To begin to consider which extracurricular activities will most impress selective colleges and universities, we should enumerate the qualities the admissions committees at these schools are looking for. Are they looking for intelligence, a long list of varied activities from sports to band, and letters from teachers praising a student’s ability to follow rules and directions, raise your hand a lot in class, and turn things in on time? Not exactly. What admissions committees seek are the qualities of resilience, determination, initiative, leadership, compassion, and a profound curiosity about a particular subject, whether it be jellyfish, another culture, or even performing magic tricks. Your extracurricular activities should express these qualities.
What activities count as extracurricular activities?
Extra means outside, and curricular means your courses and their demands (homework, studying for exams). So anything outside of classwork qualifies. This is important to know, because when you have to fill out your activities list to apply to college, you will have to fill several slots. This doesn’t mean joining a variety of clubs, necessarily. In fact, if you join too many clubs the college will know your involvement in most of these clubs will have been superficial application padding. Once a student I knew lost a shoe, and put posters up around the school saying “Find Mikey’s shoe: looks good on college applications.” You don’t want to take the “looks good on college applications” approach, though of course that’s going to factor into your choices. You want to look for interests you genuinely want to pursue. College admissions folks are experts at reading between the lines on your activities list.
The longer you’ve pursued an activity, the deeper your interest and the greater your knowledge and skill. If a student joins a club or undertakes a project late in junior year, it won’t be very impressive. The key concept here is demonstrated interest. Being interested in something isn’t enough. What has the student actually done that demonstrates a meaningful interest. You can’t just dream about something, or call yourself a writer because you won a prize in ninth grade or won a musical competition in middle school. You have to keep pursuing your interest in a demonstrable way.
Examples of demonstrating your interest.
A student who reads a lot keeps a blog where he reviews the books he reads, and does research on the writers.
A student who is always sketching in a sketchbook creates a website where they display their sketches.
A student who tinkers with things joins the robotics club.
So which activities will most impress admissions committees?
Remember: resilience, initiative, responsibility, leadership, compassion
If you take care of a grandparent or your siblings after school, and still get good grades, that shows responsibility, resilience and compassion. If you go over to your grandpa’s condo once a week and bring groceries for him and his friends, and spend time with them, that shows initiative, responsibility and compassion. If you do this because you enjoy talking to them, you’re also demonstrating the all important quality of curiosity.
If you work in a lab over the summer, the admissions committee knows this requires resilience and determination - lab work involves a lot of repetition and failure. It also demonstrates your curiosity, particularly if you also lead the science club, or take a science class online on your own time.
If you lead a club, organizing debates by contacting other schools and planning the event, and coaching your debaters, for example, that is very different from just being in a club.
Any activity that demonstrates one or more of the qualities is a good activity, particularly if you commit to it over a long period (just helping in a soup kitchen on the day before Thanksgiving and a couple of other rando one day activities over your school career actually suggests you aren’t particularly compassionate rather than that you are).
A college admissions officer is also interested in what you have learned outside of the classroom. Experience with children or elderly people on a regular basis qualifies as learning. Working a part time job where your coworkers might come from different backgrounds from yours also counts as learning.
Here is a list of activities that count:
Working and keeping up your grades
Spending a summer working in a university lab
Writing a novel
Doing challenging volunteer work, such as helping a grandparent with Alzheimer disease, helping to build homes for Habitat for Humanity on a regular basis, or leading a club at school that subjects you to ridicule, like a girls empowerment club, or an abortion rights club.
–volunteering at an animal shelter on a regular basis
– participating regularly in political demonstrations
– running in a series of charity half marathons
–starting a new school club
– interviewing an author you admire for your blog
– developing a new academic integrity policy at school
–filling a sketchbook
–learning to play an instrument in your spare time
– caretaking for others
– getting up at dawn a few days a week to care for horses
– being an assistant teacher (and getting a glowing letter from that teacher)
– successfully fulfilling a role in a club
Curiosity (the most important of the four)
–Reading with purpose (not just reading fantasy books, but reading a variety of books and articles dealing with Chat GPT, for example, or all the books of a particular author)
–Interning at a business related to a demonstrated interest (if you spend time making films, interning at a film company, or if you invest in the stock market, interning at an investment firm)
– Taking extra classes, or doing summer programs, aligned with a demonstrated interest (you TA for AP Bio, and you work in a lab over the summer, and you take an online course about bioinformatics)
Activities to Avoid - you do not want, when the hour comes to list your activities, to be forced to list “binge watching Game of Thrones” or “reaching level 26 in a video game” or “spending time on social media” as an activity. You just don’t.
In short, if you live your life with purpose, and if you don’t just daydream about this purpose but take some sort of action, you are engaging in a worthwhile activity. Find a worthwhile interest and pursue it.