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Breaking Down the 4 Tiers of Extracurricular Activities

Students preparing to apply for college love grades and standardized test scores. After all, they’re black and white with no gray area, which makes them easy to compare against the admission standards of potential schools. While grades and test scores are important considerations for colleges when deciding which students to admit, they’re just part of what many admissions officers are looking for. Extracurricular activities are a key criteria colleges review when deciding who to accept and can account for as much as 25% of an admissions decision. 


While grades are black and white, extracurricular activities give a student depth and demonstrate a more personal picture to admissions officials. Colleges are not simply searching for academically excellent students; rather, they’re looking for well-rounded students who will get involved in and engage with their campus communities. Even at the most academically selective schools, a strong extracurricular profile can help a student stand out from a pile of academically excellent applicants. 


Extracurricular activities allow colleges and universities to get a better understanding of a student outside of the classroom. Extracurricular activities offer students a chance to share with a college what they’re passionate about. They also demonstrate readiness for college, as a student with a robust extracurricular profile along with strong grades and test scores has proven an ability to juggle multiple activities and commitments. 


Wondering just how important extracurricular activities are to the college application process? Check out our blog How Much Do Extracurricular Activities Matter in College Admissions?


What Are Extracurricular Activities?


You may be wondering what exactly qualifies as an extracurricular activity. Does working a summer job count? How about taking care of your sibling?


As a general rule, anything you do routinely outside of the classroom, and not for academic credit, counts as an extracurricular. The activities should also be valuable to you, and have significant impact on your development.


For example, watching Netflix wouldn’t count, but running your own movie critique blog would. Casually playing Minecraft wouldn’t count, but programming your own Minecraft plugins with 1,000+ downloads each would. In both examples, the situations that wouldn’t count were simply activities for leisure. The examples that were actually extracurriculars likely contributed to the student’s growth and helped them develop real-world skills.


In a similar vein, extracurriculars should also be something that you devote significant time to. Volunteering once to fulfill a requirement shouldn’t be something you list on your application, but volunteering weekly for a year could definitely fill the bill.


So, basically any organized club, sport, or other activity can be classified as an extracurricular, as long as you’ve shown dedication, and the activity has helped you grow. Personal projects like running a half marathon, building an app, or learning to do a lutz jump would also fit this criteria. This means that working a job, and taking care of a sibling would also count.


List of Extracurricular Activities Examples


Struggling to come up with extracurricular activities ideas? In general, top colleges and universities prize students who demonstrate passion, leadership, and commitment. Check out this extracurricular activities list for tips on finding new activities — and determining which of your current hobbies and passions to include on your college application:


Field or Interest Extracurricular Activities Ideas
Visual and performing arts Painting or drawing lessons, drama club, creating your own YouTube Channel, shooting your own film
Music School musicals, band, chorus, private music lessons
Writing Student newspaper (particularly editorial roles), literary magazine, starting a blog, writing a novel
Politics Student government, Model UN, debate team, writing political pieces for the school paper
Math and science Math Bowl, summer science programs, tutoring classmates
Sports High school athletics (especially captain positions), martial arts, coaching youth sports
Jobs and volunteer work Internships in your chosen major, volunteering at a children’s center, helping out at an animal shelter, leading a scout troop, holding a part-time job (especially if you’re helping support your family)


Not all of the activities featured above are of equal value in the eyes of admissions committees. Keep reading to learn about the different types of extracurricular profiles and the various tiers of extracurriculars.


A Balanced Extracurricular Profile 


When preparing for college admissions, it’s important for students to balance their extracurricular activities between breadth and depth. Too many activities can suggest that a student hasn’t found something they’re passionate about, or it can hint at a lack of focus or commitment. Alternately, a lack of extracurricular activities, may leave colleges wondering how you’ll fit at their institution. 


Juxtapositional Depth 


A smart strategy for displaying breadth and depth to potential colleges is for a student to focus on two or three extracurricular activities that they can fully commit to but also highlight very different attributes in a student. Students with juxtapositional depth in their extracurricular activities walk the tightrope of being the well-rounded student that colleges are looking for while also being a confident person who is aware of their passions and interests and is pursuing them to their fullest. 


A great example of a student with juxtapositional depth is the starting quarterback for the football team in the fall who runs spring track and also plays in the school’s competitive jazz band—exhibiting dual interests of sports and music. Another example would be a student who qualifies for the National Debate Tournament and is also the captain of the school’s math club and a top scorer on the American Mathematics Contest 12—illustrating an interest in both debate and math. 


Extracurricular Activity Progression


Part of the high school experience is about a student developing interests and learning what they’re passionate about. Another key aspect of high school is preparing for college. With proper planning, high schoolers can accomplish both through their choices in extracurricular activities. 


Freshman Year: Freshman year is a student’s opportunity to join multiple clubs across different fields of interest, both in and out of the school environment. Students with an interest in music and athletics should try out for the band or sports teams. If there is a cause a student is passionate about, they should seek out volunteer opportunities related to it. 


Sophomore Year: During sophomore year, students should begin narrowing the focus of their extracurricular activities, focusing their time on the activities most meaningful to them. If there is something a student is extremely passionate about but has no outlet for, they should start a group or organization to support that interest. Students should also consider potential future leadership opportunities in the extracurricular activities that they’re involved in. Much like colleges want to admit well-rounded students, they want to admit leaders. 


Junior Year: Because colleges and universities value leadership, students in their junior year should seek out as many leadership positions as possible. Students in leadership positions should work to expand the clubs and organizations under their guidance to show colleges the positive and lasting impact they made. 


Senior Year: Students in their senior year should take advantage of any available leadership positions within clubs and organizations. Students already involved in clubs and organizations or in leadership positions should maintain their involvement.


Read these blog posts to start crafting a high school extracurricular activity strategy that will help you stand out:


A Guide to Extracurricular Activities for Grade 9

A Guide to Extracurricular Activities: Grade 10

A Guide to Extracurricular Activities: Grade 11

A Guide to Extracurricular Activities: Grade 12


The Four Tiers of Extracurricular Activities 


While it’s true that there is no such thing as a bad extracurricular activity, some extracurricular activities are more impressive to colleges than others. The extracurricular activities that stand out the most are the ones that admissions officers see the least; for example, a college-bound student who is the number one fencer in the country or had a role in a major movie. Conversely, the least impactful extracurricular activities are the ones that cross admissions officials’ desk the most frequently, like being a part of the JV track team or playing in the school band. 


When building a student’s extracurricular activity profile at CollegeVine, we divide a student’s activities into four tiers, with one being the most exceptional and four being the most common. 


Tier One Extracurricular Activities 


A variety of activities slot into tier one; however, qualifying extracurricular activities share a few common traits. Namely, tier one activities are rare and demonstrate exceptional achievement or leadership. Because of the sparsity in which admissions officials encounter these activities and the outstanding nature of them, tier one extracurricular activities are extremely impactful. 


Tier one activities can include athletic achievements, such as being a highly recruited basketball player or a nationally ranked tennis player. Likewise, national recognition for musical prowess such as winning a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award is a tier one extracurricular activity. Winning prestigious national academic awards like first place at the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO), qualifying for the International Biology Competition (IBO), or winning an Intel Award also qualify as tier one activities. 


Attendance at a distinguished summer program also counts as a tier one extracurricular activity—learn more about these esteemed programs in our blog Most Prestigious Summer Programs for High School Students


In some instances, volunteering will also qualify as a tier one activity. Students who start regional or national organizations that receive news coverage often have the high-profile status desired by colleges. These kinds of volunteer efforts can range from collecting non-perishable foods for a community following a natural disaster to turning a love of soccer into an effort to build fields in underserved communities. That said, just participating in a standard volunteer opportunity with no leadership role or major impact will likely be classified as a tier four activity.


Tier Two Extracurricular Activities 


Tier two extracurriculars are endeavors that show high levels of achievement and leadership and are impressive accomplishments to have in a student’s profile. The difference between tier two and tier one extracurricular activities is that they’re a little more common. 


An example of a tier two activity is holding a leadership position, like President or chair, in a well-respected club such as the Model UN, debate team, or Science Olympiad. Holding a leadership position shows schools that a student is not only participating in a club, but also demonstrating a deep commitment to it and helping guide it into the future. 


Successes on the playing field and on the stage—for example, making an all-state selection in football, band, or orchestra—are also excellent examples of tier two extracurricular activities. Similarly, winning a regional competition, such as a Junior Science and Humanities Symposia (JSHS) is worthy of being included into tier two. 


Tier Three Extracurricular Activities 


Tier three extracurricular activities demonstrate a student’s participation in pursuits outside of the classroom and help show colleges a more complete picture of the student, but don’t have the distinction of the undertakings found in the higher tiers. 


Holding a minor leadership position in clubs like the Model UN, debate team, and science olympiad are good examples of tier three extracurricular activities. Possessing a position such as treasurer or secretary in a club shows potential colleges dedication. 


Athletes who didn’t qualify for an all-state team but earned distinctions like a player of the week award can slide their sports into tier three. Similarly, musicians who didn’t qualify for all-state band or orchestra but did get selected for a selective regional ensemble can count their musical pursuits in tier three. 


Tier Four Extracurricular Activities 


Tier four extracurricular activities are the most common activities seen by college admissions officials. While these endeavors do not have the same impact on admissions officers as ones from the higher tiers, they’re still valuable for showing potential schools the person behind the grades. 


General membership in the aforementioned clubs like the Model UN, debate team, and Science Olympiad are tier four activities. Likewise, participation in sports—like being a member of the track team or taking karate for five years—is useful for highlighting a student’s pursuits outside the classroom. Another excellent example of a tier four extracurricular activity would be participation in the marching band or learning piano outside of school. 


General volunteerism is also a reliable tier four activity. If you’ve been volunteering at the food bank or senior center, here is where to slot these activities in. 


Sample Extracurricular Activity Profiles


In the world of academia, “well-rounded” is something of a buzzword. While the concept of excelling in many areas sounds good in theory, the truth is that the best colleges seek out students who demonstrate both passion and commitment to their chosen extracurricular activities. Furthermore, there are many well-rounded students, so it’s harder to stand out with this type of profile.


When comprising your extracurricular activities list, keep in mind the following factors that constitute weak, solid, and strong EC profiles in the eyes of college admissions committees:


Weak Extracurricular Profile


The most common “weak” extracurricular profile is simply one that is nonexistent, or bare-bones. Admissions officers want to accept students who will be involved in the campus community, and a student who has no extracurriculars, or only a couple casual involvements, is not a desirable candidate.


Standard Extracurricular Profile 


Most of us have varying interests–and that’s perfectly normal and natural. For example, you might play JV soccer, practice the trumpet, and write the occasional piece for the student newspaper. While being well rounded sounds like a positive, schools might view students who pursue multiple activities as unfocused. This is especially true of applicants who don’t participate in any of their activities at a high level.


Solid Extracurricular Profile


Rather than list a handful of Tier 3 and Tier 4 activities on your resume, aim to concentrate your efforts, devoting more time to each hobby. Solid extracurricular profiles show tangible achievements specific domains. For example, a student who’s passionate about music might demonstrate this through being a lead character in school musicals, singing in a selective chorus, and making all-state band. On the other hand, a sports lover might play varsity football in the fall, write sports articles for the school paper in the winter, and be captain of the baseball team in the spring.


Strong Extracurricular Profile


The most coveted students boast contrast profiles. Featuring two different areas of interest, these resumes include plenty of impressive Tier 1 and Tier 2 activities. Let’s look at an example of a contrast profile for an aspiring English major who is also passionate about theater. Their activities list might show that they ran their own blog with 20k monthly pageviews and served as editor-in-chief of their student newspaper. When it comes to theater, the student worked as a children’s center volunteer and held a lead part in school plays and musicals.


The best contrast profiles will tie together two diverse interests and show achievement at a high level. In this case, perhaps the student also wrote the script for a local theatre performance that sold out and went on to tour the country. This activity combines their love of English and theater, and demonstrates their skills in both domains.


Count On CollegeVine


The average high school senior applies to 7-10 colleges, so it’s no surprise that students often struggle to calculate their odds of getting in at each institution. That’s where CollegeVine comes in. We created our data-driven chancing engine to help students determine their odds of acceptance based on a wide range of factors, including the strength of their extracurricular profiles. Sign up today and use our free chancing calculator to figure out where your extracurriculars fall in the four tiers, and determine how likely you are to gain admission to your dream school. 

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.