How Colleges Weigh High School Extracurriculars

As every college applicant knows, admissions offices look at extracurricular activities as one of the many factors that go into admissions decisions.

But just how those extracurriculars are considered is much less understood. Is it better to be involved in as many activities as possible to show that you’re a well-rounded applicant, or do schools want to see commitment, focus and leadership? Which activities are more prestigious? Are school-based activities more valuable than those in the community?

Let’s break down how colleges look at extracurricular activities on applications.

As a Complementary Factor

Extracurricular activities are not the most important factor in a college application. Coursework and GPA, for instance, bear more weight. However, this is not to say that extracurriculars have little or no impact on the admissions decision a student ultimately receives.

[READ: Keep College in Mind When Choosing High School Activities.]

Admissions counselors say extracurriculars can play a decisive role, especially when they might contrast sharply with other aspects of a student’s profile. For instance, admissions counselors may have reservations about a star student who has not contributed to his or her community in a meaningful way. On the other hand, extensive community involvement can work in the favor of an applicant who does not stand out academically.

In summary, while extracurriculars should not be a college applicant’s top concern, their value in the college admissions decision should not be overlooked.

Patterns or Overarching Themes

When admissions officers view a resume holistically, they look for noticeable patterns among the activities a person has been involved in. Participation across different activities may convey the message that an individual is science-oriented, musically inclined, athletic, a humanitarian and so forth.

Having some variety on your resume is certainly beneficial. Being able to list physical as well as intellectual endeavors can show balance, for instance. However, it would be a mistake to assume that colleges prefer dilettantes to accomplished specialists.

[Read: How Colleges Choose Which Students to Admit.]

Rather than getting involved in as many disparate extracurriculars as possible, which could lead to burnout, focus on the few that most speak to your interests and talents. As a guiding force, bear in mind these two factors as you select extracurriculars: your intended career path and your secondary passions.

As you periodically review and update your resume in preparation for the college application process, it may help to ask yourself: “What message does my resume communicate? What kind of student and person does it portray me as?”

Degree of Commitment

Colleges want to see that applicants are committed to the extracurriculars they choose. One way to showcase commitment is through the length of your participation in an activity. The longer you have been involved in a pursuit, the better it will look on your resume.

To highlight the extracurriculars you have been most committed to, list activities in order from those that have occupied the greatest length of time to those that have occupied the shortest. This way, you can direct the application reader’s attention to the most important items. Saving the oldest but possibly most salient items for last risks the reader glossing over them.

As a final tip, consider omitting extremely short-lived extracurricular activities from your resume. It may take up valuable space to include clubs you participated in for only a few weeks. At the same time, it may give the impression that you do not take club membership seriously or that you lack focus. Some exceptions to the omission rule include pivotal one-time conferences, competitions or fundraisers.

Leadership Positions

The degree of your participation in extracurriculars is equally important as the duration. It adds a competitive edge to your application to indicate that you went from being a general member in a club to holding a special position or role in it, such as treasurer or outreach coordinator. These changes in membership status demonstrate both commitment and leadership skills.

[Read: How Admissions Algorithms Could Affect Your College Acceptance.]

If your membership in an activity has evolved in such a way, make sure to highlight it on your resume by giving it a separate entry that includes your title and the date it became effective. If you are not applying to college yet, find out how you can move up or help more in the club so that you can add an attractive new role to your resume.

It can also be a standout factor if you’ve founded a club or organization, which shows not only leadership but initiative. If you have a passion that isn’t satisfied by a club at your school, consider finding out how to start one. Not only will you be able to show deep commitment and leadership, but you’ll also demonstrate to schools that you’re an innovator.

Across the Community

While it’s easy to focus on school-based activities as you apply to college, keep in mind that your extracurricular activities can take place outside of a school setting. Being involved in church or community groups is every bit as valuable as being involved in clubs at school, pursuing music and dance through private companies or joining athletic teams.

These outside activities can add to your abilities to pursue your passions, show deep commitment and identify leadership opportunities. So determine what you love to do and seek out opportunities to commit to it both inside and outside of school.

More from U.S. News

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