Why Your Interests Matter in the College Admissions Process

Friday, November 18, 2022

extracurricular activity resourcesWhen 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.

Why Do Extracurricular Interests Matter to Colleges?

When admissions officers evaluate college applications, they don’t just assess an applicant’s 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

While grades and test scores are important decision factors, admissions officers read applications in context and strive to paint a whole picture for each student they review. Colleges want to know exactly how you’ll fit in on campus, what kind of roommate will you 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 that 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

Instead of serial joiners, college admissions officers are looking for students who are dedicated and committed to their fields of interest. To highlight your ability to commit, draw attention to activities that you have participated in throughout your high school career. Students who’ve played on the same sports team 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 it comes time to choose 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 that they think will help students land the “best” jobs after graduation. In order 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 he or she is just not passionate about it. Don’t focus simply on ROI or starting salary when selecting what to study or which colleges to apply to. Choosing the right major and colleges that offer the right academic programs that match students’ interests is 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 of 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.

When Making the Most of Their Time in College

Again, your interests and intended major have a huge impact on where you attend college, and 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 are able to 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 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

9th and 10th grade students should spend time exploring different areas of interest through reading, extracurricular activities, volunteer opportunities, the classes you take, and more. What are you most excited about? If you’re in a business club, but find yourself skipping meetings or putting in minimal effort, then this activity clearly isn’t a passion. Drop it for something you do enjoy, whether it’s art, music, 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 activity list.

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, create a blog about what you’ve learned, or even start your own business! 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 that 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 actually a lot of opportunities out there that allow STEM students to get involved and make an impact.

Compete in Local/National Competitions

There are a number of 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 actually teach it to someone else! Becoming a mentor for younger students, whether that’s through an organization like your local Boys and Girls Club, through a religious organization, through your school, or some other program, can allow you to make an impact while imparting your knowledge on 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. If your school has a robotics team – join! 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 not only hone your coding skills, but can also be used to 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 have the ability to 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 that 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 to explore 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 to start looking for activities that align with their passions. Find time to 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 towards 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 that they enjoy, continue to work with them to find new ways to deepen their knowledge and expand their skillset. 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 towards new opportunities that will help them take their skills to the next level.

Extracurriculars 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. For help identifying your interests and selecting new and creative extracurriculars, contact us today for more information on our college counseling programs for high school students.

Related Topics

Choosing a College, College Admissions Trends, College Majors
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