How to Plan Extracurricular Activities

February 1, 2017

“What extracurricular activities look good on a college application?” We hear this question a lot–often from students who have come to view the college application process as an exercise in spin, rather than an opportunity to exhibit passion. While the temptation to amass activities is strong, especially given the overwhelmingly competitive nature of college admissions, it’s important to realize that superficiality will not get you far in life, and it certainly won’t help you get into the college of your choice. College admission officers are interested in meaningful engagement, not perfunctory participation, and are smart enough and experienced enough to distinguish between the two. That being said, here are a few rules to abide by as you plan your extracurricular involvement:

Keep it real. Every admissions season, colleges strive to admit a diverse community of students with a wide range of talents and interests. If you’re not interested in sports, student council, or some other typical extracurricular activity, don’t worry about it. Colleges are just as intrigued by the student filmmaker or poetry club founder as they are by the power forward or student body president. Provided that you demonstrate a deep and consistent commitment, admissions officers will take notice, whatever the activity.

Focus on depth, not breadth. Students who assume leadership roles and participate extensively (5-10 hours per week) in one or two pursuits will always outshine comparable applicants who merely dabble in several or more activities. If you want to have a meaningful impact, find your niche, and improve your college admissions prospects in the process, forget the laundry list and commit to the wholehearted following of your true extracurricular interests.

Take advantage of the summer. Do you want to show colleges that you are serious about your extracurricular pursuits? Then, use your summer to secure an internship, take a class, or enroll in a camp that will allow you to further explore your interests outside the classroom.  There is no better way to impress an admissions rep than to forego those lazy summers days and use your vacation instead to better yourself.

Get a job. A job, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrates to an admissions committee that you are mature, practical, and ready to take on the responsibilities associated with adulthood. If you can get a job in your area of interest, great; if you can’t, get one anyway. Most of us, at one time or another, have had to find alternative, less attractive ways to fund the pursuit of our passions. Show colleges that you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.

Be honest about extracurriculars

When it comes time to fill out your college applications, make sure not to exaggerate your level of volunteer, work, or extracurricular experience or the number of weekly hours that you spent engaged in such activities. The notion that you somehow volunteered at a nursing home 20 hours per week, while playing three varsity sports, taking four AP classes, and editing the school newspaper seems logistically impossible and, if it somehow was true, still sounds more unhealthy than impressive.

There is no reason to be less than 100% honest about what you did in your spare time during high school. Some students, short on activities, panic at the sight of so much blank space on their extracurriculars section that they resort to grossly embellishing or completely inventing clubs, sports, jobs, and the like. This phenomenon is seen way too often in admissions offices around the country—the applicant from the Great Plains region who founded a spelunking club, the do-gooder who alleges to have volunteered more hours than exist in a week, and the teen who claims to fluently speak five languages but seems to have trouble remembering any of them during the interview. If you need proof that this way of operating always ends in disaster, see George Constanza’s antics in just about any Seinfeld rerun.

CT’s final thoughts

All in all, extracurricular life is not about building a resume (you’ll have plenty of time to do that later); it’s about finding yourself and your true calling. Follow your heart, strive for authenticity, and college will take care of itself.