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What Counts as an Extracurricular?
As you begin applying to college, you’ll likely find that questions about your extracurricular activities will come up often. Whether in alumni interviews or simply in the process of filling out the Common App, you’ll need to reflect on your extracurriculars time and again. Many colleges evaluate applicants holistically, meaning that they go beyond your transcripts to understand who you are as an individual.
While numerical data like GPA and SAT scores can help admissions counselors predict how likely a student is to succeed in a rigorous college curriculum, factors like extracurriculars, talents and interests can tell an admissions committee more about how you might add to their vibrant campus community outside of the classroom.
But before you throw that one-off pie eating contest into your activities list, it is important to know what exactly counts as an extracurricular activity to the admissions committees that will be reading your application. While it can be tempting to consider anything that takes up your free time as “extracurricular,” there is a line to be drawn between what makes for a productive hobby or a simple pastime. Here, we’ve outlined some criteria for you to consult as you evaluate your activities to determine what counts as an extracurricular. If it meets all of these criteria, you’re golden! Add it to the Common App and prepare to discuss it in an interview.
1. I do it outside of my schoolwork.
This should be obvious, but it is worth clarifying: anything that you do for class does not count as an extracurricular. This includes any extra credit work you have chosen to undertake or other instances of “going the extra mile” for a course. Ultimately, it is assumed that your grades will accurately reflect all of the work that you devote to preparing for you classes. With this understanding, you should refrain from referencing any work in your extracurricular section if it relates to a class on your high school transcript.
2. It takes up my time.
While there is no threshold amount of time that you need to devote to an activity to consider it a legitimate extracurricular, you should certainly not consider anything that does not involve a regular time commitment as one of your extracurricular activities. For example, if you are part of an organization that does not require you to attend regular meetings or contribute time and energy, you should not include this in your list of extracurricular activities, even if you are nominally a member.
We advise this for two reasons. The first pertains to honesty; claiming an activity as an extracurricular implies that you devote time to it. If in fact you do not spend time contributing to an organization, you should not feel comfortable citing it to demonstrate involvement or productivity.
Secondly, you should aim for quality over quantity in your list of extracurriculars. It is much more meaningful to participate substantively in a few clubs than at minimum required capacity in many. Thus, you should not feel pressured to list every organization you have ever come into contact with in order to impress admissions counselors with your level of involvement and productivity.
Instead, look to grow within the activities that matter most to you. Run for a leadership role in your favorite club, or put in extra hours on your athletic team so that you can become a captain. Taking on increasing amounts of responsibility demonstrates a greater depth of involvement, and can lead to experiences which make for more interesting supplemental essays.
3. It is a regular commitment.
In continuation of the above point, an extracurricular activity is something to which you allocate sustained, regular attention. This can manifest itself in myriad ways. If you are part of a club that meets once a week, a society that routinely organizes events throughout the year, or a theater production that requires you to practice weekly for an extended period of time, you can count any one of these activities as an extracurricular.
Meanwhile, events or activities that are “one-offs” do not belong in the extracurricular section of the Common App. For example, if you attend a conference that happens only once a year, you should not list it as an extracurricular unless your participation also involved a year-long planning and preparation, often as part of a committee. While these are certainly productive experiences that are worthy of discussion, these are not “extracurriculars” which you may choose to address in interviews, your personal statement, or supplemental essays.
In some cases, you might find it hard to determine whether or not an activity or commitment counts as regular. Say for example, you organize a monthly volunteer day at a local shelter. While this activity isn’t necessarily a club you attend on a weekly basis, you likely commit a set number of hours per week gearing up for the event each month. In this case, you’ll want to include this as an extracurricular.
4. It is something I care about.
Not only should an extracurricular be something to which you devote a significant and regular amount of non-studying time, but it should also be something in which you are emotionally invested. Generally, it happens naturally that students care about their extracurriculars, however such isn’t always the case. And while it’s great to challenge yourself and try new things, you shouldn’t pick up new activities that you don’t care about just to impress admissions counselors. Thus, this point should doubly serve as a criterion and a reminder.
While there are certainly specific types of extracurriculars that schools like to see, a student’s deep commitment and demonstrated growth within any activity can ultimately impress an admissions committee. Hence, as you prepare for interviews, do not forget to think critically about why you are part of an organization. Be able to identify and communicate both in writing and verbally what drove you to pursue a given activity, why it matters to you, and how you’ve grown while doing it.
5. I have learned something from it and/or I can speak substantively about its impact on me.
This last item is a bit of a trick question—in reality, it is hard to find something that you can’t learn from. If you’ve made it this far, you should be able to think about a lesson you have learned from the activity you have in mind.
Thus, consider this a reminder: think carefully about each of the activities that you claim as extracurriculars, and be prepared to discuss at least one thing you have learned from doing each of them. While admissions committees are certainly interested in hearing about the content of your work and will be impressed if you have had significant achievements in your academic pursuits, they are equally interested in hearing about what you have learned from these activities beyond your ostensible accomplishments. Colleges are looking to build a class of students who learn readily and are eager to contribute their experiences to the campus community.
Thinking Outside the Box
You may notice that these criteria are fairly open-ended. Indeed, we want to emphasize that there are many extracurriculars beyond the obvious (like playing a sport, participating in a school club, or writing for the school newspaper, to name a few). Indeed, by our definition, anything from maintaining sustained membership in a community organization (like a church), to volunteering in your community, to working a job can count as an extracurricular activity.
Self-driven pastimes can count as well—like writing a book or making movies—if you can confidently say that you regularly devote time to these endeavors.
Finally, if you pursue education outside of school, such as taking weekly piano lessons or attending regular classes at a language center in your city or town, be sure to include that as an extracurricular as well.
Your extracurricular activities should ultimately reflect who you are and what’s important to you. While colleges want to admit smart people, they also want to create a vibrant community of individuals looking to contribute to campus culture. So don’t be afraid to showcase who you are through your activities and accomplishments.
For more about extracurricular activities and growing your involvement, check out these posts: