A College Admissions Perspective: Getting the Most out of your High School Experience from Day 1 (Extracurricular Activities)

September 23, 2013

Well into September, high school students are hopefully
acclimated to the academic demands of the new school year. For some, fall sport
seasons are already in full swing, necessitating that students manage their
time wisely to stay on top of projects, tests, and homework.  Others may have extra time on their hands and
may wish to sign up for a new club or volunteering opportunity.  In this segment of the series, I will examine
the implications of these sometimes hastily made decisions, shedding light on
how they impact the way college admissions officers will ultimately evaluate
your extracurricular profile.

High School Sports

There are numerous benefits reaped from participating on a
high school sports team, but rarely do they translate into a stronger
extracurricular profile.  From a college
admissions perspective, athletic participation, especially in popular sports,
just doesn’t help you stand out in any meaningful way.  Why?
Thousands of other applicants are high school athletes too.  With that said, if
you’re good enough to be recruited, your athletic abilities can influence an admissions decision.   This is undoubtedly true for the top 3% of
high school athletes who are actively
recruited by college coaches.  For the
other 97%, there are several other factors
that need to go your way in order for your sport to make an impact on your chances
of college admission

If you’re not good enough to be recruited, you can still
stand out if you stick with your sport(s) all four years, win awards, and
ideally become a captain.  Otherwise,
athletic involvement (unless it’s in a unique sport) will help your
extracurricular profile very little.
This is fine as long as you’re passionate about participating.  If you’re not, you have to acknowledge the
opportunity cost of devoting so much time to something you don’t love.  This time would be better devoted to
excelling in school, on standardized tests, or pursuing a unique hobby or


Students often treat volunteering like a box to be checked
off without regard to the scope or nature of the initiatives to which they
contribute.  Erratic participation in
multiple community service projects that have nothing to do with one another
gives the impression that students are not committed to what they’re doing. Admissions
officers easily and often detect this lack of intention and resolve just by
reviewing an applicant’s extracurricular profile, and it doesn’t look good.

What does look good is consistency.  Colleges are looking for mature students who
don’t volunteer simply for their own gratification (or worse, to look good on a
college application), but who actually want to make a difference in the
world.  If you spread yourself too thin,
it’s difficult to make a significant impact anywhere.  As a result, colleges value participation
that grows in scope each year.
Additionally, it looks great when students have volunteering experience
that builds on pre-existing passions.
For example, if you care about the environment, join a cause that
protects it.  Or, if you love basketball,
try coaching students in underprivileged areas.
Think creatively about how you could best contribute to your own
community; sometimes you’ll have to start a new initiative from scratch!

Everything Else

Whether you are participating in Model UN, It’s Academic, Key
Club, or any other school-sponsored activity, consistency and level of
involvement are always foundational.
However, showing up is not enough.
In your college applications, you will have the opportunity to describe
your accomplishments and leadership positions for each extracurricular activity.  Lacking enough space to include all of these
details is a problem you want to have.

Keep in mind that non-traditional, independent
extracurricular activities are just as impressive as organized activities.  Informal tutoring, creative writing, and even
arts and crafts can and should be included in your list of extracurricular
activities on the Common Application.
The more unique ways you spend your time, the more you will stand out
from the crowd.  So don’t just participate
in activities because your friends are involved.  Stay true to yourself and your passions, and
colleges will look favorably upon your application.

Check back next week for our third installment of
”Getting the Most out of your High
School Experience from Day 1”
when I will discuss how to plan standardized
testing, college visits, and everything in between!

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