Extracurricular Activities and the College Application

From the beginning of the fall semester, 12th grade students start putting in a lot of effort and time in preparing their college applications. Students’ biggest concern is often “How can I make my profile more special?” In an attempt to make themselves appear more appealing to university admissions offices, some students will try participating in extracurricular activities in which they have no real interest. In reality, such activities do not affect their applications much, and students will expend effort on meaningless activities rather than focusing on their studies.

The college application is essentially a comprehensive report on the student’s previous four years of life. Will you truly enhance your application by participating in random extracurricular activities? Of course it would be an advantage to win a world renowned competition or to join prestigious summer programs, but in many cases, exemplary extracurriculars alone still won’t be enough to make your high school career outstanding.

The sincerity with which you pursue extracurricular activities is what will appeal most to admissions officers. If you consistently spend your time and energy in an area in which you demonstrate passion, you will be rewarded with many rich experiences that you can then convey through your essays and application. Choosing extracurricular activities that relate to your intended field of study as well as your career aspirations can show that you have set long-term goals and a plan to achieve those goals. The application of a student who has already made such plans will naturally be an application that stands out the most in the eyes of an admissions officer.

Nevertheless, admissions officers will still consider the academic performance of the applicant as a main evaluation factor but the extracurricular activities can also play an important role. A student’s life goals and extracurricular activities should be relevant and need to be mentioned in the application including the essay. Top universities, in particular, will consider a student’s devotion and passion in his or her extracurricular activities as a way to separate otherwise equal, academically outstanding students.

William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College, once made the following statement regarding extracurricular activities: “Students’ intellectual imagination, strength of character, and their ability to exercise good judgment—these are critical factors in the admissions process, and they are revealed not by test scores but by students’ activities outside the classroom…”

In regards to its selection criteria, the Stanford University Admissions Office has stated, “an exceptional depth of experience in one or two activities may demonstrate your passion more than minimal participation in five or six clubs. We want to see the impact you have had on that club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you.”

In summary, if you plan to participate in extracurricular activities, we recommend that you find one or two, either in your school or in the greater community, that will be meaningful to you. There are many types of activities such as clubs or sports teams, community service, internships, etc. These experiences can only be valuable when the student genuinely enjoys the activities and devotes oneself to them.

Distinguished American universities tend to acknowledge students’ academic performance in high school, but for many universities, it is difficult to judge whether or not outstanding performance in the high school classroom will carry over into a more rigorous university setting. Therefore, a student’s values, intellectual curiosity, personality and individual characteristics, and life challenges must be well represented in his or her applications. The essays must convey the student’s potential for future success.

If you choose one of your extracurricular activities as the theme of your essay, your essay will be evaluated not only by the symbolic effect of the theme but also by the values demonstrated. It is important to choose the right topic but it is more important how the topic can be expressed. For instance, if you fail to express your insight or maturity, your essay will not be able to command the attention of the reader, even if you write about a unique experience such as interviewing the President of the United States. An essay about a student who takes care of his or her siblings in order to help the family can oftentimes be more memorable.

Be authentic – Write about your real experiences. Think about what you have achieved and what you want to achieve in the future. Do not put yourself in a box and express your own unique values and personality.

Be insightful – Look at your daily life through the eyes of a third party. In what way is your daily life more special than that of other people?

Be intellectual – Express your eagerness to learn. Explain how college life is essential in order to complete your life goals.

Be creative – Feel free to take risks and to try new things. Think outside the box and avoid clichés.