I do it outside of my schoolwork.
It takes up my time.
It is a regular commitment.
It is something I care about.
I have learned something from it and/or I can speak substantively about its impact on me.
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What Counts as an Extracurricular?
As you are applying to college, you will find that questions about your extracurricular activities will come up often. Interviewers may want you to speak about your experiences in some of your extracurriculars. Even before that happens, you’ll be required to fill out the extracurricular section of the Common App. But before you do any of these things, it is important to know what exactly counts as an extracurricular activity according to the admissions committees that will be reading your application.
If indeed you find yourself questioning which of your activities counts as an extracurricular, you are not alone. While it is tempting to consider anything that takes up your free time as “extracurricular,” there is obviously a line to be drawn between a productive hobby and a simple pastime. Here, we’ve created a checklist of “Extracurricular Activity Criteria” for you to consult as you are trying to decide whether a given activity counts as an extracurricular. If it meets all of these criteria, you’re gold! Add it to the Common App and prepare to discuss it in an interview.
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.
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 a club that does not require you to attend 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 adcoms with your level of involvement and productivity. Your dishonesty will be quite transparent.
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 year-long planning and preparation. While productive experiences that are worthy of discussion, these are not “extracurriculars” and should instead be discussed in interviews, your personal statement, or supplemental essays if you wish.
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 a cause in which you are emotionally invested. Generally, it happens naturally that students care about their extracurriculars. Thus, this point should doubly serve as a criterion and a reminder. 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.
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 them. While admissions committees are certainly interested in hearing about the content of your work and will be impressed if you have achieved significantly in your academic pursuits, they are equally interested to hear 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 they will be looking for evidence that you are such a person.
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 couple). 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, you should be sure to include that as an extracurricular as well.
Any questions about extracurriculars? Not sure if one of yours should count? Sign up for a free consultation today, which will allow you to chat with one of our consultants and discuss any specific questions you may have regarding your specific course selections. Your consultant could also be a great resource if you find that, later on down the road, you’d like to be connected to more one-on-one services that can help you with essay editing, test prep, or interview practice.