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How to Present Non-Traditional Extracurriculars on Your College Application
As the college admissions game becomes more and more competitive, most admissions committees at selective schools are now fairly open about the fact that they routinely have to turn away qualified students. Because the academic race has gotten so tight, it is now often secondary factors like extracurriculars that make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Between two students with similar high grades and similar high test scores, it is often the student who has shown exceptional dedication and commitment through extracurricular activities that will gain admission.
This is great news for students who have worked their way up through student council and achieved a top leadership position their senior year. It’s also good news for student athletes or dedicated debate club members.
But what if your time and commitments outside of school are focused on something a little less traditional? What if you have spent the last four years teaching yourself to speak Russian from the privacy of your bedroom, or you have spent your after school hours at a nursing home teaching your grandfather to play chess? How do you highlight these experiences so that they shine through on your college application?
In this post, we will outline some of the less traditional activities that could be considered extracurricular, and we’ll lend our insight into how you can ensure that these experiences shine through, regardless of how well they fit into the category of a traditional extracurricular activity.
What Qualifies as an Extracurricular Activity?
If you participate in an unconventional or unstructured activity outside of school, you may be wondering if it is even considered an extracurricular activity. The line between a hobby and an actual extracurricular might seem blurry or undefined.
In general, though, anything that you participate in regularly outside of your required academic work can be considered an extracurricular activity. The key factors are that you are not required to participate and that you participate over an extended period, dedicating a significant amount of time to it.
Extracurricular activities do not have to be social in nature. There is no requirement that anyone else participates in order to make it official.
To make it worth including on your college application, though, you should think about the activity in a little more depth. Is it something that you have learned from? Has it shaped who you are or how you see the world? Do you care about it? These are all things to consider.
For more information, check out the CollegeVine post, What Counts as an Extracurricular?.
Some Examples of Untraditional Extracurricular Activities
We are all used to seeing school clubs and sports listed as common extracurriculars, but there are plenty of other options. If you regularly tutor friends outside of school, that could be an extracurricular activity. If you’re teaching your grandmother and her friends how to use a computer, that could be an extracurricular activity. Or perhaps you volunteer on Sunday mornings in the nursery at your church. All of these activities qualify as extracurriculars because you spend time on them, you do them regularly, and they are not required as a part of your academic work. In addition, you care about them and they shape who you are.
But where do they fit on your college application and how do you make sure they are an accurate representation of the time and work you’ve put in? There are a few different areas on the application where you can highlight these activities.
How to Include Unconventional Extracurriculars on Your College Applications
The Activities Section of Your College Application
The most obvious place to include an activity such as this is the Activity Section on your college application.
On the Common Application, you are allowed to list up to ten activities. As you do so, you may categorize each activity. On the 2016 version of the Common Application, there were 27 categories to choose from, including service work, family responsibilities, and more.
If your activity doesn’t obviously fit into any category, you can select “Other”. If your activity fits into more than one category, choose the category that is more specific. If there is still no obvious choice between several options, choose a category that you have not chosen yet.
In this section, you’ll be given the chance to describe how much time per week you dedicate to this activity, and how long you have participated in it. You will also be asked about any accomplishments or leadership positions that you have achieved. This can be a little tricky for an unconventional extracurricular, but if possible, find a way to quantify your results.
For example, if you have been tutoring classmates in advanced math classes, note the average score increase they have achieved. If you have been teaching nursing home residents to use a computer, note how many now regularly use their own email accounts. Putting a number to your accomplishment will make it specific and concrete.
For more information about the activities section, see the CollegeVine post How to Fill Out the Common App Activities Section.
College Application Essays
Another place to highlight nontraditional extracurriculars is in an essay on your application. There is almost always an essay option that asks you to speak to the activities or experiences that have had a significant impact on you.
On the 2016 Common Application, that essay was choice number one. The exact prompt was:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
In this case, and in others similar to it, you should focus the essay on how the activity has shaped who you are. Don’t focus only on how much you have accomplished or how helpful you’ve been to others. This can come off as pretentious or self-centered. Instead, discuss how your participation reflects your values and what you have learned or received personally from the experience.
For more about this essay topic, see the CollegeVine post How To Respond to the Common Application 2016 Prompt #1: Background, Identity, Interests, and Talents.
The Honors Section of Your College Application
There are two places to list honors or awards on your college application. You are asked to do so as a part of the Activity Section, and there is another space to do so as a separate Honors Section. In general, most honors directly related to your extracurriculars will be listed in the Activity honors section. Academic honors or one-time awards will be in the Honors Section.
However, if you do not have enough achievements or awards to fill the Honors Section, you might include an extracurricular honor there. Also, if you achieve recognition for an activity that you only participated in once or twice, and therefore have not listed it as an extracurricular, you should list the award in the Honors section.
For example, if you took up French poetry and performed once at a spoken event where your work was recognized, you would list that in the Honors section. On the other hand, if your French poetry was an extended effort that you studied and pursued independently outside of school and your work culminated in your performance and award, it would be included in the extracurricular section.
For more about the difference between the two honors sections, see An Updated Guide to the 2016-17 Common App Honors Section.
Your final option for where to include information about your nontraditional extracurricular activity is as a supplement to your application. This is most relevant for activities in the arts, such as visual arts, music, or creative writing.
Supplementary materials should only be included with an application if they truly add another dimension that might push you as an applicant over the top. If you’re not sure if it’s a necessity, ask yourself if the information it conveys is extremely important to you as an applicant. If the answer is no, you may be better off without a supplement.
You will need to review the specific guidelines for the schools you’re applying to determine what can be sent and in what format it should be included. Also keep in mind that schools do not always review supplemental materials, so they should be just that—supplemental. Make sure the activity is described elsewhere on your application just to be safe.
In addition, because schools are not required to review your supplementary material, make sure that you submit it according to their guidelines exactly. In particular, keep in mind that some schools require that students submitting supplementary material turn in their entire application before the normal application deadline.
For more information about including supplementary materials with your application, check out the CollegeVine post What Can I Send as Supplementary Materials?.
If you participate in an activity outside of school, but aren’t sure if it qualifies as an extracurricular activity or aren’t sure how to highlight your unique experiences with it, check out CollegeVine’s Applications Guidance service. Here, you’ll be paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire application process, including how to best highlight your unique skills and activities.
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