Do Extracurricular Activities Really Matter?
Updated: Mar 11
“My child has been playing soccer since the age of three, but she hates it. What will colleges think if she quits?” “Which extracurricular activity looks better, chess club, or volunteering in an assisted living home once a month?” “We received a letter from the National Society of High School Scholars and have heard this will increase his chances of getting into X College.” “What about attending a week-long summer camp at Y University?” “Does my student have enough extracurricular activities for Z school?”
As a college counselor, I hear these types of questions all the time. Students, and especially parents, are so concerned that they participate in the “right” activities, that will “look good” to colleges. While there are some people in this field who will tell you there is a “magic” formula for having the “perfect” activities list, they are wrong. There are no activities that will guarantee admissions into a specific college. Every school has its own priorities and desires to build a well-rounded class. One year, they may need a piccolo player because the piccolo player is graduating. The next year, the college may be focusing on finding entrepreneurs, or students who are involved in social activism.
According to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors 2019 State of College Admissions, only 6.4% of institutions view extracurricular activities of considerable importance. Grades in all courses (74.5%), grades in college prep courses (73.2%), Strength of Curriculum/Rigor (62.1%), and Standardized Test Scores (45.7%) are consistently viewed by colleges as the most important factors.
So, does that mean that students shouldn’t be involved outside of the classroom? Absolutely not. Sports promote teamwork and give students an outlet for physical activity. Service organizations allow students to give back to their community and expose them to people who may be different from themselves. Cultural clubs can help students connect with an important piece of their identity. Music and arts give students an outlet to express themselves creatively. Yes, they can impact your college applications, but that shouldn’t be your purpose for joining.
When colleges review your extracurricular activities, they want to see that you are a passionate individual who cares about something. Colleges hope to attract dynamic students who will make their campus a better place, and they want to admit students who are authentic in their interests. While the Common Application allows students to list 10 extracurricular activities, more is not necessarily better. A student who is actively a part of one or two clubs brings more to the table than a student who is a member of 10 clubs but barely has time to attend the monthly meetings for each organization. Colleges understand that your time is limited, and they do not expect you to be all things to all people.
Typically, college applications will want to know about your contributions to your organizations. Many students feel the need for a title (President, Captain, Editor, Secretary, etc.). However, leadership does not require a title. Think outside the box about your contributions. Did you help come up with an innovative idea to help meetings run smoother? Were you on a fundraising committee that helped raise money to meet a goal? How did you serve as a mentor to younger students or help your coach during practices? Thinking of your contributions this way may take some additional time, but it will help tremendously when your applications come due. If you are unsure how to answer these types of questions, ask your coach, sponsor, or peers to see if they can point out ways you have added value to your activity.
Therefore, parents should encourage their students to find something they enjoy but help them stay balanced. If you are building your activities list around impressing a specific college, more than likely you will not succeed.