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Duke University
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What Extracurriculars Do You Need for the Ivy League?

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There’s a reason we all react with awe and admiration when someone says that they attended an Ivy. After all, the colleges that make up the Ivy League are known for having sky-high standards when it comes to academic achievement. Furthermore, prospective students often boast equally impressive extracurricular accomplishments. In fact, up to 25% of an admissions decision can be determined by a student’s activities outside of the classroom, especially at selective colleges like the Ivies. 


Wondering which extracurriculars you should pursue in high school? Keep reading to find out what it takes to gain entry to some of the nation’s top schools. 


How Do Admissions Officers Evaluate Extracurriculars?


Many students assume all extracurriculars are created equal, however, admissions committees actually evaluate each students’ extracurriculars based on particular criteria. While almost all extracurriculars look good on a college application, some make a far greater impression than others, especially for schools in the Ivy League. 


It can be useful to divide the different types of extracurriculars into four tiers. The most impressive grouping, Tier 1, includes activities that are uncommon or extraordinary. For example, a nationally ranked student athlete or individual who attended a top (merit-based) summer program might fall into this category. The second most prestigious group, Tier 2, includes activities that showcase students’ larger achievements, such as being elected student body president. Tier 3 activities include smaller achievements, such as being editor of the school paper or treasurer of the history club. Finally, Tier 4 activities include general membership in student clubs and sports teams, as well as other casual hobbies.


Common Misconceptions About Extracurriculars


There’s no doubt that extracurriculars are essential and can even make or break a college application. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s some magic combination of Ivy league extracurriculars. In fact, choosing extracurricular activities should be a thoughtful and individualized process. Here are some of the most commonly held misconceptions about building your extracurricular profile


1. You need tons of community service hours.

Volunteering in your community is a generous use of your time and a great addition to your extracurricular profile. However, you don’t necessarily need a ton of community service hours to get into an Ivy. While top colleges appreciate students who invest in their community, service hours alone won’t necessarily separate you from the crowd; after all, anyone can volunteer. For that reason, volunteering is a Tier 4 activity, unless you held a leadership role or started an initiative yourself. 


You absolutely should give back to your community, but don’t spend massive amounts of time volunteering in a traditional sense. Instead, see if you can create your own initiatives, such as starting a nonprofit, running a fundraiser, or spearheading a program within a charity you volunteer at.


2. You should focus on music or sports.

Many students participate in music and athletics and find great community in them. However, the fact is that few students actually achieve exceptional status (Tier 1 or 2) in music or sports. Moreover, because these hobbies take up a lot of time, students may not have the bandwidth to pursue other more unique ECs. 


If you’re determined to get into a top school, you may want to consider giving up traditional music or sports if you don’t truly love it, or if you’re not already performing at a high level. You can still develop your passions in these areas, but do so in a higher-impact way. For example, instead of playing in the school orchestra, you could start a music nonprofit that gives free music lessons to underserved kids. Or, you could also find ways to turn your current activities into higher-tier ones. For example, if you play JV football (Tier 4), you could start a team fundraiser to get sports equipment for lower-income students, which would elevate this activity to a higher tier, depending on the outcome of the fundraiser.


3. You should be well-rounded.

You’ve probably heard that colleges are seeking well-rounded student bodies. However, that doesn’t mean that they want a class of well-rounded students (that would be boring!). On the contrary, Ivy League schools are interested in students who have one or two highly-developed passions. This is because these students have clearly-defined interests and have proven to already be successful in them, so they will likely be even more successful in the future (which reflects well on the college, and can lead to more donor dollars).


You can certainly start by trying many extracurriculars to see what you like. But after your first year, try to focus on those that you enjoy most, and in which you’re most talented. If you can curate two contrasting interests that somehow intersect, that would lead to the most unique and memorable extracurricular profile (known as the contrast profile). An example of this would be a student who is a runner and writer. They may train for half marathons and write poetry, but they also contribute to the sports column of the local paper and have a blog about running. 


Not sure which activities you might like? See our complete list of extracurriculars. If opportunities are limited due to the pandemic, you should also check out our list of extracurriculars you can do from home.


What Extracurriculars Does the Ivy League Want, Then?


When it comes to Ivy League extracurriculars, the goal is to choose one or two passions and try to develop your skill in those areas. In other words, the Ivies want you to achieve tier one or two status in at least a couple areas. You should, of course, fill your free time with other less-intensive activities that support your application theme. For example, if you attend a prestigious summer program for writing, you could fill out your resume with some tier three and four activities, such as being editor of the school newspaper or tutoring younger students in reading. 


Keep in mind that the activity itself doesn’t matter as much as its “impressiveness.” Colleges will be impressed whether you were the second-ranked tennis player in the state or the founder of a food security non-profit impacting 10,000 community members. The Ivy League doesn’t care what you do, as long as you’re passionate about it, and have demonstrated success (though definitely try to avoid extremely polarizing or offensive activities; remember that the Ivies are left-learning).


It’s also worth noting that colleges have different expectations when it comes to their ideal applicant profile. For example, Harvard is particularly passionate about admitting students who give back to their communities. On the other hand, MIT seeks out students who demonstrate innovation. While you don’t want to mislead colleges about your passions and abilities, it doesn’t hurt to tailor your application to the school in question. Do some research on all of your prospective schools to ensure that their values align with yours even before you sit down to write your first supplement. That way, when you write your application, you’ll be able emphasize the traits and experiences that are relevant to each school with ease. 


Looking to add some Ivy League-appropriate extracurriculars to your resume? From participating in competitions to gaining entry to selective summer programs, here are some tips on improving your extracurricular profile before applying to college. 


Understanding your chances of admission can be a challenge. That’s why we created a data-driven chancing engine that will let you know your odds of acceptance at your dream schools. Unlike other chancing engines, which are based on academics only, ours looks at your profile holistically, including more qualitative factors such as extracurriculars. Try our chancing calculator for yourself – it’s free!

Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.