Extracurricular Load

Extracurricular Load
Portrait of female doctor explaining diagnosis to her patient.

Even a desperate last-minute appearance at the robotics club your senior year is better than no extracurriculars, but earlier is always better than last-ditch. Some suggestions for getting the most of your extracurricular experiences each year of high school:

Do Extracurriculars Matter in the College Admissions Process?

Extracurricular Load

High school students often wonder if extracurriculars matter in the college admissions process. The short answer is yes. But, before plunging into a longer answer about why they matter and what kinds of extracurricular activities you should pursue, consider that, for admissions officers, extracurriculars break into the Top 4 of must-haves for an applicant, but they do not outweigh what you do in the classroom or how you perform on entrance exams.

Students looking up volunteer options.

Where Do Extracurriculars Rank in Importance for College Admissions?

Despite some students’ panic about padding their applications with dozens of club treasurer roles and church mission trips in the hope of being accepted by their top-choice school, extracurriculars stand as a single factor in the package of attributes an admissions officer considers:

  • Grades/GPA showing an upward trend
  • Difficulty of course load
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Extracurricular activities
  • College essay
  • Letters of recommendations
  • Interview

There is good evidence for basing admission decisions more heavily on academic performance than on how many hours you volunteered at a triathlon or how many weekends you devoted to building a homecoming float. According to research cited in The Atlantic, the students who perform best in college are those who have good grades in high school. That’s why your transcripts are a better indicator of your college potential than either your extracurricular activities or your entrance exam scores.

While extracurriculars land on the middle rung of the importance ladder and cannot substitute for good grades and solid test scores, several studies indicate that students who participate in extracurriculars have better attendance, achieve higher SAT scores, and have higher GPAs than students who opt out of after-school activities. Pursuing extracurriculars also demonstrates several key qualities to an admissions officer:

  • Drive
  • Commitment
  • Time management
  • Talent
  • Interest

What Counts as an Extracurricular?

Colleges are generous in their definition of extracurricular. An activity does not need to be endorsed by your high school to be a legitimate extracurricular. Working a part-time job, caring for an elderly relative, volunteering, or creating your own small business — dog walking, social media monitoring, selling your artwork online — can count as much as if not more than French club and jazz band if you can describe why the experience was meaningful, pertinent to your academic interests, or important to your growth as a human being. According to the College Board, schools look to extracurriculars to determine the characteristics you will add to their student body, such as leadership and a thoughtful commitment to service.

High school students work together on a class project.

Which is Better: Quality or Quantity?

As your high school career progresses, you will become aware of a low-grade mania to accumulate a long brag sheet of school-sanctioned activities, such as yearbook staff and cross-country team. These can be valuable experiences. But you should not collect club meetings like seashells in a jar, to rattle proof of your extracurriculars at colleges. Schools consider extracurriculars only to learn more about you as a person, not to tally how many student council meetings or Brain Bowls you’ve amassed.

Before you raise your hand for the prom committee or audition for Little Shop of Horrors, consider if that extracurricular tells the authentic story of who you are. Then ask yourself these questions before joining in:

  • Will it build my character?
  • Will it expand my intellect?
  • Does it have meaning?
  • Will it help my family or support a public good?
  • Do I really care about it?

A four-year commitment to building sets for a children’s theater might be a stronger indicator of your talents, leadership, and follow-through than six random club meetings where all you did was show up for credit. According to a survey cited in U.S. News & World Report, “72 percent of admissions officers prefer that students be consistently involved with one issue over a variety of causes,” so focus on quality, not quantity.

However, “quality extracurriculars” should not be taken as a hint to spend an exorbitant sum (or any money at all) for the privilege of the experience. It is not necessary to pay anything to support a nonprofit, and your resume gets no extra credit if you do charity work overseas in an exotic location. Make an impact in your own community. Your local homeless shelter or school literacy coalition would benefit happily from your time and, yes, admissions officers will take notice.

But, Really, How Many is Enough?

There is no perfect number of activities to list on your college application. That said, zero is not your best option (hobbies actually can merit extracurricular status, so consider that manga review site you built sophomore year a strong possibility). Shoot for three or four extracurriculars you care about deeply and don’t feel locked into the traditional troika of sports, student government, and service. Teaching yourself Polish to chat with the residents of a nursing home? It counts. Organizing a beach clean-up? It counts. Making enough money mowing lawns to buy your first car? It counts. The Common App offers only 10 slots for extracurriculars and has a character limit, so 10 seems like a good cut-off point for even overachievers.

Though colleges are not looking for a set number, they do expect you to articulate your purpose for participating in the extracurricular and the payoff for those who benefited from your time. Emphasize the skills you learned and be specific, using action-oriented verbs and an economy of adverbs.

Students volunteer their time to clean up a park.

Is It Too Late to Start Now?

Even a desperate last-minute appearance at the robotics club your senior year is better than no extracurriculars, but earlier is always better than last-ditch. Some suggestions for getting the most of your extracurricular experiences each year of high school:

  • Ninth grade — Get involved in anything that sparks an interest. This is the most free time you will have in high school, so dabble until something takes, then run with it.
  • Tenth grade — Concentrate on a small number of activities. If you’re a high-energy, jack-of-all-trades, though, don’t limit yourself just to prove you can focus. Strengthen your skills and follow your interests, but keep personal growth and service, not a brag sheet, as your goal.
  • Eleventh grade — This is your pivotal year to gain experience and pursue your passions. Seek leadership roles in clubs and on teams. Land a job or snag an internship. Volunteer outside of school-sanctioned programs to expand your base of knowledge.
  • Twelfth grade — Try something new that you care about or that aligns with your academic/major interest, but don’t sign up for anything and everything in a scattershot bid to score extracurriculars for your applications. This is the time to request letters of recommendation from your extracurricular advisors or supervisor at work.

High school students play basketball for their school

How Can I Find the Right Extracurricular for Me?

If you’re not sure where to start, focus on four areas.

  • Academic activity: Link the activity to your chosen field of study, such as volunteering at an animal shelter if you want to major in veterinary medicine.
  • Service activity: Develop empathy and accountability, such as serving on Youth Court if you’re interested in criminal justice.
  • Leadership activity: Hone your people skills and responsibility. For example, you can serve as class president if you’re interested in politics.
  • Personality activity: Highlight your individuality. Join the physics club (or dance team), if you’re interested in quarks (or twerks).

If your school does not provide a range of excellent options to get involved in sports, academic competitions, visual or digital art, music, drama, dance, politics, speech, or service clubs, join a global movement or find a cause in your community. You can always create your own extracurricular: Become the founder of a campus club, neighborhood program, or entrepreneurial enterprise.

Whether your extracurricular activities are a point of pride or an area of concern, the USF Office of Admission has great advice for your college application. Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350.

Leigh Perkins

About Leigh Perkins

Freelance marketing writer Leigh Brown Perkins firmly believes that building new skills and chasing new ideas should be a lifelong quest for all of us.

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Should I Drop Some of My Extracurricular Activities?

Extracurricular Load

Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? What do I need to do in order to stand out to college admissions officers? These are the questions that high school students often ask themselves, and their counselors, when they’re confronted with the fact that colleges care just as much about what they’re doing outside of the classroom as they do about what students are doing inside.

There can be a lot of anxiety that surrounds choosing and participating in extracurricular activities. Some students pick activities and clubs that they think will “look good” to admissions officers, without realizing that this actually can be counterproductive as it can take time away from activities they truly enjoy. On the other hand, some students participate in too few or no extracurriculars, only to load up on one-offs come senior year in order to pad their resumes. There’s a balance that students need to find and maintain in order to explore their interests outside of the classroom in a meaningful way.

For students participating in a number of extracurriculars, there comes a time when, in order to strike that balance for meaningful involvement, some activities need to be scaled back or dropped altogether. But how does one make the decision to lose one activity in order to focus on another? And how does it look to colleges?

Students should ask themselves these four questions in order to determine if they should drop one or more of their extracurricular commitments.

Why did I choose this activity?
What got you involved with this club or activity in the first place? Did it sound interesting? Were all your friends doing it? Did you think it would impress colleges? Evaluate why you’re doing what you’re doing. If it’s a true passion – great! You’re on the right track. Continue to pursue that activity and see what you can do to get even more involved. If you can’t answer why you chose it and you’re just going through the motions in order to keep the club name or activity on your resume, reevaluate your commitment. You need to know why you’re doing something and what it means to you in order to articulate that to colleges. If you can’t do that, then colleges will see that as a red flag.

Do I see myself pursuing this beyond high school?
Does this activity relate to your intended major? Is it something that you really enjoy that you’d like to continue in college? Or is it something that you’ve recently lost interest in, or is no longer a priority? Colleges want to admit well-rounded classes made up of specialists, so students who participate in activities that relate to their field of study, or activities that they want to get involved with once they get on campus, provide colleges with a clearer picture of how they will contribute to the campus community if admitted. If you don’t see a future with a particular activity, consider scaling back your involvement in order to accommodate activities that are true passions for you.

Am I making an impact?
It’s not enough to participate. Anyone can show up to meetings and do the bare minimum. Colleges want to see students making the most of their involvement in extracurricular activities and working to make an impact – whether it’s big or small. Impact doesn’t have to mean running the show and making big decisions – even though this is good, too. Impact can be as small as helping to manage the club’s budget or as big as making decisions that influence the entire community. The point of impact is to help advance that club or activity’s mission. If you’re just going through the motions, and not making an effort to take your involvement to the next level, consider taking steps to make your mark on this activity. If making a bigger commitment to an activity you’re not currently making an impact in doesn’t sound appealing, you might be in the wrong activity and it could be time to move onto something else you’re more invested in.

Is this taking time away from something else I enjoy more?
Many students load up on a number of clubs and activities in order to have a lengthy resume to present to colleges. It can’t be stressed enough that quality will always outweigh quantity when it comes to extracurricular involvement. Remember, colleges are looking for impact. It’s hard to have meaningful involvement in activities when you’re stretching your time among 10 different commitments. If you’re involved in four activities that you really, really love, and six that you only kind of care about, it might be time to consider dropping some of those extracurriculars that you’re not as passionate about in order to devote more time to the things you love. After all, isn’t it more fun when you’re doing the activities you enjoy, rather than spending your time involved with commitments that you’re not that excited about?

When evaluating your extracurricular involvement it’s important to remember that depth outweighs breadth. If you start out with 12 activities freshman year, and end up with four or five come senior year, colleges won’t fault you for dropping activities as long as you show that you had a sustained and meaningful involvement with those four or five. Pursue the activities you truly enjoy, and don’t worry about what clubs or activity names will impress admissions officers. Colleges will be moved by how you made the most of the extracurriculars that you’re truly passionate about – not what you did to try to fit into a certain mold.

At IvyWise we recognize that every student is different. We work with students to help them identify their true passions and interests, and develop those interests in a meaningful way. Our counselors work with students to get to know them and help them identify the courses and activities that will challenge them, give them the most enjoyment throughout high school, and, ultimately, help them stand out when applying to college. For more information on our college counseling services, contact us today.

Maddie Otto

By Maddie Otto

Maddie is a second-year medical student at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney and one of Level Medicine’s workshop project managers. Prior to studying medicine, she worked and studied as a musician in Melbourne. She has a background in community arts, which combined her love for both the arts and disability support. She is an advocate for intersectional gender equity, and is passionate about accessibility and inclusive practice within the healthcare system.