If you’re a high school student or the parent of one, that title probably got your attention. Students (and parents) frequently ask me this question as they contemplate what they (their child) can get involved in that will help them (their child) stand out on college applications. The answer, which may surprise you, is that it really doesn’t matter.
To clarify, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter whether or not you do any activities at all. Colleges, especially the more selective ones, are looking for applicants who not only excelled academically but who engaged in activities outside of the classroom. Colleges seek such students for two main reasons: 1.) balancing school and activities shows you can manage your time well, which is a skill you’ll need to be successful in college; 2.) colleges want students who will get involved on campus, and a student who’s participated in activities in high school is much more likely to do so in college. That said, your activities can take many forms, and there is no magic formula for how many or which ones you should do to increase your chances of being admitted to college.
When I talk with students about extracurricular activities, we rarely discuss whether certain activities will “look good” on their college applications. Rather, I encourage students to focus on what they enjoy doing. If you’re going to spend time on something, it should go without saying that it should interest you and make you happy.
Additionally, there are far better reasons to do an activity than simply putting it on your college applications. Activities give you an opportunity to explore and figure out your passions, which can help you decide what to study in college. They are also a great way to meet people and make friends. Your high school experience will be much more fun if you do more than just go to school everyday and do your homework.
Colleges prefer students who have demonstrated an in-depth, ongoing commitment to their activities to those who have been involved at a surface level. This means that, due to time constraints, it may only be possible for you to do a few activities, but that is just fine. Furthermore, colleges define “activities” very broadly to include sports, clubs, religious organizations, community service, work, and sometimes even hobbies. Family responsibilities, like baby-sitting your younger siblings after school, also count.
Admissions counselors can easily spot students who truly enjoyed and were deeply engaged in their activities versus those who joined several clubs and organizations simply to pad their applications (especially if those students didn’t get involved in anything until their junior or senior year). Admissions officers do this by looking at how applicants describe their activities, whether in a simple list or in an essay.
While there are no “best” activities to do in terms of college admissions, I want to address one type of activity in particular: community service. Many people mistakenly believe that students must do community service to get into college. If you love volunteering, then by all means, do that, but if it’s not your passion, find something else that is. As with other types of activities, colleges are looking for continuous, long-term involvement. Therefore, if you decide to do community service, it’s better to devote considerable time to one or two organizations than to spend a few hours volunteering at many different places.
There is also a misconception that students need to be well-rounded. For example, students who play a sport might feel like they also should sing in the choir and do debate. In reality, when college admissions counselors evaluate applicants, they are seeking to build a well-rounded class of students with a wide variety of interests. So, if you as an individual have a more narrow range of interests and activities, that is not a strike against you.
The summer is a great time to review the activities you’ve already participated in and to consider what you might want to do next year. While it’s true that colleges like to see consistency and depth of involvement in students’ activities, if you’ve tried something and found that you didn’t really enjoy it, it’s ok to let that activity go. Remember, the most important question to ask yourself in contemplating which activities to pursue is, “What makes me happy?”