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What Colleges Really Look for in Extracurriculars

High school is a whirlwind of classes, friendships, and self-discovery. But for many high school students, there's an added layer of excitement and anticipation: the dream of attending college. As you embark on this journey, you'll quickly discover that extracurricular activities are more than just a side note in your high school experience. They play a pivotal role in the college application process. In this blog, we'll explore extracurricular activities, understanding their significance in your college application and discovering how to navigate this essential part of your application.


What Are Extracurriculars?


Before we delve deeper, let's clear up what extracurriculars are all about. You might have a preconceived notion that they're just a checklist of expected activities or confined to the walls of your high school. But, surprise! Extracurriculars are so much more.


Extracurricular activities are those pursuits that you engage in beyond your regular coursework. They represent your interests, passions, and the impact you've made on your community. These activities can take various forms, such as:


1. Sports Teams: Whether you're a soccer star, a basketball enthusiast, or part of a club, your involvement counts.


2. Jobs and Internships: Part-time jobs or internships offer valuable experiences and insights into the working world.


3. Academic Competitions: From quiz bowls to science fairs, showcasing your intellectual skills through these competitions is a great extracurricular.


4. Hobbies: Pursuing hobbies like photography, painting, or even starting a blog can reveal your creativity and dedication.


5. Volunteering: Giving back to your community by volunteering at local organizations or charity events speaks volumes about your character.


6. Family Obligations: Taking care of younger siblings or assisting with family responsibilities counts as well.


7. Faith-Based Activities: Involvement in religious or spiritual groups and activities can be an essential aspect of your extracurricular experience.


The Role of Extracurriculars in College Applications


Now that you know what extracurriculars encompass, it's time to understand why they hold such significance in your college application. It's not just about filling up a space on a form; it's about painting a vivid picture of who you are. Here's how they make an impact:


1. Reflection of Your Personality and Interests


When you list your activities, you're not merely documenting your schedule. You're showcasing your personality, your interests, and what truly matters to you.


Think about it this way: the hours per week you spend on an activity can hint at its importance to you. For instance, if you're a three-sport athlete who also dedicates 10 hours a week to a volunteer project, you're revealing a love for both sports and community service. Extracurriculars allow you to show who you are beyond just your grades and test scores.


2. Evidence of Engagement


Colleges are on the lookout for engaged and passionate students who will contribute to their communities. Your extracurriculars serve as tangible proof of your engagement. They show that you're not just a passive participant in life but an active, eager contributor.


Engagement isn't solely about holding leadership positions. It's about the depth of your involvement, the impact you've made, and your commitment to a cause or activity. Whether you're the club president or a dedicated member, your level of engagement shows in your extracurriculars.


3. Demonstration of Impact


Impact is a powerful word in the realm of extracurriculars. It's about the change you've effected, the lives you've touched, or the difference you've made. Your activities shouldn't be a laundry list of "things you did" but a showcase of how you left your mark.


For instance, if you volunteered at an animal shelter, it's not only about the time you dedicated but also the positive impact you made by showing care and compassion towards those animals. If you led a school club, it's not just about the title, but the meaningful changes you've brought to the organization or the community.


4. Depth and Longevity


Depth and longevity also make your extracurricular activities stand out. Depth can take various forms. It might be spending countless hours on a project you're passionate about, innovating new initiatives, or taking on a leadership role. Longevity, on the other hand, reveals your ability to sustain your commitment. Colleges love to see that you've been involved in an activity for several years, showcasing your dedication and growth.


Mapping Your Extracurricular Journey


Now that you understand the significance of extracurriculars, how can you approach them to map a successful path to college? Let's break it down step by step:


Step 1: Self-Reflection


Your extracurricular journey begins with self-reflection. Take some time to think about what truly drives you as a person. Consider your prime motivators—are you motivated by creativity, service, or something else entirely? Reflecting on your interests and values will guide you in choosing activities that resonate with you on a deeper level.


Step 2: Brainstorm and Explore


Once you have an idea of your motivations, brainstorm potential activities that fit your interests. When you're a younger student, it's the perfect time to explore. Begin by getting involved in after-school clubs or teams that grab your attention. Try them out for a short while, maybe just a week or two. These experiences may not make it onto your college application when you're a senior, but they'll definitely help you decide if they're a good match for you.


Step 3: Authenticity Over Expectations


Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to extracurriculars. Avoid falling into the trap of pursuing activities solely because they seem impressive on a college application. Stay true to yourself. If you genuinely love something and find it meaningful, it'll come across on your application.


Step 4: Assess Your Motivation


Consider whether you can stay motivated and engaged in an activity for an extended period. Longevity is a key factor in showcasing your commitment and dedication. If you're passionate about an activity, you're more likely to invest the time and effort needed to make a meaningful impact.


Step 5: Paint the Future


As you select and engage in extracurriculars, think about the bigger picture. What do you envision for your involvement in these activities? How might they align with your future goals, both in college and beyond? Having a sense of purpose can help you set realistic and fulfilling goals.


Common App Mechanics


Now that you're on your way to building a meaningful extracurricular journey, let's explore the practical mechanics of presenting your activities on the Common App:


1. Complete Information


In the Common App, you'll have 10 slots to detail your activities. For each entry, provide comprehensive information:

  • Organization Name: Clearly state the name of the activity or organization.

  • Position/Leadership description: Describe your role within the activity, whether you were a member, leader, or founder.

  • Hours per Week: Indicate the average number of hours you dedicated to the activity each week.

  • Weeks per Year: Specify the number of weeks per year you participated in the activity.

  • Brief Description: Provide a concise yet informative description of the activity, showcasing your responsibilities and emphasizing the impact you made. You can find a comprehensive list of action verbs here to help you craft compelling descriptions.

When listing your activities, prioritize them in order of importance to you. Don't feel pressured to place the most "impressive-looking" activities at the top if they aren't personally meaningful to you. Focus on what genuinely excites you and reflects your passions.


2. No Magic Number


Remember, there's no magic number of activities you must list. Some students have a full roster of 10, while others have fewer. What's important is that the activities you include truly represent your high school experience. It's not about quantity, but about the quality and significance of these experiences in your life. Don't try to list activities just for the sake of it. Instead, focus on showing how you've explored your interests, engaged with your community, and made a genuine impact.


3. Showcase Your Unique Activities and Life Experiences


Don't hesitate to include activities that don't have an official club or organization attached to them. If you have a unique hobby or passion that's a significant part of your life, make sure it stands out on your application. For instance, if you absolutely love poetry and spend a lot of your free time exploring the beauty of language and verse, definitely mention it. Even if your school doesn't have a dedicated poetry club or literary magazine, don't hold back from sharing this important part of your life.


One often overlooked but significant area of your life is your part-time jobs and family responsibilities. These experiences can provide valuable insights into your character and dedication. If you've worked part-time to support yourself or your family, don't downplay its importance. Similarly, if you've taken on significant family responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings or assisting non-native English-speaking parents, make sure to include these experiences.


4. Reflect on Impact, Depth, and Longevity


As you complete each activity entry, reflect on how it demonstrates your engagement, impact on the community or organization, depth of involvement, and longevity of commitment.


5. Adapt to the Pandemic


If the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted your extracurricular activities or their longevity, don't worry. Admissions officers understand these challenges and won't penalize you for them. Be honest about how your involvement may have been affected.


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High school is a journey, and it's your chance to explore what you love, make a difference, and discover who you are. Your extracurricular activities let you show your passions, commitment, and who you truly are. So, don't be shy about celebrating your achievements and who you've become. Your college application is your chance to confidently share your story. So go ahead, celebrate yourself a little – you've earned it!


Now that you've gained valuable insights into extracurricular activities and their role in the college application process, you're well on your way to crafting an impressive college application.

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