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Controversial Extracurriculars and Your College Applications

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Extracurricular activities are essential for your college applications. They demonstrate your dedication, interests, and motivations outside of the classroom and show colleges what you might bring to their campuses beyond academics. (To learn more about the importance of extracurricular activities for your applications, check out How Much Do Extracurricular Activities Matter in College Admissions?) But what about activities that might be considered controversial by an admissions commitee? How should you present these activities on your college applications? Read on for our advice on what you should say about potentially contentious activities to admissions committees.


What constitutes a controversial activity?


An extracurricular activity that might be considered controversial is anything that involves taking a side on a fiercely debated real-world issue, such as working on a political campaign, joining a protest, or working on a specific cause. This might include issues that are deemed “adult” or sensitive and could be anywhere on the political spectrum and involve a range of political, social, religious, or economic issues. Examples might include volunteering for Planned Parenthood or Amnesty International or assuming a leadership position in Young Democrats or Young Republicans.


This category does not include activities such as Junior State of America, Model UN, debate, and similar government and state programs that are somewhat political in nature but don’t endorse a particular stance or position. It also doesn’t include most charitable or community service work, which generally isn’t controversial—although some specific organizations might be. (To learn more about community service and your application, read Do I Need Community Service for My College Applications?)

Can you include controversial extracurriculars on your application?


It is generally acceptable to include controversial activities on your application, particularly if you demonstrated commitment, leadership, and passion. As we describe in this guide to securing leadership positions, admissions committees consider these qualities valuable, and they indicate what you might add to college campuses.


If you write about these activities carefully and thoughtfully, you will demonstrate maturity as well as dedication. While the admissions officers reading your application might come from different sides of any particular issue, colleges generally value diversity of opinions and well-reasoned arguments.


Additionally, many colleges are politically active institutions; demonstrating this kind of activism could mean you will find like-minded people as well as diverse and differing opinions on campus.

A couple caveats


There are some things you should keep in mind when adding controversial activities to your applications, however. First, colleges may worry that you won’t fit in with their communities—or even pose a threat—if you are part of a group that the general public considers dangerous, hateful, violent, or otherwise offensive. This includes activities that adversely target specific people or groups of people or are illegal.


Additionally, if you are applying to a college with a very strong religious affiliation, the admission committee might expect you to adhere to a strict code of beliefs and may not agree with activities that contradict their positions on certain issues. Be sure to investigate all aspects of a college’s religious, political, and social affiliations before committing to attend or even applying. You want to make sure your beliefs and values are in line with your school’s and its community’s. That doesn’t mean you have to agree on every issue with everyone at the school, but you should make sure you feel valued and respected and that you and your college are mutually good fits.

How to describe controversial extracurricular activities on your applications


When you are describing controversial activities on your applications, try to use as neutral terms as possible. You still want to convey your passion and dedication to the activity, of course, but even if your activity is controversial in the real world, you don’t want to use controversial language to describe it.


Don’t be overly provocative or in any way suggest your stance on an issue is the only correct one, or indicate that you don’t respect other opinions. You don’t want to appear argumentative or combative to the admissions committee. You also shouldn’t use your application as a forum to argue your perspective on an issue unless you are specifically asked to do so, such is in response to a specific essay topic. Even then, you need to be careful not to come across as antagonistic.


Remember, it is entirely possible that some of the people reading your application don’t agree with you on the issue at hand, so you need to come across as thoughtful, mature, and respectful of other opinions.


Emphasize your personal effort and the effects your participation in the activity has had on you. Discuss your personal growth as a result of the activity, rather than the issue itself or the controversy surrounding it. This is what most interests college and what they want to see—how your commitment to an activity has shaped you.


One way to approach discussing a controversial activity is to imagine what you would say if your interviewer told you that they strongly disagree with you on this issue. How might you respond? Try to come up with an intelligent and diplomatic response, and describe your activity in the same way.


Read our guide to the Common Application activities section for more information on how to describe your extracurriculars on your college applications.


The Takeaway


Ultimately, it is generally acceptable to include controversial (up to a point) activities on your college applications, as long as you are able to describe them in a mature and thoughtful way. In fact, it can be an opportunity to demonstrate passion, dedication, and leadership—all qualities colleges want to see in their student body. Admissions committees care more about your responsibilities and commitment than the specific content of the activity.


That said, it is important to understand that admissions committees may not agree with you on the issues you support, so you need to be careful and respectful when you tell colleges about potentially divisive activities. You also want to make sure your essential values are welcomed and respected at any college to which you apply.


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Check out CollegeVine’s blog posts below for more information on joining and thriving in extracurricular activities in high school.

How Much Do Extracurricular Activities Matter in College Applications?

What Counts as an Extracurricular?

Your Comprehensive Guide to Extracurriculars

A Guide to Extracurricular Activities for Grade 9

How to Fill Out the Common App Activities Section

Your Resume Revamped: Securing Leadership Positions and Perfecting Your Extracurricular Profile

Be sure to take a look at our guides to specific extracurricular activities as well:

A Guide to Excelling at Speech and Debate

How to Write Mock Trial Opening and Closing Statements

How to Become an Eagle Scout

“Courage, Confidence, and Character”: Becoming a High-Achieving Girl Scout

Should I Join Class Board or Student Government?

How to Shine in Yearbook Club

The CollegeVine Ultimate Guide to High School Writing Contests

The Ultimate Guide to Science Olympiad

A Beginner’s Guide to the Science Fair

How to Choose a Winning Science Fair Project Idea

How to Get Noticed by College Sports Recruiters

Do I Need Community Service for My College Applications?

Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.