What Activities Look Best on College Applications?

This summer I’m focusing on different aspects of the college application. You can review earlier articles:

Today we will take a look at extracurricular activities and answer the popular question “What activities look best on college applications?”

Many colleges look for more than good grades and high test scores. They want active students who are interested in learning in and out of the classroom. One way to evaluate applicants is to look at their extracurricular activities. 

As students build their activity resumes, I’m often asked, “what will look best on my college application?” There is no single answer, but it helps to understand how extracurricular activities can play a role in your admission success. 

What Colleges Want

It might be easier to start with what colleges DON’T want:

  • Colleges don’t want to see “joiners”— students who joined lots of organizations, but had little meaningful involvement. 
  • Colleges don’t have a specific number in mind. (Number of activities, number of leadership positions, number of awards, a certain number of service hours, etc.)
  • Colleges don’t keep a list of “good” and “weak” activities. It is less about the title and more about what an individual student made of the opportunity. 
  • Colleges aren’t really looking for well-rounded students. You can focus on your areas of interest or talent; you don’t need to add other activities just to show how well rounded you are. (You might want to add other activities because they are interesting and fun!)

What are colleges looking for? They want to know more about the applicant. What did this student do with their time outside of school? What captured their interest? How did they make the most of various situations? Did the student enhance their skills and knowledge through other means? In context, a student’s extracurricular resume can say a lot about them. 

Value of the Experience

Too many people approach extracurricular activities with the wrong mindset. They think that by collecting enough things to list on a resume, it will help with college admission. This often leads to long lists with little meaningful involvement which doesn’t help the student’s application. 

Extracurricular activities are valuable because of what YOU gain in the process. The experience is valuable not because you can list it on your college application, but because your participation helped enhance your knowledge, skills, talents, etc. 

Let’s look at a couple examples—

  • Sports / band / dance / work— most high school students won’t continue their sport, part time job, or participation in dance or band when they enter college. So why do it in high school? Hopefully it was fun— at least some of the time. We also know that students who participate in time consuming activities such as these develop time management skills. They have learned to work with others to achieve a goal. Likely there have been opportunities to learn and demonstrate leadership, conflict resolution, problem solving, resilience, patience, and more. 
  • Speech, debate, yearbook, robotics club— some students participate in activities that seem academic in nature and may be an extension of a course in their schedule. These activities allow students to delve deeper into situations that require problem solving, research, creative thinking, attention to detail, analysis, etc. 

When you tell a college you ran track, participated in the technology club, performed in jazz band, worked backstage for the spring musical, waited tables, wrote for the school newspaper, volunteered at the animal shelter, or competed for the math team, you have gained valuable experience that likely goes far deeper than the surface description of your activity. 

What’s Best 

So what should you do? 

  1. Get involved. If you have an obvious interest or talent, start there. If you aren’t sure, it is ok to try something for a year then change your mind. 
  2. Do more than one thing. I suggest this for a few reasons. First, by diversifying your experiences in high school, you are more likely to find your true strengths and interests. Next, you are gaining the benefits from a few different activities which means a broader social network and a wider range of experiences. Finally, if your major activity falls through, you still have other outlets. (Seen too many students who focus on one sport only to get injured and forced to quit. Or students who commit everything to dance, band, theater, etc only to burn out before senior year.)
  3. Track your involvement. Create and update an activity resume. List everything: clubs, sports, volunteer service, community organizations, work, etc. It doesn’t have to be a formal organization for you to list it; I’ve worked with students whose resumes included independent activities such as training for and competing in triathlons, writing a fashion blog, keeping in-depth sports stats, creating an Instagram account for bullet journal designs or artwork.  

(If you aren’t sure what to put on a college resume or how to format it, you might want to attend my college essay and resume workshop. HERE.)

Advanced Advice 

Use some of your time outside of school to explore career interests. You benefit because you get early feedback on whether you might like a future major or job. It will help once you start working on applications too.

I’ll put it this way— if you say you want to study film, your transcript and resume should say the same. You say you are passionate about medicine; your application should back up your claim. I might be interested in engineering because I heard some friends say it is a good field for someone who is strong in math, but I’m a stronger engineering applicant if I’ve taken elective classes, participated in the robotics or technology club, attended a summer workshop, or created my own independent study of the subject. Colleges like to see students who take an interest and DO something with it rather than waiting for college to see if that field is a good fit. 

Finally, understand that highly selective colleges and universities will expect more from their applicants in all areas, including extracurricular activities. If you are considering schools like Duke, Harvard, Rice, Stanford, MIT, Columbia, etc., your extracurricular involvement should be as stellar as your grades and test scores (not just good, but truly outstanding.) 

Conclusion

What you do in your free time says a lot about you. For this reason, most colleges will ask you to list your clubs, activities, service, work, and recognitions on your application. There are no “best” activities; instead, colleges are looking for meaningful involvement. Ideally, colleges want to see how you have used your time and talents to impact those around you.

college admission counseling, extracurricular activities, tips for college admission

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