Breaking Down the 4 Tiers of Extracurricular Activities

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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?


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 hint at a lack of focus or commitment. Alternately, a major benefit of extracurricular activities is to demonstrate a student’s well-roundedness to a school—a lack of extracurricular activities (or no diversity among 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 has shown an interest in, 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, taking care to avoid antagonizing teachers, advisors, and members. 


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. 


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 win a regional competition 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. 


Count On CollegeVine


Since extracurricular activities play a considerable role in college admissions, students should have a strategy for their pursuits in high school. Our College Guidance Programs can help high schoolers better understand the role extracurriculars play in the admissions process and help guide them in maximizing their participation in endeavors outside of the classroom to build a profile that will wow colleges. 

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Timothy Peck
Blogger at CollegeVine
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.