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    What Are Extracurricular Activities and Why Do They Matter?

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    and Varonika Ware

    Varonika Ware is a content writer at Scholarships360. Varonika earned her undergraduate degree in Mass Communications at Louisiana State University. During her time at LSU, she worked with the Center of Academic Success to create the weekly Success Sunday newsletter. Varonika also interned at the Louisiana Department of Insurance in the Public Affairs office with some of her graphics appearing in local news articles.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: June 3rd, 2024
    What Are Extracurricular Activities and Why Do They Matter?

    “What kind of extracurricular activities have you been involved in?” It’s a question you’ll surely be asked during the college admissions process. Your answer can have a big impact on getting accepted to certain colleges and universities, and even being awarded merit-based scholarships. Keep reading to learn what extracurriculars are and why they matter!

    What exactly are extracurricular activities?

    Extracurriculars are how high school students productively spend their time outside of the classroom. Some students play sports or join school clubs, while others perform community service or work part-time jobs.  Before we dive into the importance of extracurriculars, let’s cover the basics.

    What qualifies as an extracurricular activity? 

    On paper, high school students are some of the busiest people on the planet. It can be overwhelming for students to balance school, homework, and their personal life while also finding the time to fit in extracurricular activities. 

    The good news is that almost anything you are productively involved in outside of the classroom can be considered an extracurricular activity. According to the Common App, extracurricular activities “include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits.”

    Below are some examples of popular extracurriculars:

    Sports

    Playing on one of your school sports teams is one of the most effective ways to show involvement. However, extramural sports and community leagues are also available for students looking to play sports not offered at their local high school. 

    Community Service

    Community service or volunteer work can be performed locally, on a national scale, or even abroad. Wherever community service occurs, there are a variety of ways to get involved. This includes animal rescue, church outreach, mentoring or tutoring, and charity work.

    School Clubs

    The list here is endless, but engineering, film, poetry, writing, physics, journalism, and math are just a few examples of school clubs. Remember, if there’s no clubs at your high school that suit your interests, you can even start a club of your own! There are also clubs available outside of school that are already formed such as a book club or a sports club. 

    Employment

    Taking on a part-time job or internship during your high school career can speak volumes about your character. 

    Hobbies / Special Interest

    These are groups that your school or local community supports. Some examples are Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), Horticulture Club, Equestrian Club, and Entrepreneurship Club. 

    Personal Commitments

    Personal commitments can include caring for a younger sibling or elderly relative to significant family responsibilities. While these may not fit into a traditional box like playing a sport or joining a club, they are important and should be shared as an activity.

    Academic Activities

    Some activities, such as research, are at the intersection between extracurricular involvement and academics. These types of activities are a great way for students to emphasize their academic interests and get a taste for more focused scholarship in a particular discipline. For instance, membership in an Honor Society at your school can highlight your academic ability and act as an extracurricular activity as well.

    As you can tell, there are endless opportunities for high school students to productively spend their time outside of the classroom. And remember, time outside of the classroom includes time spent during school breaks or while on summer vacation! So if you were a summer camp counselor on your summer vacation, definitely include that as an extracurricular activity.

    Why do extracurricular activities matter?

    We all know that colleges and universities seek academically gifted students who have proven they can excel in the classroom. Of course, grades and test scores are a great way to get noticed by admissions officers. At almost every college, grades and test scores are going to be the primary factor for making admissions decisions. However, colleges and universities also care about how students spend their time outside of academics.

    Along with essays, a student’s demonstrated interest, counselor and teacher recommendations, and class rank, extracurricular activities are among the most important admission factors. 

    As such, it’s critical for high school students to be strategic about their extracurricular involvement. Extracurricular activities are an excellent way for students to demonstrate who they are beyond their grades and test scores.

    Admissions committees aren’t as concerned about the actual activity as much as what the activity says about the student’s character. When it comes to evaluating applicants, colleges and universities look for three specific qualities often demonstrated through extracurriculars: passion, leadership, and impact. 

    Passion

    Admissions officers usually notice passion in the amount of time students have dedicated to an activity and how they are involved in it. For instance, a student who has spent four years playing high school baseball, two of which as team captain, likely has more passion for this activity than a student who attended weekly yearbook club meetings for half a semester. 

    Leadership

    Obviously, being the president of a school club or the captain of a sports team is a clear way to demonstrate leadership. But for students who don’t attain an official title, there are more subtle ways to prove yourself as a leader. For instance, if your art club doesn’t have enough money to buy new supplies, consider organizing a fundraiser to demonstrate your commitment and initiative. 

    Impact

    Colleges and universities not only want to see that you’ve participated, but that you’ve had an impact as well. Taking the initiative to improve extracurricular activities for the better demonstrates that you have the ability to make a significant investment in something over time. 

    The bottom line is that admissions committees want to know what extracurriculars say about a student’s character. In order to demonstrate their interests, students should get involved in activities they genuinely care about

    See also: Free summer programs for high school students

    Do all colleges and universities evaluate extracurricular activities the same way?

    The short answer is no. The extent to which extracurricular activities affect the strength of your application depends on the school. Differences in class sizes, student populations, and admissions requirements affect how much emphasis is on extracurricular activities by admissions committees.

    Here’s a breakdown of how different types of schools evaluate extracurricular activities:

    Large, less competitive public universities

    Large public universities with higher acceptance rates usually do not place a tremendous amount of weight on extracurricular activities. These schools, especially large state schools, receive tens of thousands of applications each year. They are unable to devote a lot of time and attention to evaluating every single applicant.

    Keep in mind that many larger less selective public universities rely more heavily on GPA and standardized test scores when evaluating applicants. However, extracurricular activities do have a significant impact at large public universities when it comes to the merit scholarship selection process. 

    Large, competitive public universities

    Internationally-renowned public universities like University of Michigan and UNC Chapel Hill generally are very selective in their admissions process. Admitted students are involved in extracurricular activities and typically hold leadership roles in at least some of them. While extracurriculars play a considerable role in the application process for large, competitive public schools, it’s to a lesser degree than smaller private schools. 

    Less competitive private colleges

    Private schools typically do not receive tens of thousands of applications like the majority of public universities. This means they have time to take a holistic approach when evaluating applications. Admissions committees examine not only an applicant’s grades and scores, but also essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendations in great detail.

    Students applying to less competitive private schools do not necessarily need outstanding extracurriculars for admittance. However, they should know that their activities are nearly as important as their grades and test scores. 

    Competitive private universities

    Extracurricular activities matter a great deal for students applying to competitive private schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. These schools receive a high volume of applicants – nearly all of which are arguably qualified for a spot. Therefore, admissions officers rely on “soft” admissions criteria such as extracurricular activities and essays to differentiate students from each other. 

    How to tell how a college considers extracurricular activities in the admissions process

    Nearly every American college will report something called the Common Data Set which is an initiative that aims to “improve the quality and accuracy of information provided to all involved in a student’s transition into higher education, as well as to reduce the reporting burden on data providers.”

    One of the great things about the Common Data Set is that colleges report how they weigh various admission criteria. Here we can see the admissions factors in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Common Data Set:

    We see that extracurricular activities are considered one of the “Very Important” factors that the university admissions office uses when evaluating applicants.

    Finding the Common Data Set for every college can be a bit tricky, so we suggest just type in “[Name of Specific College] Common Data Set” into your favorite search engine. 

    Also read: What’s the difference between private and public university

    How should students approach extracurricular activities?

    Every student finds their own path when it comes to exploring their interests and involvement in extracurricular activities. The following suggestions may be helpful for students who aren’t sure where to start. 

    First year

    The first year of high school is a great time to explore different activities and find out what is worth pursuing. It’s a good idea to try four to six different activities and determine which ones you find the most enjoyable. However, remember to maintain your grades and keep academics your first priority!

    Sophomore year

    By your sophomore year, you should narrow your activities to a select few that you are genuinely enjoying. Remember that the key is to prioritize depth over breadth. In other words, devote your time to two or three activities that you can become deeply involved in. This is better than spreading yourself so thin that you’re having little impact in any of your activities. 

    Junior and senior year

    By this point in your high school career, you’ve hopefully found at least one or two extracurricular activities that you’re passionate about. Now is the time to focus more on leadership and impact by considering how you can change these activities for the better.

    Remember to not take on too much…

    Throughout your time in high school, remember to avoid putting too much on your plate. High school can be a stressful time. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to step back and drop a few activities. Extracurriculars are an important part of your applications, but at the end of the day, your mental health is most valuable. 

    Learn more: Do colleges use weighted or unweighted GPA

    Should students join extracurriculars just to impress colleges?

    Remember, extracurricular activities do not exist for the sole purpose of standing out on college applications. Sure, during an admissions interview it’s valuable to be able to talk about how you joined your high school’s robotics club and tripled its membership during your time as president. Keep in mind that extracurriculars are also a crucial part of becoming a well-rounded young adult. 

    There’s a lot of pressure on high school students to be at the top of their game. That is why it’s important for extracurricular activities to be a joy instead of an obligation. Just be sure to follow your passions, and the rest tends to fall into place. 

    Remember, colleges are looking for passion, leadership, and involvement when it comes to extracurricular activities. Therefore, joining one last minute for your college application might not be your best bet. Extracurricular activities are just one part of your application, so don’t panic.

    Also read: How to respond to the Additional Information section of the Common App

    What if my high school doesn’t offer a lot of activities?

    Every high school offers different opportunities. If you are attending a high school that offers few clubs, sports, or creative opportunities, do not worry! Admissions officers will always evaluate students in the context of their high school. This means that they will not count it against an applicant if their school doesn’t offer a wide variety of options for students.

    With that said, students still have opportunities for self-directed involvement such as independent activities, volunteering, or personal projects. At the end of the day, college admissions officers want to see that students have spent their out-of-school time in meaningful and constructive ways.

    Next steps: How to complete the Common App activities section

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Extracurriculars are how high school students productively spend their time outside of the classroom, and can include clubs, hobbies, sports, volunteering, working at a job, and more
    • Colleges and universities look for three specific qualities demonstrated through extracurriculars: passion, leadership, and impact
    • Private colleges and universities place more emphasis on extracurricular activities
    • During freshman and sophomore year, explore your interests, and then focus on a few activities that you can demonstrate leadership in
    • If your school does not have much to offer in the way of extracurricular activities, take advantage of the situation and either start a club or find other ways to meaningfully utilize your free time!

    Frequently asked questions about extracurricular activities

    How do I pick an extracurricular activity?

    If you’re worried about picking an extracurricular, try starting with a list of your interests. Once you’ve done that, check and see if your school offers anything that might align with that interest. If you can’t find anything, try starting your own club and encourage others to join you.

    Should I stay in the same extracurricular activity in college?

    College offers a world of new opportunities, so you don’t necessarily have to stay in the same extracurricular activity when you get there. However, if you receive a scholarship for that activity, then your college may require you to participate in order to keep receiving financial aid.

    Will extracurricular activities affect my academic performance?

    Studies show that students who are involved in extracurricular activities usually have better educational outcomes, have a sense of belonging, and are more successful post high school. Sounds pretty good, so get involved!

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