In the highly competitive world of college admissions, students need to show the college of their choice that they have more than good grades and high test scores. Colleges are looking for students who have shown leadership capabilities, the ability to manage time and an interest in the world around them. The best way to demonstrate such qualities is through extracurricular activities.
“Extracurriculars give us a sense of the person behind the transcript,” says Lisa A. Kasper, director of undergraduate admissions at Montclair State University (www.montclair.edu) in New Jersey. “They allow us not only to gauge students’ leadership potential, but also their drive, ambition and level of commitment.”
For the love of it
While colleges want students with talents and interests who will contribute to campus life, it may seem unclear what types of activities and how many of them students should pursue in high school. College admissions officials say there is no clear-cut answer to these questions, but they stress that students should develop their skills and interests, regardless of the effect it has on their applications.
“My advice to high school students is to find a few activities that they really care about, and then pursue those activities with real commitment and passion,” says Chris Hooker-Haring, dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College (www.muhlenberg.edu) in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Depth of involvement
What impresses admissions officers is not the number of activities you join, but the depth of your involvement, adds Deborah Jaurigue, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu). “A student who is involved in just one or two extracurricular activities, but spends considerable amounts of time developing those programs and taking leadership roles, will be more attractive than one who superficially joins clubs to build a resumé,” she says.
Pursuing a leadership position within a club is an important facet of your extracurricular record. For example, starting a sustainability club at your high school rather than simply joining as a member will make you stand out from the competition.
That extra something
“I think that’s what really sets certain students apart,” says Jeanne Holzmann, associate director of admission at Fordham University in New York City (www.fordham.edu). “When you think of things like scholarship consideration, there might be that something extra that a school is looking for in a student — someone who knows what she’s passionate about and who’s been leading this extracurricular group for two years.”
Earning good grades while participating on a sports team is viewed as a strong indicator of your ability to balance a time-consuming activity with academic achievement. Joining a sports team can also show your leadership skills or interest in community service when you pursue activities, such as volunteering with the Little League team in your community.
For students who cannot join extracurricular activities because they have a family commitment, admissions counselors say they will not discount the importance of those activities since they demonstrate that you are meeting responsibilities while attending school.
Remember, it is not too late to become involved in an extracurricular activity in your junior year. “Juniors should become engaged in activities they are interested in and passionate about, as opposed to joining activities that may simply look good on paper,” says Kevin L. Williams, dean of admissions at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia (www.morehouse.edu).
Jennifer B. Bernstein, founder and director of Get Yourself Into College, Inc., advises juniors to make a list of their participation in student organizations, sports, community service, research projects and paid work and determine how they can take their participation to “the next level in ways that excite them.” If you feel stuck, she says juniors should talk to their guidance counselors or teachers for suggestions.
Your involvement in activities will look impressive to colleges as long as your grades don’t suffer, says Chris Markle, director of admissions at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania (www.susquehanna.edu). If your grades start to decline, she advises pulling back on activities until your grades are once again on the rise.
While extracurricular activities are important, admissions officials stress that your grades, strength of curriculum and test scores are the most important aspects of your college application.
A 2011 report by the National Association of College Admission Counseling stated that students’ academic achievements are the most essential part of your application, followed by the essay, class rank, recommendations and extracurricular activities.
Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, New York-based freelance writer who specializes in higher education.