How to Win at Extracurriculars

“This’ll look good on my college app!”

Ah, the mantra of high school upperclassmen. If you’re around any over-achieving high schoolers, you’ll probably be hearing this a lot. In an age of extreme college entrance competitiveness, it’s easy to fall into the “extracurricular trap”: piling on a bunch of extracurricular activities just because it’ll boost your college app.

But here’s the thing: it probably won’t.

College admissions officers are seasoned professionals. They will be able to differentiate a student whose extracurriculars are shallow, scattered endeavors and a student with true passions. And the latter will certainly be more impressive. It’ll also be more meaningful to you, the student.

Take a look at the following scenario. You are a college admissions officer, and you have to admit one of the two students. Which one do you choose?




Jacklyn has only two extracurriculars, but she still sounds a lot more interesting and passionate than Alex. Alex sounds like she’s trying everything just to add them to her application; she’s tried a lot of different activities, but these things are hardly focused. She hasn’t really committed a lot of time to any one extracurricular. Though some of her activities sound interesting and have potential, she hasn’t taken any of them a step further.

Jacklyn, on the other hand, has only listed two extracurriculars, but they’re interesting, more major endeavors, and she commits a lot of time to them. Having a handful of focused activities is far more ideal than a bunch of scattered ones.

Here’s something I didn’t realize before I actually registered for a Common App account: there are ten spaces for “extracurriculars.” You don’t have to fill all of them out! Colleges themselves have confirmed that filling everything out will not lend you any special advantage.

There are tons of students who open up the application, and start freaking out because they don’t have ten different activities to fill in.

There are tons more who fill in these blanks with meaningless activities, every club they ever attended a single meeting for. There are even people who fill out their application with things like “personal reading” as an extracurricular, which, according to Kenyon College Dean of Admissions, Jennifer Delahunty, “looks decidedly like a filler.”

Really! Don’t do this! You’re not getting points for the amount of stuff that you do. You’re being judged by how passionate you are for what you do, and what you’ve done with this passion. You’re being judged for your character, your drive, and what you could bring to a college campus.

Please don’t confuse one thing, though: All this talk about focus does not mean you should limit yourself! Yes, passion is good. Focus is good. But if you have a lot of passions, then by all means, explore them! If you’re naturally well-rounded, kudos to you!

The trend which I’m attacking is like extracurricular-speed-dating.

You do an activity because it looks good, but not because it means something to you. You never really explore the activity that deeply or take things further. Then, the activity has to cry alone in its room because you only dated it for its body and not for its laugh, its flaws, its quirky personality…

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Wow, you’re such a jerk.

Anyways, as Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale says it: “I’m often asked, ‘Are people looking for one thing you’ve done extremely well or sort-of a broad and well-rounded, you know, kind of extracurricular profile?’ The answer to the question, of course, is: yes. Either can be an interesting take on the high school experience. My usual advice in this area is simply do things that you truly enjoy in high school, rather than trying to outguess an admissions committee.”

So, in the end, what do I recommend? Just find things that you enjoy, and commit yourself to them.

Don’t force yourself into trying out for orchestra if you hate playing your instrument. Don’t force yourself into trying “unique” and “rare” activities just because it’ll make you stand out, either (unless you actually enjoy it!). There’s no point in starting activities you’re uncomfortable with because you likely won’t become passionate about them. You won’t take them a step further. Most of all, you won’t be enjoying yourself!

If you do find activities you’re passionate about, you can truly explore them. A love for architectural design can blossom into an internship; a passion for volunteering can result in your own charity event. Depth over breadth is key. Or, if you’re just a natural Renaissance man or woman, both depth and breadth!

For all my fellow seniors, good luck on your college applications! And for everyone else…enjoy your life while you still have one!

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2 Responses to How to Win at Extracurriculars

  1. Alexandra March 19, 2019 at 5:41 pm #

    Hello! Sophomore in high school here.
    I’ve been wondering: What if you have a lot of extracurriculars that I want to do (Six to be exact. Four in-school, 2 volunteering)?
    I’m very interested in all of them, but I don’t know how not to look like I’m running all over the place. I just have hobbies in multiple things. Plus, my senior year I plan to tackle a handful of AP classes, so I’ll probably have to drop a few anyway.
    What do you think I should do? Will having leadership positions show my commitment? Should I just drop a few? Please tell me what you think!

    • David Recine
      David Recine April 8, 2019 at 7:35 pm #

      Great question, Alexandra. As Maddi says, a lot of scattered extracurriculars that you only devote a little time to won’t look that impressive.

      However, if you really are able to do all of those extracurriculars and devote at least a few hours to each of them each week, that will look impressive.

      So if you’re devoting just a little time to some of the extracurriculars, should you drop them? Well, not necessarily. If you love an extracurricular that you’re just devoting an hour to a month to, there’s no harm in continuing it. But you may not want to mention it on your college application in that case. In other words, don’t think about dropping or keeping extracurriculars to impress a college admissions officer. Instead, think about mentioning or not mentioning extracurriculars to impress university admissions. And if you’re really devoting a lot of time to all of your extracurriculars, you may want to reference or explain that in your admissions letter.

      With that in mind, AP classes can be very demanding! If you are having trouble making time for both your studies and your extracurriculars, that’s a good reason to drop some of them.

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