How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars in High School
When it comes to your high school experience, academics and standardized testing are usually clearly mapped out for you. There are paths leading through course loads of varying difficulty; there are required standardized tests and well-known study tools to prepare for them; and your GPA is a clear indication of your success in your academic work.
The academic side of things might be pretty clear, but the same can’t be said for extracurriculars. It’s hard to know exactly what role extracurricular activities should play in your high school experience, let alone on your college applications. Extracurriculars are a broad category to begin with — they seem to encompass everything from starting your own dog-walking business to participating in groundbreaking scientific research projects.
So you might be wondering, what’s the deal? Are some extracurriculars more important than others? Which will be most heavily weighted on your college application? And how do you know which are worth pursuing?
In this post, we’ll give an outline of how to choose extracurriculars that not only are personally fulfilling but also augment your profile as a college applicant. Read on for the five standards you should keep in mind when selecting an extracurricular activity.
A little bit of insight can go a long way. Here at CollegeVine, we have a team of experts who have been in your shoes. Read through this guide on high school extracurriculars, and then check out our Near Peer Mentorship Program. You’ll have access to the insights of peer mentors who have been through this process and are ready to share with you all the ins and outs of choosing the right extracurricular activities.
How Important Are Extracurriculars?
There is no simple answer to how important extracurriculars are on your college applications. There are definitely some schools to which you may apply that will admit you based off of your academic record and your essays and recommendations alone. Your extracurriculars might get little to no weight.
More selective schools, though, tend to place a heavier weight on extracurriculars. Most of the students who apply to the most selective schools will be academically qualified. These students will have strong GPAs and great test scores. So what will set apart the elite 5-10% who ultimately get accepted to these schools? Many times extracurriculars mark the difference between a successful and unsuccessful application, so it’s worth knowing that they can play a big role in college admissions in some cases.
What Qualifies as an Extracurricular?
The line between activities that you have participated in and activities that you can consider extracurriculars is somewhat blurry. In general, though, an extracurricular activity is one that you participate in regularly outside of your required academic work.
For more specific advice about what qualifies as an extracurricular activity, see the CollegeVine post What Counts As an Extracurricular?
What is the Purpose of Extracurricular Activities?
On your college application, extracurricular activities provide important insight into who you are as a person. Admissions committees aren’t just interested in who you are as a student. College is a community, and they are interested in learning about what you can contribute.
In general, extracurricular activities should show your dedication and commitment to an activity, highlight your leadership skills, and create the picture of a well-rounded student who has chosen to focus on a few passions. The trick is that in order to really be successful and convincing in doing this, you’ll need to participate in activities due to your genuine interest and excitement about them.
Ultimately, extracurricular activities need to be things that you enjoy; admissions committees will see right through an application filled with generic activities of no personal importance to the applicant.
So, How Should I Choose an Extracurricular Activity?
There are a number of different factors you should consider when choosing an extracurricular. Extracurricular activities can serve various roles, from bolstering a college application to providing you with an outlet or the chance to pursue hobbies that you genuinely enjoy.
Here are five categories to consider when selecting an extracurricular activity. You should try to find activities that fit into as many of these categories as possible.
1. Something you enjoy doing. Basically, anything that you choose to pursue outside of school should be something that you enjoy doing. Much of your work at school is assigned rather than selected, so take advantage of the opportunity to select your activities outside of school. Getting involved in something that you enjoy is a great way to pursue an interest or hobby. If you participate in the same activity for long enough, you’re bound to gain valuable experience and expertise. You might even be able to take on a leadership role. Some examples of extracurricular activities that you might enjoy could include French club, a board game club, or a literary magazine.
2. Something that you care about. Beyond choosing an activity that you enjoy, you should also choose something that you care about. These two categories may sound similar, but there are many things that you can enjoy on a superficial level. For example, if you enjoy speaking French and French culture, you probably enjoy French club. But if you are planning to study abroad in France in the near future, you probably care about your experience in French club a lot more, since it has a real world context. Some examples of extracurricular activities that you might care about could include volunteering at a local senior center, joining an investment club, or becoming an active member of your church.
3. Something that is challenging. It’s easy to choose extracurriculars that don’t ask much from you. You can often sneak by with minimal effort, if you want to. But if you don’t choose something that challenges you, you could be missing out. There is definitely something to be said for working hard towards a goal and then ultimately achieving it. And of course, college admissions committees like to see go-getters who commit to some hard work with an end goal in mind. Some examples of extracurriculars that might challenge you include debate club, sports teams, or the school newspaper.
4. Something that is useful to you. Extracurriculars are a great opportunity to learn a new skill and grow as a person. Sometimes, your participation might even spring from necessity. Perhaps you need to earn some spending money or contribute to your family’s finances. If that’s the case, you might need to get a job. Though you ultimately might not have many choices, try to find something that falls into at least one of the other categories on this list. Other extracurriculars can also be useful to you if you learn a new lifelong skill. Some examples of these could include a knitting club or a computer club.
5. Something that is useful to others. Finally, consider how your extracurricular activities might be a way to give back to those around you. Even if you are not explicitly participating in a service project, many clubs find ways to incorporate a service element. Extracurriculars are ultimately a privilege. Not everyone can choose how they spend their time outside of school, and many students don’t have the means to participate in the activities they’d like. Keep this in mind as you select your extracurricular activities. Is there a way to give back to your community? Some examples of extracurriculars that are useful to others include organizing fundraisers for a specific cause, tutoring younger students, or volunteering as a youth sports coach.
If you can find an extracurricular activity that fits into several or even all of these categories, you will be off to a great start. Try to think outside the box — even self-led pastimes or hobbies can count as an extracurricular activity.
Keep in mind, though, that simply signing up and participating isn’t enough. Most college admissions committees look to see sustained participation, ideally with increasing responsibility and/or leadership.
Ultimately, you will need to be able to speak to how the activity has impacted you as a person and as a student. Think critically about the role these activities will play in your life and try to imagine what you’ll have to say about the experience when you look back on it.
A Few Words of Caution
First, do not get involved in an activity only because you think it will help your chances for admission to college. If you don’t have the intrinsic passion for it that other students do, your commitment will suffer. Not only that, but admissions committees are used to seeing this tactic again and again, and they don’t generally look fondly upon it. This strategy could definitely backfire.
Next, don’t get involved in too many activities. It can be tempting at first to get your feet wet in a little of everything, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It doesn’t look good if you get in over your head and then have to drop out. Instead, show your maturity by selecting just a few activities to pursue. Quality over quantity is always a good rule of thumb.
Lastly, be careful not to change your mind too many times. It’s possible that you might find an activity isn’t all you expected it to be, and if that’s the case, you’re probably justified in dropping out of it. But try to be more judicious in the future about choosing activities that you can stick with over a longer period of time. A history of joining and then dropping out of activities may cause you to come across as flaky and noncommittal on your college applications.
Try not to get overwhelmed by extracurricular activities. They should be enjoyable pursuits that you look forward to as a way to refresh, relax, or reconnect outside of your academic work. Try to find activities that you enjoy, that you care about, that challenge you, and that are useful to you or others in order to maximize what you get from the experience and capitalize on a finely-tuned extracurricular portfolio for your college applications.
For more about extracurricular activities, consider these important CollegeVine posts:
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.
Want more tips on improving your academic profile?
We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.