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How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for College

Friday, July 5, 2024

extracurricular activity resources

When preparing students for the college admissions process, we place a lot of emphasis on identifying and developing students’ interests in addition to good grades and test scores. As we’ve said before, students’ interests are important because it helps colleges make admissions decisions and build well-rounded classes.

However, developing students’ interests isn’t just about getting into college — they’re a key factor in helping students succeed during their four years and after graduation.

How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for College: Table of Contents

  1. What Are Extracurriculars?
  2. Why Do Extracurricular Interests Matter to Colleges?
  3. How Students Can Benefit from Defining Their Interests
  4. How to Identify and Develop Your College Interests
  5. What Extracurricular Activities Should STEM Students Prioritize?
  6. When Should Students Start Exploring Extracurricular Activities? 
  7. Extracurricular Activities List for Inspiration

What Are Extracurriculars?

Extracurriculars are activities that students participate in outside of their regular curriculum at school. This could be a school activity like marching band or debate club, or you can participate in activities outside of school, such as community service. These activities are important because they help students develop various skills, such as teamwork, leadership, time management, and social skills and provide opportunities for them to explore their interests and passions outside the classroom. 

Your extracurricular interests are an important factor in college admissions. That said, they are not all created equal — higher levels of involvement and achievement in an activity carry more weight with the admissions committee. Extracurriculars typically fall into one of four categories, and each is evaluated differently.  

Highly Prestigious and Competitive

  • National or international recognition: Activities that receive national or international accolades, such as winning a national science fair or being selected for an international sports team.
  • Selective programs: Participation in highly selective programs like prestigious internships, summer research programs at top universities, or attending elite conferences.
  • Leadership roles in high-impact organizations: Serving as the president or founder of a well-established, impactful organization or leading a major initiative that has a significant community impact.

Significant Achievements and Leadership

  • State-level recognition: Achievements that are recognized at the state level, such as being a state champion in a sport or winning a state-level academic competition.
  • Leadership roles: Holding significant leadership positions such as student body president, editor of the school newspaper, or captain of a varsity sports team.
  • Major contributions: Initiating or leading a major project or event that has a substantial impact on the school or local community.

Active Participation and Regional Impact

  • Regional recognition: Participating in activities or competitions that are recognized at a regional level, like placing in regional science fairs or music competitions.
  • Leadership roles in smaller clubs: Serving as an officer or leader in school clubs or teams that may not have as much recognition but still demonstrate commitment and responsibility.
  • Consistent participation: Being a consistent and active member of a team, club, or organization, showing long-term dedication.

General Involvement

  • School-level activities: Participation in school clubs, teams, or organizations without holding a leadership position.
  • Occasional involvement: Involvement in activities that may be more casual or occasional, such as attending meetings or helping out at events without a significant leadership or competitive role.
  • New or less established activities: Participating in newer or less established activities that may not yet have gained significant recognition or impact.

Why Do Extracurricular Interests Matter to Colleges?

When admissions officers evaluate your application, they don’t just assess your grades and standardized test scores. They also factor in extracurricular activities and your interests to get a comprehensive view of who you are both inside and outside of the classroom.

Extracurriculars Highlight the Impact You Will Make on Campus

Admission committees read applications holistically and strive to paint a whole picture for each student they review. They want to know exactly how you’ll fit in on campus, what kind of roommate you will be, and what activities you’re likely to get involved in once you’re on campus. Extracurricular activities can help admissions officers answer these questions. 

Activities Showcase Your Leadership Skills

If you aren’t the student body president or the captain of your basketball team, don’t panic. While admissions officers look for students who are leaders, leadership itself can take on many forms. Maybe you’re the student working behind the scenes to make sure everyone has what they need or the dedicated athlete who serves as a mentor for rookie teammates.

What’s most important isn’t the title you have but rather your ability to convey your leadership skills and highlight when you’ve been able to use them to make an impact. 

Participation Underscores Your Ability to Commit

College admissions officers are looking for students who are dedicated and committed to their fields of interest instead of serial joiners. To highlight your ability to commit, draw attention to the activities you have participated in throughout your high school career. 

Students who’ve participated in the same academic club or volunteered at the same organization for several years should emphasize these commitments and ideally describe how their role has grown and expanded.

How Students Can Benefit from Defining Their Interests

Whether you love playing tennis or prefer practicing violin, your favorite extracurricular activity can help you navigate every step of the college application process more smoothly. When you’re looking at schools, hobbies and interests can help you decide which institutions deserve a spot on your best-fit list. Later on, these same pursuits will distinguish you from other applicants and even point you in the right direction when choosing a major. 

When Selecting the Right College Major

Rather than emphasizing fit, parents and students often make the mistake of only focusing on “name-brand” colleges and choosing the right major they think will help students land the “best” jobs after graduation. To build a balanced college list, students need to research and identify colleges that are great academic, social, and financial fits. Students will be happy and successful at colleges that best fit their needs while studying a field they’re most interested in.

A student studying a subject that doesn’t hold a lot of interest will not do as well in the program simply because they are not passionate about it. Don’t just focus on ROI or starting salary when selecting what to study or which colleges to apply to.

Choosing the right major and colleges offering the right academic programs that match students’ interests are important to ensure they thrive and graduate in four years. Colleges often offer detailed descriptions of the majors offered at the institution. Majors at Yale, for example, are listed online, along with all the requirements.

When Boosting Their Chances of Admission

As we’ve said before, colleges have institutional needs, and a student’s selected program of study can factor into the admission decision. Selective colleges and universities want students who are sure of their academic path and have demonstrated meaningful interest in that area through extracurricular activities, course selection, and more. This is where having focused interests is most important because it lets colleges know where a student fits into their campus and gives them reassurance that this student will be successful and graduate in four years.

Read more:

When Making the Most of Their Time in College

Again, your interests and intended major have a huge impact on where you attend college. If you choose a major or school that doesn’t fit your academic interests or goals, you’re less likely to perform well and will miss opportunities to gain meaningful experience. When researching colleges, look at the programs, clubs, organizations, and more that are offered outside of the classroom that can help you further your interests or develop new skills. 

If you’re passionate about writing and design, see if first-year students can get involved with the campus magazine. Many colleges and universities have dozens, if not hundreds, of different activities, clubs, and organizations for students that cover a myriad of topics and interests. Look for colleges that fit those needs.

While a college education is meant to help students learn and hopefully prepare them for a future career, higher education is also about exploration and personal growth. By identifying your passions and interests and selecting colleges that fit your needs and goals, you’re not only ensuring you get into a great-fit college, but you’re also setting yourself up to have an extremely fulfilling college experience.

How to Identify and Develop Your College Interests

Before selecting colleges to apply to, students first need to identify their interests. What do they want to study? After all, you are going to college to get an education, so academic areas of interest should be the main focus when researching colleges for your balanced college list

Start Early

Ninth and 10th grade students should spend time exploring different areas of interest through reading, extracurricular activities, volunteer opportunities, the classes they take, and more. What are you most excited about? If you’re in an art club but find yourself skipping meetings or putting in minimal effort, this activity clearly isn’t a passion. Drop it for something you do enjoy, whether it’s business, technology, athletics, or something else.

Do you love camping and the outdoors? Maybe you have strong opinions about environmentalism and preserving nature. Explore that! Devote all your energy to the things you truly enjoy, not what you think will look good on your list of extracurricular activities.

Get Involved

So, you’ve found an activity or subject you really enjoy. Great! Now, work to make an impact through meaningful involvement. Take on a leadership position in a related club, organize projects that will help advance, or learn how to start a club in college. You can also find a way to turn that interest into a volunteer opportunity.

There are many ways to develop interests outside of clubs or activities as well. If you’re interested in entrepreneurism, take some free online courses on the subject, subscribe to publications, or even start your own business! Make the most out of your after school job and learn everything you can about the field or industry. The goal is to find creative ways to learn more about a subject and gain experience that can help you decide whether this is an area of study you really want to pursue in college.

Don’t Be Afraid to Branch Out

Sometimes an activity or topic that interests you turns out to not be what you expected, and that’s okay! Don’t be afraid of trying something and not liking it. Remember, colleges want to see sustained involvement in activities that really interest you. If you try something and don’t like it, drop it and move on. 

By stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new, you’re already preparing yourself for the college experience and putting yourself one step closer to finding an interest you’re truly passionate about!

What Extracurricular Activities Should STEM Students Prioritize?

For STEM students, finding extracurricular initiatives that match their interests can sometimes be difficult, but there are a lot of opportunities for STEM students to get involved and make an impact. 

Compete in Local/National Competitions

There are several STEM-focused competitions that students can prepare for and participate in as a way to better explore their interests and demonstrate their specialty to college admissions officers. Math competitions, like Mu Alpha Theta’s local and national contests, or more science-focused competitions, like the Science Olympiad or the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, are great ways for students to continue to pursue their academic interests outside of the classroom. 

Become a Volunteer Mentor

One of the best ways to continue to learn about a subject you’re passionate about is to teach it to someone else! Becoming a mentor for younger students — whether that’s through an organization like your local Boys and Girls Club, a religious organization, your school, or some other program — can allow you to make an impact while imparting your knowledge to others. 

Volunteer to help with a middle school robotics league, offer to tutor younger students struggling with math, or sign up to be a counselor at a local science camp. Find ways to make an impact!

Join a Robotics League

Science, math, technology, and engineering all intersect in robotics. Join a robotics team if your school has one. If not, see if you can find a local robotics league for high school students and either join an existing team or form your own with your friends and classmates.

Build a Website or App

There are so many resources out there to help students learn how to code, like Treehouse or Codecademy. This is a great way to hone your coding skills and help support other extracurricular initiatives, like building a website for your robotics league or developing an app to help better tutor younger students.

Create Your Own!

Extracurricular activity ideas are endless, and students can create their own! If you’re interested in biology and want to start a biology club at your school, go for it! If there’s a local science competition that your school doesn’t normally enter, see if you’re able to participate on your own. Form your own robotics club or seek out a teacher who can help you and other classmates establish a physics club. Don’t be afraid to create your own activities if STEM clubs are lacking at your school. 

When Should Students Start Exploring Extracurricular Activities? 

While many families understand the importance of participating in extracurricular activities, there’s often uncertainty about when students should begin pursuing these hobbies. Here are a few steps families can take to ensure their student is set up for success. 

Start the Conversation Early

While middle school students certainly don’t need to rush to identify their best-fit activities, it’s important to start the discovery process early. Parents: Encourage your student to begin exploring their interests by starting a conversation with them as early as sixth grade. 

Instead of making recommendations, prioritize asking thoughtful questions that will help your middle schooler identify what interests them most. Start by discussing their favorite classes, what they enjoy doing most in their free time, and their favorite subjects to read about. Simply having these conversations can help students start thinking about different extracurricular opportunities that might align with their interests.

Encourage Your Student to Explore Their Options

Once you’ve identified a few subjects that your student is particularly interested in, it’s time for some extracurricular activities brainstorming. Sit down with your student and research various classes and programs that are relevant to the interests they have discussed. 

In addition to researching opportunities online, consider reaching out to a teacher or independent counselor to learn about more activities to keep on your radar. Encourage your student to play an active role in this research project, which will help prepare them for the college search process during high school. 

Let Student Interests Lead the Way 

Parents should aim to put their children in the driver’s seat throughout their educational journey, particularly as they look toward high school and college. Middle school is an important time to build good habits, including researching different activities and pinpointing opportunities that align with personal interests and goals.

Consequently, it’s best to let your student’s ambitions lead the way and avoid projecting your own opinions about various extracurricular activities. The best choice options are the ones that your student will be genuinely interested in and make a commitment to, so make sure they are leading the process from middle school onward. 

Identify Opportunities to Deepen Expertise

As your student progresses through middle school and approaches the start of high school, it’s important that they continue to feel challenged. Once they find extracurricular activities they enjoy, continue to work with them to find new ways to deepen their knowledge and expand their skill set. For example, a middle schooler who loves soccer may wish to play in a summer league, while an aspiring artist might want to sign up for a sculpture class to explore new mediums. 

Regardless of what your student is interested in, strive to support them and guide them toward new opportunities that will help them take their skills to the next level.

Extracurricular Activities List for Inspiration

While students should explore school extracurricular activities that interest them, it’s also important to look at opportunities in their community. Here are some ideas to get started:  

  • Sports: Basketball, football, baseball/softball, tennis, soccer, swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, field hockey, lacrosse, track and field, martial arts, etc.
  • Arts: Drama club, music (band, orchestra, choir), dance, writing, painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics, fashion design, anime/manga, graphic design, etc.
  • Academic clubs and competitions: Debate team, math club, science club, robotics, Odyssey of the Mind, National Spelling Bee, Science Olympiad, etc.
  • Community involvement: Volunteering at local shelters, environmental cleanup projects, tutoring, 4-H, Girl/Boy Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, Key Club, etc.
  • Leadership: Student government, leadership workshops, peer mentoring, Model United Nations, National Beta Club, etc.
  • Military: JROTC, Civil Air Patrol, American Cadet Alliance, Young Marines, U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, etc.
  • Special interest clubs: Chess club, book club, language clubs, cooking club, gardening club, equestrian club, hiking club, etc.
  • Technology: Coding clubs, app development, tech fairs, etc.
  • Media: Yearbook committee, school or local newspaper/journal, podcast, blog, etc.
  • Cultural activities: Dance, cultural festivals, language learning groups, etc.


Extracurricular activities are a critical part of helping students learn more about who they are, their interests, and their goals. Ultimately, taking the time to be thoughtful and intentional about extracurricular activities will help students identify the schools and majors where they will be successful and happy and stand out in the college admissions process.

Need help identifying your interests and selecting new and creative extracurriculars? Learn more about our college counseling programs for high school students.

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