Ever since you can remember, people have been telling you how necessary, how crucial, extracurricular activities are for your college resume. In addition to top grades and stellar test scores, a schedule packed with impressive extracurriculars is an absolute must. At least, that’s what everyone says. But is it true?
The answer depends on how you define “extracurricular” and what you make of it.
The most selective colleges are indeed interested in how you spend your time outside of class. Very interested. They want to know you’re not just another academic grind—that you’re a fully developed person with a range of abilities and interests. If you happen to have a serious talent, or an area of special expertise, they’ll be especially impressed.
But, if you think you need to be the captain of both your high school lacrosse and debating teams, to edit your school newspaper, be chief fundraiser for three afterschool clubs, head of the prom committee, and spend your summers building housing for the poor in Sumatra, you don’t get it. And if your mom or dad is pushing you to spread yourself this thin… ask them to stop.
High school seniors with power resumes are almost a dime a dozen. Most high schools—whether public or private—encourage students to log multiple hours of community service. Most also offer enough after-school activities to fill up every hour of your day… if you let them. But there are thousands of over-extended students, competing in this way for the limited number of spots in highly selective colleges.
Seeing yourself from another perspective
I invite you to take a step back for a minute and imagine you’re an admissions officer at one of the top colleges. After reading the first few hundred applications from resume-busting seniors, your eyes might begin to glaze over. You might then begin scanning the applications for someone who stands out from the crowd and is a little bit different.
That’s why a good percentage of the students who are admitted to the nation’s best colleges are people who ignored the conventional high school channels for extracurricular activities. They followed their own passions instead. I’m thinking of the boy I know who devoted thirty hours each week to taking advanced ballet classes; the girl who spent her Saturdays and Sundays working for a fledging union of sweatshop workers; the boy who spent every summer writing plays that he performed with his friends. They each got into a top tier school, in part because they marched to the beat of their own drums and succeeded outside the standard structures.
That doesn’t mean the most selective colleges are only looking for quirky applicants. A survey of any Ivy League campus confirms that’s not the case. Plenty of standard-issue high achievers can be found at Yale, Princeton and Columbia…not to mention Swarthmore, Pomona, Williams and Amherst. But, when it comes to admissions decisions, it’s clear that applicants with well-focused, well-developed extracurricular activities—often conducted far from the school premises—attract special attention. Why would that be?
Taking initiative makes a difference
First, there’s the initiative factor. Anyone can sign up for an array of after-school activities. Usually, all you have to do is sign the sheet and show up. Even getting into the activities that require special abilities may just reflect your school’s limited pool of talent.
In contrast, students who look beyond school for activities related to their interests demonstrate they are leaders, not followers. They’re people who think outside the box and are willing to venture into the larger, adult world. Usually, they’re also the teenagers willing to test their mettle against a larger and more diverse group of peers and adults.
Getting to know yourself
There’s another reason why moving off the beaten track impresses admission officers. Choosing activities outside of school requires you to think seriously about who you are and what you want out of life. If you’re passionate about jazz guitar, now is the time to consider whether you want to go for it. The hours spent practicing this year will help determine the musician you’ll be at twenty. If you’re imagining a career in politics, high school is a great time to volunteer for a campaign and find out how you feel about the grunt work.
And if you’re serious about being a writer, you’ll need to start reading far more widely than the syllabus for your A.P. English class. Yes, spending twenty hours a week, curled up in the library, working your way through the pantheon of 19th century British novelists does count as an extracurricular activity—if you can prove, through your writing, that you’ve read and thought about the books.
It’s no secret that colleges are more impressed with students who’ve developed their interests in a consistent way over their four years in high school. For example, that boy who was taking five ballet classes a week as a freshman and progressed to nine by senior year demonstrated his increasing commitment and his disciplined attitude.
Students who jump from activity to activity without any apparent purpose may raise eyebrows among some admissions counselors, who will wonder whether the applicant has any sense of direction. It’s more understandable, however, when students move among related activities. A freshman might join the school newspaper, then later drop that in favor of the literary magazine, after realizing she is more interested in fiction than reporting.
This is your time to explore
Not everybody knows at age 14 or 15 what will really ignite their interest. That’s just another reason why you should spend your high school years exploring new things. It may help you figure yourself out. After devoting a year to working as a laboratory assistant, you may realize you’re really more of a “people person” and not as much of a “science person” as you thought.
Of course you shouldn’t plan your extracurricular activities just to impress the adults in a college admissions office. Life is too short for that. Choose activities you’ll truly enjoy and be prepared to replace them, if you don’t.
Most of all, beware of anyone who suggests you’ve got to be a superhero or book up every hour of your day just to get into a good college. That would be an unwise—maybe even risky–approach. Instead, trust yourself and follow your own passions, wherever they may lead. The best colleges will respect you for it. And you’ll be a happier person, too.
– The College Strategist