Many college-bound students who are gearing up to go to apply to competitive schools lean on extracurriculars to help give their resume a boost. But what extracurriculars do colleges actually look for, or care about?
This question gets asked a lot by students and their parents, and it can often feel like the answer is ever-changing.
Let’s start with a “memory jogger” of different activities and awards to list, then talk about what makes for an impressive list of extracurricular activities both for college applications and scholarship applications. I will also provide some resources for how to keep track of all of these activities along the way so your student isn’t scrambling to remember everything they’ve done since freshman year when starting college applications.
Extracurricular activities come in many different shapes and sizes. Make sure your student isn’t only thinking about what they did in school when it comes to listing out activities. All of the following, and more, will count towards extracurricular activities:
- School sports teams
- Club sports teams or leagues
- Student government
- Community organizations or clubs
- Church groups or clubs
- Academic teams, debate teams, math teams, quiz bowl
- Other clubs at school
- Student newspaper or yearbook
- School dance teams or theater groups
- Community theater
- Dance programs, teams, academies
- School, church and/or community band or choir
- Music lessons
- Art clubs
- Specific art or design projects
- College summer camps/programs
- Other summer camps
- Community service groups and/or projects
- Leadership positions in school, church or community
- Summer jobs
- Part-time jobs
- Businesses started
- Articles, blogs or other works published
- Junior ROTC
- YouTube channels started/maintained
- Podcasts published
- Habitat for Humanity
- Websites started
- Starting a band
- Missionary work
- Political organizations
What Do Colleges Look for in Extracurricular Activities?
As far as the type of activities colleges want to see, it’s pretty much “anything goes.” The important thing is your student’s commitment level. Colleges look for depth instead of breadth – They want to see an in-depth commitment to one or a few activities/types of activity rather than shallow participation in a wider variety of things.
So what makes up in-depth participation? Let’s take the example of playing a sport. Your student playing the same sport, or maybe the same 2-3 sports throughout high school, is better than jumping around between sports from year to year. Even more impressive would be getting to the team captain level by Junior or Senior year.
Also, for those looking to play in college, it would be natural to see a high commitment level outside of school through clubs or leagues and many hours per week spent in practice.
For a student interested in theater, a high commitment level would be participation in many school productions and community theater productions.
A group of activities compiled around a theme will show your student’s passion for an area and will look impressive for competitive college admissions or scholarship applications. This is especially the case if it is an area of study the student wants to pursue in college or the topic of a particular scholarship application.
Here are a few examples:
- Leadership – aspiring leaders may have held positions like class president, team captain, youth group officer, yearbook editor and more.
- Education – Aspiring teachers might volunteer with a children’s group, work at a kid’s summer camp, be a teacher’s aide for younger kids, and even teach Sunday school.
- Music – Musically-inclined students may be in the school band, play in the orchestra for school musicals, participate in a local youth orchestra, take lessons through a local conservatory, and maybe even give lessons to children.
Awards and Recognition
In addition to extracurricular activities, college applications and scholarship applications will ask about awards and recognition. Make sure your student includes all of the following:
- Honor roll
- Student of the Quarter
- National Honor Society acceptance
- Other in-school student awards
- Most-improved award on a sports team
- MVP award on a sports team
- All-State, all-region, all-area, all-conference awards
- Medals/trophies won in athletic competitions
- Medals/trophies won in speech, forensics, debate, etc.
- Awards in art fairs and competitions
- Awards in music competitions
- Community awards
- Eagle Scout or other boy scout awards
- Girl scout awards
- Awards in any types of state-wide or national competitions
- Awards for volunteering
- Special mention in athletic publications or websites
- Honor societies
- National Merit Scholarship Finalist, Semi-Finalist or Commended student
- National language exam recognition
- AP scholar awards and passing scores on specific AP tests
- Science Fair awards
- Spelling bee/geography bee awards
- Other academic competition awards
Keeping Track of Activities & Awards
Your student needs an activity resume, also known as a college application resume. These resumes will be useful both for college applications and scholarship applications.
Here is a link to a simple Google Activity Resume Template. If you’d like to use this, go ahead and download and save it so you can edit it.
In addition, here are 6 very helpful examples that can be used as templates from The College Essay Guy.
The Best Way to List Extracurricular Activities & Awards
On the activity resume, college applications and scholarship applications, your student should list activities and awards in priority order – the best, most impressive and most important ones first.
If your student is limited to listing only a specific number of activities, like on the Common App, they should list the ones that they have had significant involvement in and maybe have held leadership positions or have won awards in. (On the Common App, if your student has had significant involvement in more than 10 things, they can use the Additional Information section to finish the list.)
Some Final Thoughts on Extracurricular Activities
Extracurricular activities can show a college admissions committee a lot about the student’s passions, level of dedication and commitment, and how they like to spend their time outside of school. There are two types of students, “pointy” and “well-rounded”. Pointy students spend the majority of their time focused in just one area, subject-matter or activity. Well-rounded students spread their time among several different things.
Colleges look for both types of students. And there are scholarships out there that are looking for both types of students.
Make sure your student takes the time to think through and write down all that they have been involved with, including all the honors and awards they have received. Then help them prioritize these so the most impressive things catch attention first.
Finally, but most importantly, encourage your students to focus on activities they are interested in or passionate about. There is no point in spending time energy in a club or volunteer setting just to “add it to your college application.” College admissions officers can pick out applications that are full of padding.
Don’t waste your time doing things you THINK will get you into a specific college. Instead, use your extracurricular time to follow your dreams, be curious and try out new experiences, and do things you enjoy. Colleges want to admit students who want to learn and make the most out of available opportunities. Being involved in activities that interest and challenge you as opposed to just checking a box for an application show that to the schools where you submit applications.
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