The Best Extracurricular Activities For College

July 14, 2022

There is a famous saying in baseball that you can’t win a pennant in April but you sure can lose one. This adage is equally applicable to high school freshmen and sophomores with regard to grades (GPA math is more fun when you start strong), yet it is also quite relevant when it comes to early high school extracurricular planning. High school students often panic about which/how many activities to select. Unfortunately, this dismay is not an aberration but the norm. To assuage your anxieties, the College Transitions team will offer advice on the following topics:

  • Whether being a “well-rounded” college applicant is important
  • The correct mindset for 9th and 10th grade extracurricular planning
  • How many clubs and activities should you join in high school?
  • Which extracurricular activities should I pick to get into college?
  • How does the pandemic impact extracurricular activity selection/participation?

First, let’s bust one of the most harmful and pervasive myths you will encounter in the admissions universe—that of the “well-rounded” applicant.

A well-rounded misunderstanding

Colleges are indeed worried about well-roundedness. In putting together a freshman class they are looking for individuals who excel in sports, music, theater, entrepreneurship, volunteer work, foreign language, poetry, debate, etc. However, they aren’t looking for all of these talents to be wrapped-up in one human body. Rather, the core of their institutional desire is for collective well-roundedness to promote a healthy and diverse campus environment. In other words, they want an eclectic and balanced student body, composed of individuals possessing one or two areas of high aptitude and zeal.

So, all of you ambitious 9th and 10th graders—please halt your plans to lug your bassoon, Latin textbook, and robotics kit to your JV baseball game so you can you cram in extra activities during any idle time in the dugout. Becoming the ultimate Renaissance man/woman is not actually a prerequisite for college admission.

The proper freshman and sophomore mindset

Let’s discuss how a typical freshman should approach planning their extracurricular pathway. To begin, it’s important to note that colleges, even Ivy League schools, do not expect you to be a finished product the moment you set foot in high school. Sure, there are prodigies and savants out there who have been playing the cello since infancy or destined for the U.S. National team since the first day of pee wee soccer but most of us lack such early-formed destinies.

Our advice for 9th and the first half of 10th grade is simple. Explore your options, try things out that sound interesting, and discover your passion(s).

How many extracurricular activities should I join?

Some applicants feel like quitting an activity amounts to a “sunk cost,” and should be avoided. This is the wrong mentality. Gutting-out activities in which you have little interest will get you nowhere in the long-run. In fact, this will actually waste valuable time you could be devoting to something you love.

If you tried Model U.N. and didn’t like it, then move on and devote more time to a preferred activity. If you hate sports, don’t play them. There is little to be gained by riding the bench as a back-up punter when you’d rather be prepping for Science Bowl.

Colleges want to see sustained commitment to 2-3 activities. Such commitment will typically lead to leadership positions by junior or senior year. Further, it will say more about you as a future campus contributor than a scattered and unfocused jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach.

Pick clubs and activities that align with your academic/career interests

In a few years, you’ll be filling out the activities page on the Common App and refining your “brag sheet” addendums. Admissions officers will be asking themselves, “Do the applicant’s previous extracurriculars align with academic programs and/or activities offered on our campus?”

This is by no means to say that students should only pick activities that directly correspond with campus offerings. Instead, think of it in terms of a narrative that you will be able to express in an interview or essay. For example, you were heavily involved in buildOn in high school and plan to pursue volunteer work with an after-school program in a lower-income area near campus during college. Or perhaps you were passionate about robotics in high school and now plan to pursue an engineering major.

Best Extracurricular Activities for College 

Now that you understand that no activities are inherently the “best,” let’s look at some categories that may align best with your interests:

  1. Academic Clubs, Competitions, and Contests
  2. Volunteer work
  3. Research Opportunities 
  4. Summer Programs
  5. Part-time Jobs
  6. Creative and Artistic Endeavors (Fine Arts, Music, Drama, Creative Writing, etc.)
  7. Participation in Varsity, JV, or Intramural Athletics

How does the pandemic impact extracurricular activity selection?

Lastly, we must acknowledge the 800-pound gorilla in the room–the coronavirus pandemic.  In 2020-21, and 2021-22, students spent time attending  school virtually or via a hybrid model. Given these extraordinary circumstances, college admissions officers will completely understand the limitations forced upon this cohort of high school students. Hopefully, the 2022-23 academic year will be relatively interruption free. However, in the event that we experience further interruptions, consider the following:

Extracurricular Activities You Can Do From Home

Virtual Volunteer Opportunities for High School Students

9th and 10th grade extracurricular planning in a nutshell

In summary, try to remember that no college, not even Stanford, expects a 14-year-old to be Leonardo da Vinci. Every high school student, including future applicants to elite colleges and universities, has a right to be a typical teenager. You need time to experiment, try and fail, contemplate, reassess a few times before settling on extracurricular activities that are the most fulfilling, worthwhile, and representative of them as an individual. These highly-individualized activities will constitute the best extracurricular activities for college.

This path will invariably lead to an applicant whom colleges will be clamoring to add to their “well-rounded” freshman class.