Why Extracurricular Activities Matter in College Admissions

Students spend hours, weeks, and even years committing to activities they hope will make them stand out in the college admissions process. Does it really make a difference if you play soccer, volunteer as a math tutor, play the piano, serve as president of the student council, or write for the school newspaper? As a consultant, I emphasize the importance of engagement both in and out of the classroom to my clients. Here’s why; colleges seek academically talented students who can contribute to their community.

Why Extracurricular Activities Matter in College Admissions

You can contribute to your school, home, or any other community in a variety of ways. Many students start by volunteering with their family from a young age or by joining a youth group through a religious affiliation. If you did not have this opportunity, don’t worry, it’s never too late to start, so join a club that interests you in high school. Spend time in 9th and 10th grades to explore your options. And, as you develop your goals, also develop consistency by focusing on clubs that allow you to accomplish your set goals, and where you can advance in responsibilities and leadership positions over time.

What activities ‘count’ in the admissions process?

Do I have to be president of the robotics club or captain of the swim team for my activity to make a difference? Leaders emerge from any level of an organization, so while it’s important for you to gain titles and recognition by senior year, you don’t have to wait until you have them to solve a problem on your team or in your community. In fact, the more you start to be a go-to person for creative solutions to problems, the more likely your peers and teachers will identify you as a leader and be willing to vote/nominate you into official roles. So the next time you attend a club meeting or your team faces a challenge, step up, volunteer your idea, or raise your hand.

What about solo activities? I spend time playing the piano, running, reading, and caring for my elderly grandparent. Everything you do matters, that is, how you spend your time outside of class and doing homework. Documenting the time and effort you put into these solo activities may be challenging, but it does not mean that they are valued less. In fact, you may be pursuing these solo activities to improve your mental state of mind such as running or reading which only makes you stronger. Plus, no one can undervalue the importance of caring for a family member.

How do I determine which activities to participate in?

When advising a client, I want to know what makes them tick. What do they do for fun? And what would they like to change or improve? Answering these questions can help you determine which activities to pursue. For example, if you like to dance, join a dance club. I once advised a client who danced because it helped with clearing and freeing their mind from a week’s worth of homework, math problems, and academic jargon. They never had a solo or spotlight in this activity, but it improved their self-confidence, and determination, and showed commitment. I later learned that this client had the best math breakthroughs while practicing pirouettes.

This does not mean that you should join every club, your time is very valuable and you should commit to activities that will challenge and develop you as you grow. For example, if you are part of an academic club, you should be inspired intellectually to reach higher. If you are part of an athletic team, you should be able to show skill development, teamwork, and time management. If you are part of a volunteer club, you should be able to develop your leadership, and organization among other skills.

Can my activities replace my grades?

Simply put, no. It’s difficult to replace your grades, as this article noted earlier, “Colleges seek academically talented students who can contribute to their community.” This means that your academic classes and success come first, hence, academics should be your number one priority.

Are there exceptions? As with most things in life, there are always exceptions. But this is such a rarity that depending on your talent or skill which you pursue outside of the classroom to outweigh your academic grades is definitely the exception rather than the rule. We see these rare exceptions in music/theater/dance for some students applying to conservatories and for some recruited athletes. It is important to note that even in these rare cases, students have to maintain a certain GPA in order to qualify for these institutions and to graduate. But if your talent or skill set which you have spent years developing can gain you admission to an institution of your dreams, then go for it. But, understand your expectations for performance both in and out of the classroom and know the consequences of not being able to meet those requirements.

Ideally, your activities should complement your academic pursuits.

What about time commitment?

In order to be successful and/or reach the highest levels, the average person has to invest time and resources. For most high school students this means early mornings, time after school, weekends away at tournaments, and long nights completing homework. In order to improve, you just have to put in the work. This may mean committing more time to practice, being coached, listening, reflecting/evaluating, reading, studying, and so forth. If you put in the time and effort, this should result in improved skill or ability, leadership roles, and recognition.

Colleges like to see a proven track record of your commitment to an activity, this emphasizes several characteristics such as persistence and determination, the ability to overcome a challenge, setting goals, personal and intellectual growth, and so much more. So pick your activities wisely because how you invest your time makes a statement about what’s important to you as a student, scholar, and person.

What does it mean to be engaged outside of the classroom?

Being engaged in the classroom means that you are actively learning, by listening, asking questions, leading discussions, respectfully challenging a perspective, and so forth. Being engaged outside of the classroom means that you are learning, exploring, serving, fulfilling a need, developing a skill, as well as listening, asking questions, leading discussions, respectfully challenging a perspective and so much more! When pursued concurrently, your growth and accomplishments will most likely stand out in the college admissions process. But even more importantly, you would be proud of your work and accomplishments.

If you would like to learn more about developing your activities and being engaged outside of the classroom, contact us today.

Former Associate Director of Admissions at MIT
Former Associate Director of Admissions at Macalester College
Former Assistant Director of Admissions at Macalester College
Former Admissions Counselor at St. Olaf College

3 Years in MIT Admissions
9 Years in Macalester Admissions
4 Years in St. Olaf Admissions
20,000+ Applications Read and Evaluated

Philana earned her Bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College and Master’s degrees from St. Mary’s University in Minnesota. With over 16 years in admissions, she has a track record of building relationships, creating accessible education policies, and increasing diversity in student bodies.

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