What College Admissions Experts Say About Extracurricular Activities
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by April Ondis
Doctor of Business Administration
Creative Writer, Knovva Academy

We asked four top college advisors, all members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), to answer popular questions about how extracurricular activities influence students’ prospects for college admissions. Each shared their best tips and observations based on years of experience in guiding students (and their parents) to prepare for college applications.

Why Do Colleges Like Extracurricular Activities?

Dr. Dave Bergman, Director of Content for College Transitions, responds: “When students become deeply involved in one or two activities they are demonstrating qualities like leadership, commitment, responsibility, and a willingness to connect with others and positively impact the world around them. These attributes help signal to admissions officers that an applicant would make a solid addition to a campus community. Further, research shows that students who are involved outside of the classroom go on to have greater post-secondary academic success.”

Which Extracurriculars Look Good on College Applications?

Dr. Joan Franklin, Admissions Consultant and Co-Founder of College Docs, responds: “Go where your interests lie. We really stress authenticity throughout the advising process. Don’t take the advanced physics course just because someone told you that you should, take it because you’re genuinely interested in physics. And if you’re not interested in physics, find something else you are truly passionate about. Be true to who you are.”

Joan Hahn, Educational Consultant and Founder of My College Advocate, poses a question of her own: “I like to start by asking my students, ‘If you had four hours on an idle Saturday afternoon, how would you spend your time?’ I get all kinds of interesting answers. I encourage them to be mindful of what they naturally gravitate toward because I think it offers important wisdom about their interests or what motivates them.

Extracurricular participation is not about quantity of activities, but the content and what you are gaining from these experiences. Ask yourself: what inspires me to do this activity? Why do I like it? What am I learning from it, and how am I contributing?

Be intentional about the things you want to do. At the same time, be a risk-taker when you’re in 9th and 10th grade. Try different things. That’s what those couple of years are for. And when you find those two or three things that really stick with you, then pursue them with depth, integrity, and enthusiasm.

Authenticity may be an overused word, but when I was an admissions officer and read college applications, I could tell when someone had a love for something – and when it was just for show. I tell students all the time, don’t worry about having 10 activities on your Common App, I’d rather see you doing four or five really meaningful activities where you could sit in a deep conversation and describe all meaningful layers.”

How Many Extracurriculars Do Students Need?

Bergman responds with a word of caution: “The primary potential pitfall for high school students with regard to extracurricular participation is when students overextend themselves, filling every waking hour of the day with some type of structured activity. Not only will this do little to help you on the admissions front (schools desire applicants who demonstrate focus and honed talents), but it will likely leave you gasping for air and with little time for other essential aspects of teenage life.”

Franklin emphasizes the importance of maintaining good grades: “The main thing that colleges look for are your grades. Your GPA is the key factor. So if you’re so involved in your extracurriculars that your grades are suffering, that’s probably not a great idea – cut back on your extracurriculars. Colleges want to have kids who can succeed academically while also being a part of their larger community. If you’re involved in extracurricular activities, you need to be a good enough student that you can also keep your grades up. So don’t add extracurricular activities to pad your resume and fail to do your homework! We all have limits and we do have to choose, and sometimes it’s hard to choose. But that’s life, you choose where you’re going to put your energies.”

Do Colleges Want Well-Rounded Students? 

Franklin says: “Things have changed. It used to be about being well-rounded and now the term people use is ‘pointy.’ You want to be authentic and go with your passion.

These days colleges look at a student’s length of involvement, level of involvement, and leadership. Did you move up in the organization? Did you take on leadership roles? Were you passionate about it? And college admissions officers are preferring to see that than a student who is in every sport and has joined every club.

When I was a kid, people would pad their resumes with every club imaginable. They maybe went to one meeting but said they were involved. But people now see through that and it’s no longer considered a smart way to do things. Because everyone knows that’s not realistic.”

Use Extracurriculars on College Applications to Tell an Authentic Story  

“There’s a desire for authenticity and a level of passion that schools want to see. Mostly they don’t really care what that passion is, only that there’s something a student is passionate about, whether that’s music, whether it’s social activism, or taking care of your grandmother. If your extracurricular shows something about your authenticity and your passion, that says something about your character,” says Franklin.

What Should I Do About Extracurriculars During the Pandemic?

Hahn suggests that high school students who have less structured time while learning from home during the pandemic can look at their time as an opportunity to explore: “Be curious with the time you have available to you. This is the first time in our lives that we don’t have mandatory schedules dictating our life hour by hour. This is a great opportunity to read some great books or go online to learn a new skill. There are more resources than ever, and we now have more access to experts, especially through live feeds, than ever before because the world is standing still. Take advantage of those opportunities. Just because you can’t travel doesn’t mean you can’t explore.”

How Do Extracurriculars Help Students Build College Skills? 

Olatunde believes extracurricular participation teaches students how to balance competing responsibilities. She responds: “Part of the lesson is being able to participate in extracurricular activities while balancing other responsibilities, such as schoolwork, family obligations or even vacation time. Ideally, a student would learn a variety of skills, including time management, accountability, leadership, working with others or independently, and problem solving skills. This is great preparation for students to attend college because the transition from high school to college is abrupt and often leaves students feeling overwhelmed.

Additionally, extracurricular activities help prepare students for future internships and employment as well as inform colleges about an applicant’s interests, goals and preparedness for the college. That being said, it is important that a student enjoys the activities they are involved in. It can give them an opportunity to regularly experience joy and success.”

Extracurricular Activities Are a Safe Space to Make Mistakes

Hahn responds: “My students are different now than they were four years ago. I think there’s a lot more advocacy that we’re doing, I think students are finding their resiliency a little bit later and may need a little more help to figure things out. Extracurriculars allow them to learn, to make mistakes, and realize mistakes are actually the learning opportunities where we find our most growth. And extracurriculars help them learn how to deal with disappointment – you don’t always get what you want. That’s where the really great lessons come from.”

“What is really interesting to me is when I see a student have a ‘lightbulb moment’ where it all comes together and they feel like ‘I’ve got this!’ It’s kind of like swimming. First, you learn the basics of tread water, then you gain the confidence to swim 20 feet with practice, and before you know it, you are swimming laps in the pool with complete ease and confidence. Participation in extracurriculars allows students to take incremental risks and to explore their ideas in meaningful, supportive ways,” Hahn adds.

Extracurriculars Help Develop Leadership Qualities 

Sumaiya Olatunde, educational consultant and founder of H2D Counseling, says “The benefits of extracurricular activities depend largely on … what role they [students] play in the activity and most importantly how much effort they put into the experience.”

Franklin underscores the importance of demonstrating student leadership experience: “Colleges want to train leaders. They want kids who started thinking about leadership in high school and are going to continue with leadership in the college community and beyond. Any extracurricular where you can move up and have some leadership roles is very helpful both in terms of your college application and in terms of your experience being a leader. Colleges are looking for leadership qualities. Certainly more selective schools are, and scholarship committees are also definitely looking for leadership roles.”

How Do International Extracurricular Experiences Make a Difference?

“I love extracurricular activities that take students outside of their communities. That’s an important experience to have in high school because that’s like a preview of what college will be like,” says Franklin.

Hahn explains the growth from international experiences like study abroad and international leadership programs: “I think I think these educational forums push students out of their comfort zone in a healthy way. It allows them to engage in a thought process they’ve never really experienced before, and to explore, contemplate, and experience learning in meaningful ways, not necessarily to make a value judgment, but to just see it, breathe it in, and ask questions.”

Hahn recalls a story from an international leadership program: “I was working with a U.S. student who participated in a summer leadership program last year, and on the bus ride home to the dorms she happened to strike up a conversation about political issues with a peer from China. That 60-minute bus ride of sharing and conversing was a game-changing moment for my student and how she saw the world from another perspective. The insight she gained from her peer left an indelible mark on her thought process and how she saw the world. I don’t know how you couldn’t walk away as a changed person from an experience like that.

I know of students whose exposure to diversity is very limited until they have the opportunity to participate in leadership programs such as these. Programs with strong group dynamics and exposure to different ways of thinking can fundamentally change how students see life and offer meaningful perspective for the future.”

How Extracurriculars Help Students Choose the Right College

Bergman explains that some students will factor their extracurricular passions into their college selection: “Not all schools offer the same quality of outside-the-classroom options. For example, a student interested in journalism may target colleges with award-winning newspapers, or a student interested in singing may seek a school with a serious a cappella group. Of course, an extracurricular activity in high school may also uncover or crystalize a deep love of a certain subject that directly translates into an academic path/future career. In these cases, a high school club or activity can end up having an immensely significant impact on one’s collegiate journey.”

Should Students Continue with Extracurriculars in College?

Franklin responds with a college application tip: “Students are asked on their applications whether they will continue with the activity in college. We tell them not to say yes to everything – but you should say you’re going to continue with something. It shows that you do have some future-orientation and see yourself doing something.

The whole idea of college is that it can open up whole new areas of opportunity. You’re going to experience things that you couldn’t even fathom before you got there and didn’t even know was available. The kids who are successful in college are the ones who are involved in something, that’s the key.”

Knovva Academy would like to express our deep gratitude to Dave Bergman, Joan Franklin, Jane Hahn, and Sumaiya Olatunde for their thoughtful answers to our questions about extracurricular activities and the college admissions process. The purpose of this post is not to advertise, but to inform and inspire our readers.

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