How Many Extracurricular Activities Do Colleges Want?

January 10, 2022

What is today referred to as Parkinson’s Law began as nothing more than a satirical line penned in the pages of a 1955 issue of The Economist, intended to poke fun at bureaucracies: “Work expands to fill the time available for its application.” In essence, the larger a bureaucratic institution grows, the more work will be created to fill the newfound workforce capacity. There are many applications of Parkinson’s Law that extend outside of the realm of molasses-paced government offices. For example, no matter the size of our house—700 square feet or 7,000—we fill every nook and cranny to the brim. An identical task takes us a minute if we only have a minute but takes an hour if we have an hour. We gain a sense of satisfaction from “finishing our plates” at meals even though the portions are arbitrary and unrelated to our degree of hunger. So, what does this have to do with the number of extracurricular activities needed for college? It comes down to one simple fact—there are ten blank spaces for extracurricular activities on the Common Application.

Do I need ten extracurricular activities?

No. Just because there are ten blank spaces and filling in each one is as inexplicably satisfying as finishing a plate of meatloaf you didn’t even want, it does not mean that you should participate in more activities to fill out all ten spaces. Colleges are looking for applicants who are deeply engaged in somewhere between one and a few activities. Often, commitment to these passions lead students to serve in leadership roles, win awards, or accomplish other notable achievements.

But, I thought I needed to be “well-rounded”

The pervasive well-roundness myth does as much damage as any higher-education fallacy currently being spread through the halls of every American high school. In reality, colleges are most interested in students who are very talented/committed to a particular something that will translate to their campus. They are interested in a stellar soccer player, an adept oboist, an efficient non-profit organizer, a star orator to join their debate team, or a dedicated editor of their school newspaper. They are not looking for all of these roles to be filled by one person!

Quality not quantity 

A student who dabbles in ten things but commits to none come across as unfocused; a student who holds leadership positions in ten areas sounds like a workaholic or someone exaggerating their resume. In fact, we often see student activity lists from high-achievers that collectively add up to 60-70 hours of activity/service per week, which means that they are claiming to spend 10 hours per day between jobs/volunteer work/sports/student organizations on top of going to high school! Simple math immediately raises red flags (either of a truth-telling or medical nature). Admissions officers would far prefer to see “only” three or so activities that:

a) Are aligned with your future academic/career goals.

b) Demonstrate your ability to lead and get results (titles matter less than your actual duties/responsibilities).

c) Show evidence of distinction such as placing in a local, state, or national competition (this is of greater importance to applicants to elite schools).

Experiment early

Your freshman and sophomore year should be spent experimenting with extracurricular activities. In a couple of years you may find yourself with a part-time job, rigorous AP courses, and a serious love interest. Yet, 14/15 year old kids generally have nothing but time on their hands. Consider immersing yourself in multiple activities, following your areas of interest. If you’re musically inclined, sign up for chorus, orchestra, or the marching band. If you’re more interested in politics, consider joining forensics, mock trial, and Model U.N. If you are artistically, athletically, or dramatically inclined, delve into related clubs and activities in those areas.

How do I know which to continue and which to set aside?

Again, this should be a natural process, driven by your unique desires and talents. Which activities excite you and which just feel like “something I have to do?” As a freshman or sophomore, can you picture yourself one day assuming a leadership role within your current clubs? Get in touch with your genuine feelings for a given activity and listen to your gut when deciding whether to commit another year of an activity versus shifting gears and trying something new.

Don’t play a sport (unless you actually want to)

As a giant sports enthusiast, it hurts even writing these words, but when it comes to allocating your precious after-school time, athletics can be the wrong way to go. There are two massive exceptions to rule:

1) If you are great at a given sport and might be on track to play in college. This can lead to scholarships or help you gain admission into an elite college.

2) You enjoy playing the sport.

Play a sport because you love it and its fun or because you’re awesome at it might open doors for you. Do not play a sport simply because you want to fill in another one of those ten blank spaces on your Common App. A year on the JV Volleyball squad or a brief stint as the weaker half of the lowest-rated doubles tennis duo is not going to impress an admissions officer at Tufts or Caltech. However, forcing in an athletic experience solely to appear well-rounded will rapidly drain your valuable time, taking your attention away from other, potentially more valuable extracurricular endeavors.

Final Thoughts

The answer to the question of how many extracurricular activities you should be involved in during high school is not a numerical one. Rather, it should be derived by examining where and how you wish to devote your precious after-school, weekend, and summer hours. Quick tips to take with you include:

  • Don’t be influenced by the number of spaces on the Common App activity page.
  • Being “well-rounded” does not actually make you interesting to colleges.
  • Admissions officers do not expect every waking hour of your teenage life to be filled with something “productive.”
  • Feel free to join a handful of clubs of activities as an underclassman but only stick with the ones you enjoy.
  • Only play a sport if you enjoy it. If you’re not athletically-inclined you don’t need to force participation.
  • Pick and stick with activities that best exhibit your passions, talents, and dedication.

Remember that Parkinson’s Law states that people will “fill the space” that is in front of them and one example was people’s tendency to clutter up their houses no matter the size of the domicile. Think of your extracurricular resume as a house and admissions officers as your future guests. Will they be more impressed by a minimalist room with a few magnificent pieces of art/furniture or a messy room piled high with old newspapers and raggedy couches? Hopefully, after reading this blog, the answer is obvious.