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College Admission’s Q&A: Extracurricular Activities

Welcome back to our college admissions Q&A series. Today I’m going to address commonly asked questions about extracurricular activities.

There is so much conflicting information out there about extracurricular activities that students often don’t know whether they should be joining every club that will have them, volunteering 40 hours per week, or winning debate tournaments every weekend (or all three). We’re going to try to clear out some of the fog.

C2 Education hosts a free webinar series each month. During our webinars, we invite students and parents to ask their college admissions questions. These are some of the most commonly asked questions from our past webinars.

Extracurricular Activities

Nearly all students know that colleges want them to have extracurricular activities, but few students fully understand why. If you can figure out what colleges are trying to figure out by looking at your extracurricular activities, you’ll have a better idea of how to manage your activities.

  • How many extracurricular activities do I need?
    There is no easy answer (of course there isn’t – this is the college admissions process we’re talking about, so there’s never a straightforward answer). You’ll need to strike a balance between demonstrating that you’re active in your high school/community and showing that you’re dedicated or passionate (or at least interested) about something. You definitely shouldn’t load up on a bunch of clubs just to pad your resume. Colleges see right through that and it doesn’t demonstrate anything meaningful about who you are as a student and as a person. Instead, we typically suggest that you pick one or two activities that you really like and stick with them all four years (landing a leadership role as a junior or senior is a bonus), and then chose one or two activities to test out each year so that you can explore your interests.
  • What if I’m already a junior or senior and I haven’t stuck with any activities throughout high school?
    Lots (and lots and lots) of students don’t really worry about extracurriculars until 11th or 12th grade and then panic because they don’t have a single activity that they’ve actually followed through on for more than a year. If you’re one of them, you’re not alone and you haven’t killed all chances of going to a good college. The first thing you should do is pick an activity – any activity – and seek a leadership role in it. Throw yourself into that activity so that you can tell colleges that you discovered your passion/interest. The second thing you should do is bulk up your activities a bit with one or two carefully selected clubs/teams – don’t load up! Finally, consider taking on a volunteer position to show colleges that you’re broadening your horizons. Then, when you complete your applications, you can talk about these things you’ve done and how these activities helped you to realize how much you’d missed out on by not being more active in extracurricular activities as a freshman/sophomore.
  • How can I balance hard classes with extracurricular activities?
    Colleges want students who possess strong time management skills because college students won’t have parents or teachers hanging around reminding them to do their homework (or their laundry). They figure that students who can maintain good grades in rigorous classes while still participating in extracurricular activities are likely to have strong time management skills. There is not secret solution to balancing tough schoolwork and extracurricular activities. It’s all about balance. If you’re taking 6 AP classes, colleges don’t expect you to also be on three different teams and in five clubs. They know you’re only human. You need to figure out exactly where your limits are; how much time you can afford to dedicate to extracurricular activities is going to depend on how much time you need to spend studying each week. You’ll need to craft a strong schedule and stick to it. We suggest using a calendar app to help you keep track of assignments, test dates, and extracurricular obligations. It seems hard – it IS hard – but managing your time well will pay off for a very long time.
  • Are there extracurricular activities that colleges prefer?
    There isn’t a secret list of clubs that colleges want you to be in. Colleges want you to do the things you’re interested in, so if you love art, then Art Club isn’t less valuable than Mathletes. That said, most schools have some pretty frivolous and silly clubs (my school had a Movie Club and a Food Club). You shouldn’t avoid these clubs if they interest you, but you also shouldn’t count on them to help your chances for admission. You want to have some balance and depth in your choices, though, so avoid only pursuing a single interest for all four years. In other words, don’t focus solely on athletics or solely on academic activities.
  • How many hours do I have to volunteer?
    In all honesty, I hate this question, but it’s one we get a lot. The reason I hate this question is because I don’t like that so many teenagers view volunteer work as nothing more than a log of hours to put on a college application; although I understand why they feel this way (given the pressures of college admission), I still don’t like that students tend to think of volunteering as some sort of punishment. That said, as with most college admission questions, there’s no direct answer. There is no magical number of hours that will make colleges like you. It’s a safe bet that you should do some sort of community service to help make your application more attractive. At the most selective schools, you’ll be competing against students who have amassed hundreds of service hours, so a good answer is: “The more volunteer hours, the better.” But you shouldn’t volunteer just for the sake of hours. You should find volunteer work that appeals to you and that you find meaningful. You should dedicate as many hours as you reasonably can while still allowing ample time for homework, other extracurricular responsibilities, and something vaguely resembling a social life. As with other extracurricular activities, it is also to your advantage to find a volunteer position or service project and stick with it; better yet, become a leader by creating your own service project (but not a fake one like Suzy Lee Weiss).
  • Do jobs count?
    FINALLY, a question with a straightforward answer! Yes, jobs count! There’s this odd rumor going around that colleges look down on part-time jobs. That isn’t true. Granted your stint at McDonald’s may not trump founding a successful charity or becoming the state debate champion, but it is still an incredibly valuable experience. A part-time job demonstrates time management skills, responsibility, and maturity – all desirable traits in a college student.


*For further information on webinars, please see the C2 national website, www.c2educate.com.

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