Extracurricular Activities: The Basics

First and foremost, your grades need to come first!  If your extracurricular activities are getting in the way of you getting the best grades you can realistically get, then take a serious look and decide what to keep and what to drop.  Being the president of three clubs won’t help get you into a top school if your grades suffer as a result of your extracurricular activities.

Colleges want to see passion and commitment along with achievement.  These qualities are signs of a person who can accomplish great things in life.  You should find something that you are willing to sacrifice a lot of your resources in order to make it successful.  Passion and commitment on useless things such as video gaming probably won’t do much good.  If you like video games, go into computer programming or chess.  And please don’t mention that you are a big couch potato even if you are proud of it.

If you really have a special talent in fine arts, you can submit your work (e.g., a DVD of your performance or pictures of your art work) and maybe even get a recommendation letter from your extracurricular advisor (but this must not replace those from “academic” fields such as English or science).  If your advisors’ recommendation letters cannot be submitted online, ask them to mail them in.

Not all extracurricular activities are the same.  Some take up lots of time and they are simply not the best choices (e.g., marching band or cheerleading).  Some are considered to be “non-intellectual” (e.g., cheerleading) so they don’t contribute to your college application as much as others.  So while you should do what you enjoy, remember that there are many other factors you need to consider, and there are options to do what you enjoy.  For instance, you can do music at your church or in a community group instead of of your school’s marching band, which requires you to put in many after-school hours because of all the games.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a “well-rounded” person who’s good at everything.  You don’t have to play sports or music.  But you need to do something useful outside of classes.  Leadership is good but don’t spread yourself too thin and don’t start a club just to look good.  Also don’t join 10 clubs in the senior year just to look good – it actually makes you look superficial.

If you have limited extracurricular activities because of family financial needs or a physical disability, make sure you explain that on your application or essay, or explain that to the interviewer.  Family needs are not your fault, and oftentimes it may make you stand out from among comparable applicants.  You can, in your essay or during the interview, discuss how the special circumstances help shape you in ways that are not likely to happen if your situation were not so unique.