How Extracurriculars Can Transform Your Application

November 19, 2015

The piece of advice that is probably most often repeated with regards to the college application process is to “just be yourself.” While this is certainly something to keep in mind—college admissions committees can spot disingenuousness a mile away—it’s also important to think about which parts of yourself you want to show. Realistically speaking, no one’s going to spend hours reading over your application to figure out your “true” character and decide whether you’re a good fit for their school. They’ll look at your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and give your essay(s) a look before moving on to the next person in the pile of tens of thousands of applicants. So how do you make a strong case for yourself in this short amount of time?  

One of the most important things to consider in putting your best self forward has gone rather under-addressed in the existing literature on the college application process: your extracurriculars. There are plenty of articles advising students on how to choose which extracurriculars to invest their time in, but few focusing on the most effective way to present these activities in your application.

As college admissions becomes increasingly competitive, high school students are participating in more extracurricular activities than ever. It’s great to be invested in your school and greater community, but when you’re trying to convey this information to college admissions staff, inundating them with details of every activity you’ve ever done isn’t the best strategy. By including too much, you make it harder for them to get a sense of your true passions, and run the risk of coming across as generic and unremarkable.

If you want to stand out, pick a few themes for your application—activities you’ve done that you want admissions committees to focus on most. If art or music is what you’re most passionate about, then dedicate most of the “Awards and Honors” section of the application to detailing your accomplishments in those areas. Don’t be afraid to mention things that you might see as minor. It’s obviously good to show off your most impressive accomplishments, but even the small things can be important when they convey how invested you are in an activity that you love. Is coding one of your favorite things? Find a way to mention some of the projects you’ve completed over the years, whether they’re apps, websites, or video games. Even if you haven’t won some huge award, admissions committees will take note of the fact that you have clear interests and will probably continue to code in college. It gives them a better idea of who you are and how you can fit in with their college’s community.

Focusing on themes also means occasionally cutting out unnecessary fluff. Before you include the fact that you were in Latin club for two years, take a moment to think about what actually it adds to your profile. If you were an officer in the group, then you should probably mention it because displaying leadership skills is pretty much always valuable. If you were just a member, though, you should question whether you benefit from showing admissions committees that you were interested in Latin. Did you do anything noteworthy as part of the group, like organize a major fundraiser? Do you actually care about Latin or the club? If you find yourself answering “no” to those questions, it might be best to leave it out. 

Remember, you don’t want to look like you just did a bunch of random activities in high school to spruce up your college application (which is not uncommon). Be smart about how you present yourself - colleges are interested in what you bring to their campus and how you will give back to the community. Showing your passions and goals through your extracurriculars is a great way to make a statement and prove that you belong. 

Need help with your applications? Ask a mentor - we have students available from colleges across the country available to help guide you through the process. You can also find application materials from students, including scores, essays, and advice, and find out how they got in to their dream colleges. 

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Cornell ‘19

Accepted to Cornell, CMU, Northwestern, JHU, UCSD, UCSB, UC Irvine

Cornell Engineering '19
Stanford ‘19

Accepted to Stanford, Williams, Brown, Pomona, Duke, Bard, Kenyon

Stanford 2019, creative writing and education. Full essays! "Lopsided," less-than-stellar numbers.
UMD ‘20

Accepted to UMD, JHU, Duke, Case, Swarthmore, Penn State

I am a recent high school grad about to enter my first year of college at the University of Maryland: College Park with a full Banneker/Key scholarship.
Stanford ‘20

Accepted to Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UCLA

Born in small town, interested in math, science, and literature. Attending Stanford University starting fall of 2016, planning on studying engineering or computer science, with a minor in a foreign language.

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