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Extracurriculars for High Schoolers Interested in Studying Math

So, you want to study math in college. How do you make it happen?


Your academic record is important, of course, but you also need to consider other aspects of your profile, such as extracurricular activities. These activities can help you demonstrate that you’re pursuing your passion for mathematics and developing your critical thinking skills outside of the classroom. In some cases, your investment in the subject beyond academics can matter just as much as your grades and test scores.


The Importance of Extracurricular Activities


Many prestigious schools, including top-tier public and private colleges and universities, perform a holistic review of each applicant, meaning they take into account every aspect of her profile — not just her academic record. Less competitive public universities tend not to do holistic reviews, instead relying only on applicants’ transcripts. While less competitive private colleges may be more likely to evaluate candidates holistically, they rarely require exceptional activities.


If you have a weaker academic record, your extracurricular activities can help bolster your candidacy. While it’s unlikely that a B- student will gain admission into an Ivy League college, regardless of her exceptional extracurricular profile, it could be enough to sway an admissions committee in her favor if she’s a borderline candidate.


The 4 Tiers of Extracurricular Activities


Extracurricular activities can generally fall into one of four tiers. The tiers descend in order of rarity and “impressiveness” in terms of how college admissions committees will consider them.


For example, a tier 1 activity demonstrates exceptional achievement, and admissions committees are unlikely to encounter it routinely. Winning a national math competition, for example, would fall into this category. 


A tier 2 activity, on the other hand, is still impressive, although colleges are likely to see it more frequently. An example would be serving as president of your school’s chapter of a prestigious math society. 


Tier 3 is even more common, such as serving as secretary of the same math chapter. 


Tier 4 activities don’t really demonstrate significant achievement, although they do inform colleges about your interests and pursuits outside of the classroom. Participation in a math-related club falls into this category.


You should aim to have your activities span all four tiers, although you’re likely to find that most of them fall into tiers 2-4.

Extracurricular Ideas for High Schoolers Interested in Studying Mathematics


Math Honor Society


Mu Alpha Theta is an honor society for high school students and two-year college students in the United States and 23 other countries. It aims to recognize the achievements of students who excel in mathematics, as well as inspire an interest in the subject.


Students must have completed at least two years of college preparatory mathematics, such as algebra and geometry, and have at least a 3.0 in math courses to join their high school chapter. The society offers national scholarships and awards to students and faculty advisers, and students who earn them can consider this a tier 1 activity. Depending on their level of involvement, other students can consider it a tier 2 or 3 activity.


Math Olympiad


A two-day competition, the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad provides the opportunity for 250 high school students to test their knowledge of math problems in a contest, based on qualifying exam scores. The top 12 scorers are invited to participate in the Mathematical Association of America’s Olympiad summer program. The top six performers in this round go on to represent the United States at the International Mathematical Olympiad. 


Students who qualify for the competition may consider this a tier 2 activity, while those who are invited to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad can consider it a tier 1 activity. Placing at the local level is a tier 3 activity.


Math League


Math League is a competition for students in elementary, middle, and high school. At the high school level, students may participate individually or as a team at one of the 6 annual competitions. The contest involves a set of 6 questions, and students must solve as many as possible in 30 minutes. This is a tier 2 activity for students who place at the state level and a tier 1 activity for champions of the national level, although individual placing is considered more impressive than a team effort.


Destination Imagination 


In this competition, teams of students are presented with challenges they must solve. Students typically rehearse their solutions for 2-4 months until the local tournaments. The challenges touch on areas including technical, scientific, service learning, fine arts, and others. For example, an engineering challenge might involve building a bridge from specific materials, testing the load it can bear, and telling the story behind the bridge.


Teams participate at the local (tier 4), regional (tier 3), affiliate (tier 2), and global (tier 1) levels.


Future Problem Solving Program


Encouraging the development of critical and creative thinking skills to face world problems, Future Problem Solving is a collaborative program involving a curriculum in which students grapple with decision-making through a six-step model. There are both competitive and non-competitive elements.


This activity can span all four tiers. For example, students who advance to the international level in one of four competitions FPSPI offers (Global Issues Problem Solving, Community Problem Solving, Scenario Writing, and Scenario Performance) can count on this to be a tier 1 or 2 activity, depending on how they place.


Odyssey of the Mind


An international creative problem-solving program, Odyssey of the Mind involves disciplines beyond math; for example, challenges may ask students to apply artistic and technical knowledge to design mechanical dinosaurs. School-sponsored teams may participate in competitions, but teams are not required to compete.


Clubs, chapters, and competitions


Many high schools offer other math-related and problem-solving clubs and competitions, such as Game Theory Club or Mathletes.


Depending on a student’s level of involvement in these clubs or chapters, they can consider them tier 2, 3, or 4 activities. For example, the president of a Mathletes chapter would likely mark this as a tier 2 activity, while a participant who doesn’t place in local competition should call it a tier 4 activity.


Looking for more math-related activities? You might also want to consider these 7 Math Competitions for High Schoolers.


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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.