How to Improve Your Extracurriculars Junior and Senior Year

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While it’s true that your academic performance, including test scores, is the most heavily weighted aspect of your college application, extracurriculars come in a close second. This means that they can and do sometimes make the difference between that coveted acceptance package or that dreaded rejection letter.

 

For students rounding the bend towards 11th or even 12th grade, you might worry that your extracurricular profile is already established and that there’s little room for improvement, but that luckily isn’t the case. There are plenty of things you can actively do during 11th and 12th grade to improve your extracurricular profile.

 

How Important Are Extracurriculars?

 

Extracurriculars (ECs) are very important and are often underestimated. At CollegeVine, our data reveals that ECs typically account for about 25% of an application’s weight at top 100 colleges. This is second only to academics (30%) and places them on equal footing with essays. This means that it’s not unusual for extracurriculars to tip the scale if a candidate is academically borderline. They can also be a determining factor in deciding between two academically similar candidates.

 

What Extracurriculars Do I Need on My Application?

 

Most competitive college applicants will have 8-10 ECs on their applications. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a student is doing eight to ten ECs all at once—they usually do each activity in a different season, though some might be year-round. 

 

ECs are not only about quantity though—they are also about quality. At CollegeVine, we find it helpful to think of ECs as being broken up into four tiers. 

 

Tier 4 activities are the least impressive ECs—these are generally activities in which you participated but never gained recognition or leadership positions. 

 

Tier 3 ECs are activities in which you gained some leadership or recognition, but they are still relatively common achievements. This could be something like being a varsity athlete or being elected treasurer of the French Club. 

 

Tier 2 activities include activities that you have really excelled in, or achieved higher levels of leadership. For most students, these mark the pinnacle of achievement, and they generally include things like being elected Student Council president or winning the state science fair. 

 

Finally, Tier 1 activities are those that are truly extraordinary and unusual. This might be something like being a nationally ranked musician or winning the Google Science Fair. 

 

The more activities in a higher tier you can present on your application, the more highly weighted they will be by the admissions committee. Most competitive applicants should aim to have at least two or three Tier 2 activities, and maybe even a Tier 1 activity. If you’re staring down 11th and 12th grade wondering how you can achieve that, don’t worry. There are still things you can do to get that extra boost you might need from your extracurriculars. 

 

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Ways to Improve Your Extracurriculars in 11th and 12th Grade

 

Win or Get Selected for a Leadership Position (11th Grade Only)

 

Leadership isn’t the only way to display competence and success in a certain activity, but it may be the most reliable method for doing so.

 

During the spring semester, many clubs hold elections for various leadership positions for the following year. Due to the competitiveness of these positions, you should ideally attempt to gain leadership in multiple clubs, as this improves your shot at gaining one or two leadership positions. If you don’t have enough time or resources to run for leadership roles in multiple clubs, you should focus on clubs where you’re seen as a relatively strong member by your peers and have the highest chances of getting elected. 

 

Some clubs will have leadership positions that are not elected, but rather appointed by the club’s advisor, who is typically a teacher. In these cases, you may try to strategically build a strong relationship with the advisor and express interest as early as possible. Be careful to be genuine in your efforts though—students who “kiss up” to advisors in an effort to gain leadership roles are usually seen for what they are.  

 

Leadership by Action (11th and 12th Grade)

 

Leadership by action is the most flexible method of improving a student’s profile because it can be done on your own schedule and terms. If you’re already reasonably established within an activity, you can use leadership by action to improve the quality of the extracurricular activity, and potentially find a compelling essay topic at the same time.

 

The best way to do this is to suggest a major addition or improvement to a club, and then ask permission to oversee its development. Some examples include building a training or onboarding program for a community service club, finding a lower-priced supplier for a gardening club, or setting up a curated online research library for a debate club.

 

If the development is a success, the student can even ask for it to be considered a long-term part of the club and take the role as the head or leader of the initiative, thereby making it a formal leadership role. Even if the development doesn’t become a formal leadership position, you can still describe your responsibilities in the Common App activities list.

 

One great example we’ve come across at CollegeVine was a student who was a member of a Quiz Bowl club, but lost the election for a formal club leadership role. Afterwards, she approached the club advisor and other club leadership and mentioned that one of the biggest challenges for the team was the lack of experience of younger team members. She suggested the development of a Quiz Bowl “crash course” to help new members learn the basic themes and topics of Quiz Bowl and give them a roadmap for learning more on their own. This became a standard program for all new members of the club. Following the successful introduction of this program, she then approached the advisor and stated that the future of the club would benefit from a “Director of Orientation,” a role that she was currently filling. In this way, she successfully gained leadership in an innovative way, despite not being able to win the election.

 

Found A Club (Before Second Semester 11th Grade)

 

Starting a new club at your school is a great way to demonstrate leadership, show your commitment to certain fields or causes, and establish your ability to take initiative and create opportunities where none existed. Still, when a student founds a club in the second semester of 11th or 12th grade, there can be a stigma attached to it, by both the student’s high school and the colleges that they apply to. Founding a club earlier in a student’s high school career carries immense value in the admissions process, but doing so much later can devalue the achievement if it appears that you’re doing it only for admissions. 

 

If you’re starting a new club during 11th grade, you can add legitimacy to your endeavor by founding a school-specific chapter of a larger statewide, regional, or national organization, or founding a club that is specifically designed to compete in a formal academic competition. The existence of a broader organization adds credibility to the club and assuages any potential fears that the student is only starting the club to improve their chances of admission.

 

For example, you might start a local chapter of the March of Dimes, Model United Nations, or the Black Students Association. You could also start a club team to compete in club sports or e-sports, though there must be a formal league to join. Finally, you could form a club for the school to enter an academic competition, like the Fed Challenge or the Department of Energy (DOE) National Science Bowl.

 

Participate in Individual Contests (Second Semester of 11th Grade or Summer Before 12th Grade)

 

Winning a contest at the individual level in an existing field of interest is another great way to establish your competence and set yourself apart. There are nearly endless options across all kinds of subject areas, like the Congressional App Challenge (STEM), National History Day, the National Economics Challenge, or the American Foreign Service Association Essay Contest.

 

Research specific competitions that might make sense for your particular interests and specialties. Advisors or teachers in these fields might also be able to steer you towards appropriate choices. Ideally, you should focus on competitions that will yield results before the regular decision deadline (typically January 1 of 12th grade). That said, even participating in a contest before that deadline, without knowing the results, has value in the admissions process and can make for a great update in a deferral or waitlist letter.

 

Win An Award In an Existing Extracurricular (11th or 12th Grade)

 

Winning an award in an existing extracurricular is another good way to improve your current profile, as it’s solid evidence of your ability within the field. Clubs like Model United Nations or Science Olympiad that have multiple regional and state level awards that you can often pursue through your club or on your own. Set your sights on an individual award, as these hold more weight in the admissions process. If none are available or you don’t have the time, you may also choose to pursue a team award, which is not as heavily weighted in admissions, but still adds some value.

 

One element that students sometimes overlook is that winning awards can often be just as valuable or even more valuable than leadership in the admissions process. If you have particularly strong skills in the activity, but don’t have the best public speaking skills, or you struggle for another reason (such as being a new student at the school), then focusing on earning an award can be a better use of your time overall. 

 

Purse Self-Driven Projects (11th or 12th Grade)

 

Self-driven projects are valuable from the admissions standpoint for two reasons. One is that they show highlight your skills and areas of specialization. The other is that they demonstrate your ability to take initiative by creating your own opportunities. 

 

Here are three common projects that you can start on your own: 

 

Charity drive or fundraiser

 

The caveat to this is that there needs to be some sort of substantial, numerical accomplishment to quantify your work. In general, raising anything less than $2,000 – $3,000 does not hold much admissions value. If that number feels difficult to achieve, you might consider aiming for strong numerical achievements in terms of items—for example, collected and donated 850 pairs of gently used shoes.

 

A particularly effective extracurricular technique is to use an activity that you are passionate about to raise money. For example, if your YouTube channel discussed your South Asian heritage, you may also sell ad space on it whose revenues are donated to NGOs working in Pakistan. 

 

Deep and tangible accomplishment within your existing field of interest

 

This may vary widely, but the main point is to achieve something specific that conveys a sense of finality, or essentially the pinnacle of your achievement within a field. 

 

This could mean self-publishing a 200+ page book or novel, completing your first marathon, perfecting a Lutz jump, restoring a motorcycle, or building a computer. 

 

These types of accomplishments are often underrated by students, but admissions officers love to see this kind of accomplishment because it speaks to authentic passion in a way that a school-sanctioned extracurricular activity never can. 

 

You should absolutely prioritize these types of activities over all but the most prestigious of summer programs. They are almost always more valuable and can often also contribute to an excellent essay. 

 

Creating content related to an area of interest (academic or otherwise)

 

This could encompass almost anything ranging from a Twitch or YouTube channel to an online or paper magazine, or even a podcast.

 

Social media feeds (Twitter, Instagram, FB page) generally do not qualify unless they are themed (think Humans of New York) or specific to an intellectual topic, such as a Twitter account that only tweets facts about the history of Poland between 1300-1880.

 

Pretty much any topic is fair game as long as it is not inappropriate and doesn’t hit any cultural tripwires for a college. Keep your audience and target colleges in mind when creating your content. For example, a channel focused on LGBTQ rights would not go over well with Liberty University or BYU, while a podcast focused on “exposing the liberal media” wouldn’t do well at colleges like Yale or Swarthmore. 

 

The biggest element to consider here is passion, but using an intellectual lens to engage with the topic is typically more valuable than pure fandom. For example, a blog about basketball statistics will typically be viewed more positively than a general basketball recap blog. Similarly, a podcast that applies film theory to anime will be viewed more favorably than a podcast that proposes fan theories about the anime.

 

Creating your own content can be a unique way to highlight your passion and intellectual curiosity in a way that is not possible through most school clubs. 

 

Employment (11th or 12th Grade)

 

Jobs are always relevant ways to spend your time, particularly if you need the money to help contribute to your family’s finances or your own college savings. Finding a job related to your fields of interest or specialty can also lend weight to your ECs. 

 

For students who want to major in business, actually doing a job where money changes hands is a great way to start understanding how a business works. If you are already working a job, try asking your supervisor for more responsibility over the summer. If your manager at work trusts you to do some type of training or junior management role, that is fairly solid proof that those with their livelihood at stake are willing to put their faith in you. 

 

Even if the job does not align obviously align with your interests, you can still lead by action within the workplace. For example, if you are a sales associate at Old Navy with an interest in art, you can flex your design skills by dressing the mannequins. If you’re the crew member at McDonald’s with an interest in mechanical engineering, you can learn how to fix the shake machine. Look for ways to make even menial tasks your own, finding more efficient ways to accomplish them, or taking on increasing responsibility. Admissions committees will be impressed by your go-getter approach. 

 

While it may seem like the clock has run out on your time to impress by 11th or 12th grade, there are still many things that you can do to stand out through your extracurriculars. To learn more about building your extracurricular profile, check out our posts A Guide to Extracurricular Activities: Grade 11 and Is It Too Late to Join a Club Junior or Senior Year?

 

To find out how your existing profile might stack up in college admissions, sign up for your free CollegeVine account to get access to our chancing engine, essay guides, and other tools to help you succeed in college applications.

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.