Complete Guide to High School Extracurricular Activities (with Examples!)
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Getting into the college of your dreams isn’t just about what you do in the classroom; what you do outside of school plays a role in the admissions process as well. Extracurricular activities, the things you do outside of the classroom, are a way to give colleges insight into your interests and how you’ll fit into the campus community.
In this post, we’ll go over what extracurriculars are, share some extracurricular activity ideas, and explain how to impress admissions officers by with your high school extracurricular activities.
What is an Extracurricular Activity?
At their most basic, extracurricular activities are the things you do which aren’t for high school credit. Extracurricular activities cover a broad spectrum of pursuits—ranging from athletics and arts to activism and employment—and exemplify your passions, interests and talents.
Because of the diversity of extracurricular activities, they also have a wide range of effect on admissions officers. For example, you’re not likely to impress colleges with your love of going to the movies, but starting a film blog or forming an acting troupe might raise the eyebrows of admissions departments.
The most impactful extracurricular activities for college-bound high schoolers are ones where you can demonstrate qualities that colleges value, such as leadership, responsibility, integrity, passion, dedication, and the ability to balance outside interests with academics.
Why Extracurricular Activities are Important
Colleges love extracurricular activities because they’re very telling about students. Unlike the majority of classes you take in school, extracurricular activities are things you choose to do. These activities demonstrate that you’re a contributing member of your community, show off your interests, and spotlight a variety of skills and attributes. Extracurriculars are also an excellent indicator of future behavior, as involved high school students typically become active and engaged members of their college campuses.
Extracurricular activities can also help increase your odds of acceptance at schools. For students who are only average academically, an impressive extracurricular profile might have admissions officials overlook underwhelming GPAs or standardized test scores. Similarly, at highly competitive colleges where almost all applicants have exceptional academic profiles, extracurricular activities are a great way to differentiate yourself from other applicants.
The 4 Tiers of Extracurricular Activities
As previously mentioned, while all extracurricular activities are valuable, some activities stand out to colleges more than others. The most wow-worthy activities are the least-commonly seen by admissions officers; conversely, the least impactful activities with admissions officials are the extracurriculars they see the most. For example, admissions departments see a large volume of applicants who played on their school’s varsity basketball team, but only 48 students are chosen to play in the McDonald’s All-Americans Basketball Game.
At CollegeVine, we divide students’ extracurricular activities into four tiers when building their profile, with one being the most outstanding and four being the most common.
Tier One Extracurricular Activities: A diverse group of extracurricular activities fall into tier one—including getting selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, winning the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), or attending a highly selective summer program such as Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP). The one thing tier one extracurriculars have in common, though, is that they exhibit an exceptional achievement that places the student among the best in the nation, if not world, and are rarely encountered by admissions departments due to their spectacular nature.
Tier Two Extracurricular Activities: Tier two extracurriculars are undertakings that show high levels of achievement and leadership on a state or regional level. Impressive accomplishments in their own right, tier two extracurriculars are slightly more common than tier one activities. Serving as President of the Model UN, playing in an all-state orchestra, or winning a regional competition, such as a Junior Science and Humanities Symposia (JSHS) are all excellent examples of tier two extracurricular activities.
Tier Three Extracurricular Activities: Activities that demonstrate a student’s interests outside of the classroom but don’t demonstrate the same high level of distinction, achievement, or leadership found in higher tiers make up tier three extracurricular activities. A good example of a tier three extracurricular activity is a student who is captain of the varsity football team, but was never recognized for individual awards or honors. A more academic-focused tier three activity is having a minor leadership role on the debate team or Science Olympiad.
Tier Four Extracurricular Activities: Tier four is reserved for activities and clubs you participated in, but didn’t stand out. That is to say, you participated in the Model UN but didn’t hold a leadership position, or you were on the track team but never earned any distinctions.
For a more in-depth look at the four tiers of extracurricular activities, check out our blog Breaking Down the 4 Tiers of Extracurricular Activities.
5 Facts About Extracurricular Activities
1. Working Counts as an Extracurricular Activity
Not every student has the opportunity to explore all their interests outside of the classroom. The fact is that many students need to work a job to help out at home or start saving for school. At its simplest, working while maintaining a good GPA and scoring high on standardized tests highlights your dedication, responsibility, and ability to manage time. You can make work count even more by seeking a position in a field that interests you, or by finding a role that lets you spotlight other sought-after qualities such as leadership and teamwork.
2. You Can Improve Your Extracurricular Activities as an Upperclassman
You’ve worked hard throughout high school to build an extracurricular profile that will impress colleges—this is the time to show off, not slack off. Moving from mere participation to leadership roles in clubs in groups or winning awards and receiving recognition in competitive activities is sure to catch the eye of admissions officers.
It’s never too late to improve your extracurricular profile. Many colleges allow you to send an update after you’ve submitted your application, which is a great way to both brag about recent extracurricular accomplishments and demonstrate an interest in their school. This is especially valuable if you’re deferred or waitlisted.
Learn more about making the most of extracurricular activities during your junior and senior year in our blog How to Improve Your Extracurriculars Junior and Senior Year.
3. Creating an Ivy-Worthy Extracurricular Profile
While no single extracurricular activity is sure to grab the attention of Ivy League colleges, participating in a variety of extracurricular activities that spotlight your balanced interests is a smart strategy for impressing high-ranked institutions. Taking part in at least one academic, volunteer, and personally important extracurricular activity is a surefire way to show colleges you’re serious about school, a caring member of the community, and committed to exploring the things that matter to you—or, simply, that you’re a well-rounded individual.
4. Colleges want to see quantity, but also quality.
The most competitive applicants list 8-10 extracurriculars on their profile. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing 8-10 activities at once, as many extracurriculars are seasonal, like sports. That said, the strongest applicants maximize their time outside the classroom.
You should also be sure to show dedication to your activities, as it will look disingenuous if you join a club for only a semester. Colleges will see through you if you joined extracurriculars just to pad your resume. They want to see signs of real commitment and passion.
5. Extracurricular Activities Build Your Network
Often in life, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know—and extracurricular activities are a fantastic way to expand your peer network. Whether it’s the senior in debate club who just got into your dream school sharing how they got accepted, or the person you volunteer with at the food pantry who just so happens to be an alumni at your reach school writing a recommendation for you, extracurricular activities are likely to open a lot of doors.
If you’re still curious about extracurricular activities, or looking to add a new pursuit to your college profile, here’s a list of some of the more common ones broken down by category.
Extracurricular Activities Ideas
American Mathematics Competitions
American Regions Math League
Clean Tech Competition
Creative Communication Poetry Contest
FIRST Robotics Competition
Google Science Fair
High School Innovation Challenge
Intel Science Fair
National Academic Quiz Tournament
National Geographic Bee
National History Bee
National Spelling Bee
Odyssey of the Mind
Poetry Out Loud
Life Sciences Club
Mu Alpha Theta: Math Honor Society
National Honor Society
Science National Honors Society
Video Game Development Club
African American Student Alliances/Clubs
American Sign Language Club
South Asian Student Society
Student Diplomacy Corps
Habitat for Humanity
Kids Helping Kids
Tutoring in School
Volunteering at Church
Volunteering at Homeless Shelter
Volunteering at Soup Kitchen
Government and Politics
Community Youth Board
Doors to Diplomacy Competition
High School Democrats of America
Junior Statesmen of America
Model United Nations
Young Democrats of America
Young Republican National Federation
Contribute to a School Magazine or Journal
Help with the School Website
Work for the School Radio Station
Work at the School Television channel
Write for the School Paper
Music and Theatre
Community Chorus or Choir
Church Chorus or Choir
Chamber Music Group
School Chorus or Choir
Tri-M Music Honor Society
Jewish Student Union
National Beta Club
Swimming and Diving
Track and Field
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