If you’re in high school, you probably know that extracurricular participation is important for getting into college. But why do colleges care anyway? How important are your extracurricular activities, really? What type of activities should you get involved in? And how many?
In this guide, we’ve got the answers to all your questions about extracurriculars. Plus, we’ll share some ideas and inspiration on the best extracurricular activities for college. Let’s get started!
Why Do Colleges Consider Extracurricular Activities?
Some students wonder why colleges look at extracurricular activities in the first place. What are they trying to learn? How is your extracurricular participation evaluated?
Your extracurricular activities help colleges form a more complete picture of who you are as a person and student. They give admissions officers insight into your:
- Dedication and commitment
- Time management
Admissions officers also want to know that you’ll actively contribute to their campus community. Your extracurricular activities can help predict not only your level of involvement, but also how you’ll likely get involved on campus.
If you’ve listed a major on your application, colleges may also look for relevant extracurricular activities. Are you truly passionate about the field? Do you seek out opportunities to develop your knowledge and skills in this area? Has your extracurricular involvement helped you prepare for success in this major?
So, your extracurricular activities actually give colleges a lot of information! They learn about your personal qualities, how you might contribute on campus, and where your passions lie (bonus points if they’re related to your major).
How Important Are Extracurricular Activities on My College Application?
Extracurricular activities are not as important as your GPA and test scores, but they do matter. Along with your personal essay and letters of recommendation, your activities provide a glimpse into who you are as an individual. When you’re compared to similarly qualified applicants, your extracurricular involvement can give you the edge.
The importance of your extracurriculars also depends on the selectivity of the school. More selective schools take a closer look at every aspect of the application. Most of their applicants are academic superstars, so it’s the personal details that set admitted students apart.
How Many Extracurricular Activities Should I Participate In?
Colleges want quality over quantity when it comes to your extracurricular participation. They want to know that you’ll contribute your unique talents, interests, and voice to their community.
Are you dedicated and committed to your passions? Are you willing to take on leadership roles and meaningfully contribute? Do you have the potential to make a difference on their campus? Colleges are far more interested in answering these questions than in counting the number of activities on your resume.
And you don’t have to take it from us! Here’s what Yale says in their advice on putting together your application:
“You [should] demonstrate a deep commitment to and genuine appreciation for what you spend your time doing. The joy you take in the pursuits that really matter to you – rather than a resume padded with a long list of activities – will strengthen your candidacy.”
When describing what they look for in a student, Swarthmore College adds:
“We are more interested in your focus on a few activities over time, rather than membership in a long list of clubs—although we understand that some students can balance an assortment of activities.”
There’s no magic number of extracurricular activities that will get you into your dream school. It’s not about the number. But if you need a number to aim for, 4-6 is ideal. Your resume won’t look padded, but it will show you can successfully juggle multiple commitments.
If you list 10+ activities, colleges may assume you just want to look impressive. They’ll think you were barely involved in lots of activities, instead of deeply involved in a few that genuinely matter to you.
Tips to Make the Most of Your Extracurricular Activities
What does quality extracurricular participation look like? Read the tips below to find out!
Follow Your Passions
Most importantly, colleges want your extracurricular involvement to reflect your passions. Your participation should tell a story about what makes you tick. What sparks your enthusiasm and excitement? What makes you want to learn more? Where do you thrive and find inspiration?
If you’re set on your major and future career, participate in relevant activities. This shows you’re genuinely interested in your subject area, you’re committed to it, and you have the background and preparation to succeed.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to one “thing.” Be a future microbiologist with a love of string instruments. Show off your interest in robotics and your enthusiasm for classic literature. Commit yourself to social justice issues while dominating on the basketball court, plus becoming a coding master in your spare time.
Your extracurricular activities should reflect you. Don’t sign up for something because all your friends did, or you think colleges will like it. Take up causes that mean something to you. Engage in activities that make you smile, grow, and dream. Do what you love. And if you’re not sure what that is just yet, try a few things on for size. You’ll quickly figure out what activities are the right fit for you.
When you follow your passions, your application will tell a cohesive story. In that story, college admissions officers will see who you are as a distinct individual. They’ll recognize what sets you apart from other students and how you can make a unique contribution to their campus.
Stick with It
Colleges want to see in-depth participation and growth over time. They don’t want to see that you halfheartedly “participated” in an extensive laundry list of activities. Take some time to explore a few options if you haven’t found your passions yet. Once you find what you love to do, stick with it!
Ideally, you’ll spend most of your high school career dedicated to your key areas of interest. Again, this will help you tell a cohesive story that defines you as an individual. This doesn’t mean you should force yourself to stay on a team or in a club that you hate. Simply try not to jump around to tons of different activities.
In addition to commitment over time, colleges are looking for growth and contribution. Find ways to add value to your organizations, teams, or school and community in general. By making a difference now, you’re showing colleges you’re likely to make a difference in the future too.
Ways to contribute at school/within an organization include:
- Starting your own club (if something you want to do isn’t already available)
- Planning special events
- Introducing new ideas or projects
- Solving a problem
- Recruiting new members
- Run a committee and/or lead meetings
Contribute to your community by joining in on service projects or leading initiatives of your own. Find a need you can help fill, or a cause you’re passionate about and would like to advance. Many competitive applicants at top schools have gone as far as starting their own nonprofits.
Keep a document listing the activities you participate in, contributions you make, and problems you solve. You don’t want to forget all the amazing things you’ve done! Your list will help you put together your activity summary for college applications. You may even get some ideas for an awesome college application essay!
Take on Leadership Roles
Although you can show leadership in many ways, one of the best is to take on official leadership roles. Get involved in student government, or become a club officer or team captain.
And of course, find ways to demonstrate your effectiveness as a leader. Your title will impress colleges, but it’s even more impressive to show that you used your title to make a real impact. Remember to keep track of the progress and improvements you make in your leadership position(s).
If you don’t become an elected leader, it’s not the end of your college dreams. As mentioned above, you can still show leadership by heading up projects or committees, solving important problems, or even starting an organization of your own.
If you can win an award in one (or more) of your areas of interest, that’s the icing on the cake for colleges. Honors and recognition show that you not only love what you do, but you’re also great at it, and people have taken notice!
Find competitions related to your interests, whether that’s an essay contest, Science Fair, quiz bowl, or prestigious talent show. Look for opportunities to showcase your abilities. Then go for it! You won’t win them all, but you increase your chances (and gain valuable experience) the more you try.
You can also attend selective summer programs, find an internship or job shadowing experience, and conduct independent research projects. These activities show real talent, even if they aren’t exactly awards.
Remember that your extracurricular participation isn’t limited to school clubs or existing organizations. Independent study and pursuing your own creative endeavors indicates you’re resourceful, determined, and willing to take initiative.
What Extracurricular Activities Should I Participate In?
By now, you know you should participate in extracurricular activities aligned with your talents, interests, and goals.
But if you’re looking for suggestions, here are a few ideas! Options are not limited to what you see here. You can also get involved in cultural or religious organizations, those related to business and entrepreneurship, and much more.
If you see something you’d love to do that’s not available at your school, consider starting it yourself!
STEM Extracurricular Activities
Students interested in STEM may enjoy:
- Physics Club
- Math Club
- Science or Math Olympiads
- Girls Who Code
- Science National Honor Society
- Engineering Club
- STEM Club
- Robotics League
- Coding Club
- Astronomy Club
- Electronics Club
- Building your own website or app
- Independent research
- Volunteering to teach senior citizens about technology
Arts Extracurricular Activities
If you’re interested in the arts, consider:
- Concert Band
- Marching Band
- Jazz Band
- Dance Team
- Drama Club
- Art Club
- Literary Magazine
- Writing Club
- Photography Club
- International Thespian Society
- Poetry Club
- Poetry Slams
- Participating in talent competitions or community theater
- Promoting your music through Youtube and other social platforms
- Making and selling art for a good cause
- Providing lessons in the arts to children in underprivileged communities
- Learning about animation or graphic design
Athletics Extracurricular Activities
Athletes can gain extracurricular participation through:
- Participating in a sport(s) of your choice, ideally as a captain
- Volunteering to coach youth sports
- Providing free lessons in your sport to underprivileged youth
- Leading health/exercise initiatives in your school or community
- Organizing buy-in tournaments or runs/walks for charity
General/Other Extracurricular Activities
- National Honor Society
- Student Government
- Spanish National Honor Society
- Future Business Leaders of America
- Debate Team
- School Newspaper/Yearbook
- Architecture Club
- Psychology Club
- Cultural, language, or religious clubs of your choice
- Key Club
- Habitat for Humanity
- National Beta Club
- Chess Club
- Model United Nations
- Best Buddies International
Final Thoughts: Best Extracurricular Activities for College
In the end, our advice on extracurricular activities is simple: Do what you love. Stick with it, make meaningful contributions, and take on leadership roles too. Whenever possible, earn honors and recognition for your talents. Ideally, at least a couple of your extracurricular activities will be related to your college major and career goals.
Colleges want to see that you’re an individual. They want to know that you’ll make a difference on their campus and—eventually—in the wider world. Your extracurricular involvement gives you a great opportunity to demonstrate who you are and what you have to offer!