Extra-Curricular Activities in College Apps

It’s a changing world out there.  And colleges and universities, whose admission offices are filled with idealistic recent college grads, are on the cutting edge of this change, not following it.

We’ve written before about the importance of high school students delving deeply into a handful of extra-curricular activities – a FEW, not a TON – but in the ever-changing landscape of college admissions, it’s time to emphasize this point again.

Colleges will evaluate how you’ve spent your time outside the classroom – your awareness of and engagement with your community and the world around you – as they consider how you’ll contribute to their campus community.

Today, as colleges strive to build a talented and diverse class of students (note to parents who went to college in the ’80’s – I didn’t say a class full of ‘well-rounded’ students), they’re looking deeply into students’ extra-curricular activities.

When people ask us which extra-curricular activities are “better” for college applications, which they do all the time, we tell them this:  it’s not the activity that matters!  It’s about the depth of your involvement.  Students who participate in extra-curricular activities should have meaningful things to say – stories to tell – about the time they’ve spent outside the classroom.  You should not do activities simply because you think they’ll “look good to colleges.”  You should be able to answer these questions:

  • How have you engaged with the world around you?
  • Why did you spend your time this way?
  • Did you meet other people who share your passion?
  • Did you interact with people whose opinions differed from yours?
  • Did you meet people whose privilege differs from yours – or who aren’t as privileged as you are?
  • What did you learn from them?
  • How will you use those lessons, or your experiences, in other ways in your life?
  • How do you want to impact the world, and have you started doing that already?

In past years, most of the college application platforms that require students to enter extra-curricular activities gave them just a small amount of space to do so.  In the Common Application, for example, students have space to enter up to 10 activities (including extra-curricular activities, jobs, internships, and volunteer work), and they’re permitted up to 150 characters – that’s half a tweet – to describe their involvement.

The University of California, however, gives students more space to explain how they spent their time – the UC text box allows a 350-character description of each activity.  For volunteer/community service activities, the UC application gives students an additional 250-character box, asking them to respond to these questions: “Consider what kind of work the organization does: What’s the reason the organization exists today? How does it help a certain community or population?”

It’s clear that the UC campuses, which practice holistic admission (this means they’re looking at more than just grades and test scores – and it also means that a student with lower grades and/or test scores may be admitted over YOUR kiddo with higher grades and test scores….), are looking for students who have engaged in meaningful ways with their community.  In the video above, I demonstrate the tremendous difference between what you can say in 150 characters, and 350.  If you’d like to read a longer discussion of how to approach applying to the UCs, check out this article.

I spoke this morning for about 40 minutes with the mother of a 9th grader.  She asked me how we could help “package” her son.  He hasn’t really jumped into any activities yet, and he doesn’t have any grades yet.  He’s a clean slate!  I told her for the next two years, he should have two priorities:  take hard classes and get good grades (that’s one priority)!  And get involved in something – anything – that he can really stick with for all four years of high school.  There’s no packaging that will overtake solid grades in challenging courses, and deep involvement in a few activities, either in school or outside of school.

This fast-moving and ever-changing aspect of college admission, by the way, is important if you’re the parent of a younger high school student.  There’s still time to build up that resume.  Prioritize meaning over checking boxes.  That is to say, don’t send your kid out to volunteer at a homeless shelter one month, an animal shelter the next month, and something completely different the following month.  And if volunteer work isn’t your jam – no problem!  Don’t do it just for the sake of doing it.  Spend your time doing something else that has real relevance to you.  Now, more than ever, colleges are looking for depth and meaning in everything students do outside the classroom.

These changes in colleges’ priorities are also why our counselors spend so much time on the road, visiting colleges, attending conferences, meeting with college admission officers, and generally keeping ourselves informed about what the decision-makers are thinking.  If you have questions about this stuff, we’re happy to chat with you.


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