As a high school student aspiring to gain admission to a top-tier college or university, you’re likely aware that your academic achievements and test scores are vital to your application. However, the holistic approach to admissions taken by many institutions means that extracurricular activities play a crucial role in the selection process as well. Here, we will delve into the extracurricular activities colleges like to see on applications and discuss how to make the most of your extracurricular experiences. 

Before we begin, remember that colleges like to see well-rounded applicants, but they also like to see students with a focus. They will prefer a student who does fewer extracurriculars with a honed focus than a student with 10+ extracurriculars that have a variety of focus areas. 

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#1 Why Do Extracurriculars Matter?

Before we explore the specific extracurricular activities that colleges favor, it’s essential to understand why they place such importance on them.

  1. Demonstrated Passion and Commitment: Extracurricular activities provide a platform for you to showcase your dedication and passion for a particular interest or cause. Whether it’s through a sport, club, or community service project, colleges want to see that you’re willing to invest your time and energy into something meaningful to you. It’s also a way for you to show that you’re willing to go above and beyond simply the call to action that is your everyday school obligation. 

  2. Diverse Perspectives: Colleges aim to create a diverse and vibrant campus community. Engaging in various extracurriculars not only allows you to open your mind to a world of new perspectives, but also demonstrates your ability to contribute to a rich tapestry of backgrounds, interests, and talents.

  3. Leadership and Teamwork: Many programs offer team-building activities for high school students that provide opportunities for leadership and teamwork. These team-building activities are highly valued by colleges, as they are essential in academic and professional contexts in school and after school as well. 

  4. Depth and Specialization: As I mentioned earlier, schools love to see high school students with a focus. Some students are exceptional in a particular area, and extracurriculars are a great way to demonstrate this expertise. Specialized skills can set you apart from other applicants. 

  5. Personal Growth: Finally, extracurriculars offer personal growth and development opportunities. You shouldn’t be solely doing them to boost your college application. They help you learn more about yourself, your values, and your strengths. 

Now that we understand why extracurriculars matter, let’s dive into the specific activities that colleges often prefer to see on applications. 

#2 Community Service

Engaging in community service is an excellent way to demonstrate your commitment to making a positive impact on the world. Whether you volunteer at a local soup kitchen, tutor underprivileged students, or participate in environmental conservation efforts, colleges appreciate applicants who are socially conscious and willing to give back to their communities. Additionally, community service often involves teamwork and leadership opportunities, which are valuable skills in college and beyond. 

To make the most of your community service activities:

  • Choose organizations whose goals genuinely resonate with you

  • Take on leadership roles in these service organizations

  • Reflect on the impact of your service in your college essay

#3 Sports and Athletics

Participation in sports and athletics is not only a great way to physically stay active and build discipline and time management skills, but also a valuable extracurricular for college applications. Whether you’re a star on the soccer field or a dedicated swimmer, sports can demonstrate discipline, teamwork, and perseverance. Finding passion and community in athletics is an important asset for both middle school students and high school students who are eager for teamwork activity.

To stand out in this category:

  • Aim for leadership roles within your team, such as captain or co-captain

  • Highlight any special achievements or awards

  • Show how your sports involvement relates to your personal growth and character development

#4 Clubs and Organizations

High school clubs and organizations come in a wide variety, and they provide excellent opportunities to explore your interests and passions. Some examples include debate, drama, science, student-run organizations, and even class council. These activities clearly show that you’re engaged in your school community and are pursuing your passions outside of the classroom. 

Here’s how to make the most of your club and organization involvement:

  • Take on leadership roles within the club

  • Engage in projects, activities, or teaching resources that relate to your academic and personal interests

  • Showcase the impact you’ve had on the club or organization

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#5 Arts and Creative Pursuits

If you’re a talented artist, musician, actor, or writer, don’t hesitate to showcase your creative skills. These extracurricular or classroom activities highlight your ability to express yourself and your dedication to honing your craft. I played the piano growing up, and there were many valuable lessons that I took from those experiences that I spoke about in a multitude of my college applications. 

To make your creative pursuits shine:

  • Showcase your work through exhibitions, performances, or publications

  • Discuss the influence of your creative activities on your personal growth

  • Highlight any awards or recognitions you’ve received for your creative endeavors

#6 Internships and Work Experience

Participating in internships or gaining work experience while in high school can be highly valuable. It not only demonstrates your commitment to your future career goals but also provides insight into the professional development world. These internship experiences can be eye-opening when you’re deciding what you want to pursue in college. 

Here’s how to make your work experience stand out:

  • Highlight the skills and knowledge you’ve gained during your internship or job

  • Discuss how your work experience aligns with your academic and career aspirations

  • Share any projects or achievements from your work

#7 Research

Engaging in research as a high school student can be a significant advantage when applying to colleges, especially if you’re considering a career in academia or any field that values critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Demonstrating your research experience can highlight your intellectual curiosity, analytical abilities, and your potential to contribute to the academic community. Working with a group like Polygence can help make this seemingly daunting extracurricular a walk in the park.

To make your research activities shine on your application: 

  • Describe the specific research projects you’ve been a participant in, including your role and contributions

  • Highlight any presentations, publications, or competitions related to your research

  • Whether you worked in a small group or a large, fun team, emphasize how working with other team members enhanced your communication skills and professional development

  • Explain how your research interests align with your academic and career goals, showcasing your passion for the subject matter

#8 Personal Projects and Hobbies

Colleges are interested in any activity you do outside of the classroom, and your personal projects and hobbies can provide insight into your unique interests and talents. Whether you’re an avid coder, a passionate writer, or a dedicated photographer, these activities can set you apart. 

To showcase your personal projects and hobbies effectively:

  • Share the outcomes or products of your hobby or project

  • Explain how your hobby has influenced your personal and intellectual development

  • Discuss any competitions or recognition you’ve received for your work

In the competitive landscape of college admissions, extracurricular activities are a crucial element of your application. While it's important to participate in activities that genuinely interest you, understanding what colleges value can help you strategically select and optimize your extracurricular involvement. Remember that quality is more important than quantity, and showcasing your abilities for critical thinking, leadership, and personal growth in your chosen activities will undoubtedly make your application stand out. Ultimately, it's your unique experiences and the lessons you've learned along the way that will make you a compelling candidate for the college of your dreams. So, explore your interests, commit to your passions, and let your extracurricular journey be a true reflection of who you are and who you aspire to be in the future.