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Why Extracurricular Activities Matter in College Admissions

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IvyWise counselors Eric and Rachel discuss the importance of identifying interests, forming a plan to make an impact both inside and outside the classroom, and committing to these activities for the long-term on the Just Admit It! college admissions podcast, giving listeners expert insight from former admissions officers.

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As the back-to-school season approaches, it’s important for high school students, especially 9th and 10th graders, to create a game plan for the next school year – including how to approach their extracurricular activities. Extracurricular involvement is an important part of the college prep process, but often students don’t understand why. We’re here to provide some insight into why extracurricular activities matter in college admissions.

When evaluating college applications, admissions officers are looking at a number of different things, from grades and test scores to essays and, yes, extracurricular activities. In fact, extracurricular activities are one of the most important “soft factors” that colleges consider, so it’s important for students to be thoughtful and strategic about their extracurricular involvement. However, activities aren’t just for “looking good” to admissions committees. They also have a number of benefits for students outside of being impressive on paper.

Allows Students to Explore and Focus Their Interests

Contrary to what many students believe, extracurricular activities do not exist solely to have something to put on their resume to impress colleges. Extracurriculars are intended to get students involved in clubs or initiatives that they’re passionate about and develop skills, like organization and time management, that will carry them through high school, college, and beyond. Participating in activities gives students the opportunity to better explore their interests, discover new interests, and even rule out activities that they thought were interesting but ended up not being a great-fit. High school students, especially freshmen and sophomores, should make time to explore activities of interest in order to find those that they’re most passionate about and find ways to make an impact.

Demonstrates a Specialty

Students need to explore and focus their interests in order to develop a specialty – something colleges look for when building a well-rounded class. Coursework is one way to develop a specialty. A student interested in STEM, for example, can take math and science classes to better understand the field, but participating in extracurriculars also related to STEM is another way to deepen that knowledge and experience. Again, colleges are looking to build a well-rounded class made up of specialists, and meaningful, sustained involvement in a few activities that relate to your core interest can go a long way toward demonstrating that specialty.

Shows Initiative and Leadership

Colleges aren’t just looking for academically gifted students with a specialty. They’re also looking for students who will make an impact on campus. They want students who will come to their campus and leave a lasting impression – influencing the campus culture for the better. This means admissions officers are often looking for applicants that have demonstrated initiative and/or leadership in other aspects of their life – often through extracurricular involvement. Once you find some activities that you really enjoy and align with your core interests, find ways to demonstrate leadership. This can mean running for club president, organizing a fundraising drive, or simply working behind the scenes to ensure that everything your activity involves runs smoothly. Leadership and initiative come in many forms, not just having a certain title or position, so get creative with ways to become a leader and make an impact.

Gives Students an Outlet Outside of the Classroom

It’s unrealistic to expect high school students to be academic robots, spending all their time on homework, assignments, studying, and more. Students are people and individuals with a multitude of interests that don’t always include academics. Extracurricular activities give students an outlet to express themselves outside of the classroom. Activities like sports, art, music, volunteer work, and more allow students to engage in initiatives that bring them joy, challenges, social stimulation, and more. Activities that students really enjoy can allow them to take a break from the stresses of high school academics and recharge. It can also allow them to make new friends and engage in experiences that they might not have otherwise. Engaging in activities that bring students joy and fulfillment can have a positive impact on their mental health and overall happiness.

Colleges Will Ask About Extracurriculars in Multiple Ways

As we said before, extracurricular activities don’t just exist to impress college admissions officers, but it’s important to understand that colleges will ask about your extracurricular involvement on applications – often in more ways than one. The Common Application has a whole section dedicated to students’ activity lists, allowing them to describe the activities that they’ve participated in during high school and the impact they’ve made in those extracurriculars. Colleges might also ask about activities in their school-specific supplements, often in the form of an activity essay. Schools might also ask students how they intend to continue to explore certain interests or activities once they’re on campus. These are just a few ways that colleges will ask about students’ activities, so it’s important for students to start exploring their interests early and identify a handful of activities that they really enjoy and engage with those throughout all four years of high school.

Extracurricular involvement is an important part of not just the college admissions process, but students’ high school experience as a whole. At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors work with students to help them identify and develop their interests, including suggesting extracurricular initiatives that can help them not only stand out when they apply to college but that will also bring them genuine joy. Contact us today for more information on how we can work with your student to better explore their interests and activities – not matter where they are in the college prep process.

Don’t forget to also download our free College Planning Checklist for a comprehensive look at what students need to be doing now in order to get on track with their college prep this back-to-school season!


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