

Another potential pitfall is trying to do everything. There are only so many hours in a day, and trying to fill all of them can cause burnout. Once a student has found a passion, they should then cut back on other activities to free up time to explore their specialization in greater detail. This is mostly a pitfall for generalists. Specialists are better positioned to avoid this kind of burnout. 

A final potential pitfall is becoming so paralyzed by choice that a student never manages to do anything. A willingness to experiment, fail, and try things anew will be the best tool if a student is indecisive. Finding a passion takes time, but taking the time to find such a passion will lead to greater success down the road. 

What Qualifies as an Extracurricular Activity for College?

While some things are clearly extracurricular – such as sports, school clubs, and band –  there are numerous other activities that applicants overlook. 

As a general guideline, if whatever a student does requires effort, time, and has a final goal, then it can be counted as an extracurricular. Colleges define extracurriculars very broadly; jobs, internships, hobbies, and volunteering can all be extracurriculars. These are all very broad categories, so here are examples of extracurriculars that are often overlooked:

  • Creating levels for your favorite video game and sharing them online. 
  • Regularly participating in scale gardening projects at home or in your community.
  • Teaching yourself a new language, using online or in-person resources. 
  • Constructing intricate costumes from scratch for Cosplay. 
  • Keeping a daily blog.
  • Actively participating in a Fantasy Football league. 

Don’t be ashamed of how esoteric or niche some hobbies might be. Remember, colleges are looking for interesting and passionate individuals, who use their resources and free time to deepen their engagement with a topic. They prefer to admit students that unabashedly pursue their interests over those that appear to have only undertaken a range of disparate activities to look good. 

Participating in What Matters – to You!

Choosing extracurriculars may not be as simple as it once was many decades ago, but the specialist approach of today allows for much more opportunity and growth. Whether a high schooler knows what they want to study in college or barely knows where they want to go to school, Ivy Scholars can help them with the kind of intentional extracurricular planning that facilitates admissions success. 

The ideal college student of today is a driven and passionate specialist in a field they find intensely fascinating. While the quiet halls of ancient knowledge and the sun-dappled quads remain, the students have changed. As a whole, they can do more, because each chooses to focus on what matters to them and explore their passions to the fullest. 

While the extracurricular options can be overwhelming, Ivy Scholars is here to help students grow meaningfully and craft the best application profiles possible.

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