Aside from grades, extracurricular involvement tends to cause high school students the most stress in building a well-rounded profile. What activities should I join? Am I overloading myself? How should I organize my extracurriculars (ECs) on applications?

Never fear; Admissions Hero has your back! In a stage-by-stage fashion, here’s how to go about handling your extracurriculars:

  1. How to Choose ECs

    • DO this:
      You should be joining an extracurricular if you genuinely enjoy it. There are a lot of ways to discover new activities you’ll love, namely through activities fairs or clubs showcases. You may also consider joining ECs that your friends have taken up or recommended to you, as you are all likely to share similar interests. In the end, you might even join an activity simply because you’re good at it or can help mold the direction of the club through your leadership skills.
    • DON’T do this:

      • You should not be overloading yourself each day with 3 or more regularly-scheduled ECs, regardless of whether you do those activities for fun or want to win awards in them. It might be detrimental to your health, your grades, and your social life to join so many activities just for a resume or application, even if you genuinely have a wide range of interests and love doing multiple things at once.
      • You’re joining a club for the wrong reasons if you don’t like that club but just want to haul home some awards. The importance of honors and awards cannot be doubted, but you can maximize your potential by participating in a smaller set of well-chosen activities. Make sure these are activities you enjoy; that way, you’ll be more likely to succeed at the activity (and, in the process, have a better shot at winning awards).
    • When joining clubs, keep in mind what colleges are looking for.
      Top colleges tend to look for students who are highly specialized, yet well-rounded; after all, these students are the leaders in their fields and interests—the future pioneers of their specialties—but can also easily adapt to new things. With these students, colleges can establish an overall improvement in ranking, public perception, and prestige. So yes, colleges are choosing you based on what you can offer to them in the long run (as irksome as that may sound). Putting all of this personal gain aside, colleges will also tend to choose specialized and well-rounded students because they want a community that is vibrant, passionate, and full of unique personalities. They don’t want students who are constantly booked with work and who don’t know how to branch out, especially since social interaction is an increasingly important skill. Yes, clubs help you branch out, but a sweet spot must be achieved to optimize your extracurricular profile.
    • … This is not to say that you can’t, or shouldn’t, start off by joining multiple activities.
      It’s your first day as a high school freshman, and you’re looking at the list of clubs that your school offers. Oh, I think I’m interested in Club X. Oh, and that club, too… and even that club, come to think of it. Our advice? Go for as many as you want! During your freshman year and even your sophomore year, it’s best to explore as many clubs as you would like to for the sake of discovering your greatest interests. In other words, don’t be afraid to disregard Rule #1 as you kickstart your high school career or begin joining extracurriculars for the first time. From there, you can continue whittling away at your activities to reach the golden core of what you really like. (You’ll probably even find yourself dropping a club after the first meeting, so don’t worry about taking up too much time at this point.) For all those who love doing twenty things at once, this is truly your time to shine.
  2. How to Excel in ECs
    • Concentrate your time in those special activities you have kept.
      As you progress through each year of high school, keep working hard at the activities you’ve decided to keep, as you will likely want to seek a more active position in them. Such a transition might entail increased time dedication or even higher leadership positions. Just make sure that the positions you seek are legitimate, active, and progressing upward (i.e. from Vice President to President). You’ll be on your way to establishing your EC-prowess.
    • Don’t be afraid to add more ECs if you feel like something is missing.
      Maybe you’ve concentrated your time into a few favorite activities but still feel as if there are some interest(s) that you desperately want to explore. Don’t worry, it’s okay to join more activities, even if you’re past the initial “How to Choose ECs” stage. Check out your school’s club listing to find what interests you, and remember—you can always drop the new club if you discover that you don’t like it.
    • Start a club/organization for something that you love.
      Let’s say that you wanted to join a badminton club but discovered that one does not exist at your school. It’s your time to shine! You can create a club that will satisfy this interest. Sure, you might have to step out of your comfort zone and take on leadership roles you’ve never had before, but this will only help you grow.The steps to starting an organization vary by school, but in general, you will need to speak to relevant teachers, mentors, or coaches in the hopes of finding a suitable sponsor. Be polite, professional, and both clear and thorough about your club plans and objectives. Once you’ve found a fitting sponsor, you will have to get your school’s approval to start the organization. This is usually done by filling out and submitting a page-long sheet of information detailing your club name, sponsor name, funding needs, etc. You may need to submit the form to your school’s office multiple times before your club gets approved, so don’t panic if your club is rejected upon the first form submission! After your club is approved, make sure that you spread word about your new club and do some advertising. This will help to get your club off its feet and to ensure that you have a good time with peers of similar interests. Good luck!
  3. How to Cut Down on ECs
    • Let’s whittle away the excess of your extracurriculars list.
      It might be difficult knowing when you should walk away from an activity. So, we’ve taken the work out for you with this list below; if you find yourself thinking that a particular EC fits many of these descriptions, then consider walking away from it:

      1. Your heart has sunk on more than one occasion when you realized you had to dedicate time to that activity.
      2. You would rather be doing something else, and you may even be able to name the other activity you’d rather do. (This is the activity you should be doing instead.)
      3. You’ve questioned whether you should drop the activity.
      4. The activity is keeping you up at night or distracting you during the day in a negative way.
      5. The activity is adding unneeded stress to other aspects of your life, like your schoolwork or social life. For example, you may notice your grades plummeting upon joining the activity, and that’s a warning sign.
      6. You often feel angry or sad when you think of others regularly having a good time doing something else.
      7. You continue doing the activity because you believe it’s expected of you, possibly because of societal pressure or something another student said to you.
      8. You find yourself dreading the idea of quitting the club only because you don’t want to lose an extra item for your resume.
      9. You think your health—mental, physical, social, or spiritual—has declined after joining the activity.
      10. You think you could be better investing your time by improving your skills at something else. The phrase “waste of time” has popped in your mind when you thought about this activity.
      11. Only a few aspects of the activity appeal to you, and you can think of more bad than good things about it when you think about it.
      12. Obviously, it’s best to use your own gut judgment when deciding whether an extracurricular is really worth the continued pursuit. The above list, while fairly comprehensive, is only something to help you as you reach your own decision and realize what you really want for yourself. (*Note: It is also important to realize that your interests may shift slightly, and it may take you longer to realize that certain activities aren’t actually what you really want to do. Some students can take two years or longer to realize that their activities are not what they want, so it’s okay if this takes some time.)
  1. How to Represent ECs on the Common App 
    • Come college application time, you must order your activities in the best way possible.
      So you’ve worked hard at your activities, you’ve become the president of your favorite club, and you’ve raised $3,000 to help spread your interests to others. Now, it’s time to optimize the arrangement of these activities on paper so that you can show colleges the depth of your passions and dedication.To ensure that you’re offering the best presentation possible, follow the hierarchy below, which details the top-to-bottom order in which you should list your activities on the Common App and/or other applications: Extracurriculars…

      • That are internationally known and HIGHLY selective OR that are prestigious summer programs such as TASP, MITES, RSI, etc.
      • That are nationally known and HIGHLY selective
      • That are known statewide and HIGHLY selective
      • For which you’ve achieved the highest leadership position(s) OR in which you’ve achieved the most honors
      • To which you’ve dedicated the most time during your membership/duration of activity OR that are very unique or uncommon—for your personality or in general—with a reasonable amount of dedication and/or leadership
      • That were fairly selective but involved less dedication, small summer programs/internships OR in which you’ve participated steadily or for a great number of years
      • [Other extracurriculars, if at all]

There are exceptions to the above guidelines, of course, which is to be expected. All applicants have unique situations, and some are outlined below:

  1. You may have achieved so many great accomplishments that you need to conserve as much space in your Activities section as you can. If this is the case, use your Honors section to list some of your extracurricular accomplishments; with the space you conserved in your Activities section, list the highly important activities that cannot be explained in the Honors section.
  2. You may have activities all of one caliber, making it difficult to choose which to put first. For instance, maybe you had a restaurant job for three years, beginning as a cashier and then being promoted to, say, waiter/waitress. And then let’s say that you also served as an intern at a less selective biology program for two years. It’s difficult to decide which extracurricular to put first, but in the end, you should be putting the extracurricular first that a) best reflects your interests and b) something relevant to your intended major (if you have one). In this case, it would be best to put your internship first if you are a biology major. If you want to work as a company CEO someday, your restaurant job might be listed first, as it would be more reflective of your ability to interact with others and climb the corporate ladder.
  3. You have a few remaining activities that you’re not sure whether to include. If these activities do not show true dedication to an interest, then it would be best to leave them off. If you’re torn about whether to include a club because it reflects a hobby that you can’t show otherwise, then list the activity and maybe elaborate it in an essay (if you’re truly that passionate about it).

Your EC’s are looking good! Your hard work’s paying off, and you’re having fun along the way. Keep at it, and you’ll find yourself with a stellar EC profile!

 

Ruth Xing

Ruth Xing

Applications Manager at CollegeVine
Ruth is a student at Cornell University studying Math, English, and Music. At CollegeVine, she works primarily as Applications Manager and enjoys helping students achieve their unique ideas of success.
Ruth Xing