As you’re preparing your college applications, you may be ready to upload those carefully honed essays and to discuss what you’ve learned in your favorite subjects. But then you’re suddenly confronted with a new category of information to provide: your extracurricular activities. What counts as an extracurricular, anyway? What should you include (and are there any activities you should leave out)? Is there a special way you should present them? And what are college admissions officials really looking for when they ask about extracurriculars, anyway? Keep reading to find out.
What Are Extracurriculars?
Extracurriculars are (almost) any activity you do on a regular basis outside of your classwork or your homework. You may participate in extracurriculars at school or away from it, but you must spend a significant amount of time on them if you want to use them on your college applications (and yes, the Common App asks how many hours you spend on them; individual college applications are likely to do so as well).
In addition, the extracurriculars you list on your application should be activities you truly care about. Colleges are trying to get a picture of who you are outside the classroom when they ask about extracurriculars, so you should view your list as a way to give admissions officers a window into your life and your passions. If you end up interviewing with your prospective colleges, your interviewers may ask specific questions about your extracurriculars, so you want to choose activities that set you up to talk about how much you’ve learned and how you’ve grown.
Categories of Extracurriculars
The extracurriculars you focus on may be determined in part by what you expect to study in college. For example, if you’re hoping to head into a competitive music or theater program, you’re likely to focus on the competitions, shows, and performances you’ve participated in during high school. Take a look at this list of extracurricular activities to start making your own list.
- Visual and Performing Arts (anime club, your own drawing and painting projects, graphic design work done for your school, ceramics or woodworking projects and awards, etc.)
- Performing Arts (Thespians/drama club, school plays and musicals, stand-up comedy, community theater, dance performances, film production, etc.)
- Student Government and Leadership (peer support or leadership roles, student government, community government positions, etc.)
- Music (school or church choir, concert band or orchestra, voice lessons, marching band, jazz band, your own band, school radio, DJ job, etc. )
- Religious Activities (Fellowship of Christian Athletes, short-term mission trips, church youth groups, Jewish Student Union, etc.)
- Community Groups (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H, Habitat for Humanity, Key Club, Junior ROTC, etc.)
- Volunteer Work (hospital volunteering/Candy Striper, UNICEF club, animal rescue, mentoring/tutoring of younger students, Red Cross club, etc.)
- Academic Clubs, Academic Competitions, and Honor Societies (National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta math honor society, literary magazines, poetry clubs, academic decathlon, National Spelling Bee, robotics, science fairs, National History Bee, Science Olympiad, all academic/subject-oriented clubs, etc.)
- Cultural Clubs (foreign language clubs, Student Diplomacy Corps, all ethnically based clubs, etc.)
- Media (school newspaper, school TV/radio station, school yearbook, school magazine, website development, etc.)
- Social Activism (gay-straight alliance, Amnesty International, cancer awareness, environmental clubs, political clubs, volunteering for a political candidate, working for causes like animal rights, etc.)
- Speech and Debate (Model UN, debate/forensics team, mock trial, speech club, Toastmasters, etc.)
- Athletics (all the traditional sports, plus those not always offered at high school, including equestrian, Quidditch, Ultimate Frisbee, skateboarding, and martial arts)
In addition, don’t forget to include any self-driven activities you’re devoted to. Have you written a novel? Drawn a comic book? Coded and marketed a smartphone app? Make sure to mention them. If you’ve taken ballet lessons since you were 4, or if you design amazing cosplay costumes, or if you have your own YouTube channel, those all belong on your activities list. In addition, it’s okay to mention the jobs you’ve held, as well as any internships.
How Should You Evaluate and Highlight Your Extracurriculars?
As you’re evaluating your own extracurriculars, there are a few parameters to use so you can highlight the activities and elements that are most likely to intrigue colleges. Pay attention to how long you’ve participated in a specific activity, and how many hours per week you were involved with it. (The Common App is going to ask you for that exact number, by the way.) You should also highlight any leadership role you’ve taken and point out any special recognition you’ve received for it.
When you consider how long you’ve been involved with activities, pay special attention to those you were part of from freshman to senior year. Your involvement may have changed its form during that time — For instance, you may have started out in a girls’ choir in ninth grade, progressed to a co-ed choir in your sophomore year, and been promoted to your school’s special madrigals or jazz choir during your senior year. If you have a lot of activities, though, don’t separate those out but treat them all as choir, and provide the specifics where you’re given room to do so.
If you spend a lot of time each week on an activity, it should be listed high on your list. All those hours spent in basketball practice or after-school rehearsals for the school musical count for something.
Make sure to point out the leadership roles you’ve held. Colleges want to know if you worked on the school newspaper, but they’re especially impressed if you were the editor-in-chief. Whether you were captain of the fencing team, president of the robotics club, or drum major in the marching band, your leadership roles all deserve special mention — and don’t feel you’re bragging to list them. Secondary leadership roles (managing editor, vice-president, secretary, etc.) also should be mentioned, as should any management positions you’ve been given at work.
Finally, include your achievements in every category, especially when you made it to a national or regional level. Did you make it to the finals of the National Spelling Bee or the YoungArts competition? Did your sports team win a district or state championship? Were you singled out as MVP? Did your science fair project make it to the state level? Did you write a play that was performed professionally, or did you make a film that was chosen for screening at a film festival? Whatever your accomplishments, it’s time to brag about them.
By listing your extracurriculars and discussing them with passion, you give college admissions officers an insight into who you really are and whether you’d be a good fit for their institution. Show yourself off in the best possible light by highlighting your achievements and passions in your extracurricular list.