What even is a good extra-curricular activity nowadays anyway? Literally everyone plays at least one sport, plays at least one instrument, has at least one leadership position, and has so many hours of volunteering. So how do you make yourself stand out from the rest of the pack?
That is the question that plagues countless students, especially considering the crapshoot that college admissions have turned into these days.
The answer? Who knows, man.
But to try to take a stab at it, I’ve compiled information from many different resources, one of the most helpful being Johan Zhang, the CEO and founder of Collegevine, to give you a breakdown of what it means to be extra-curricularly active.
So let’s start with the basics: What is an extracurricular activity?
Anything you do when you are not in class, eating, or sleeping (unless you have some mad crazy multitasking skills when you can sleep and learn how to play piano at the same time). This includes the well-known ones like clubs, sports, music, theatre, and volunteering to the ones that usually aren’t considered as one, like a job, taking care of family members, having an art commissioning business, having a YouTube channel, writing a blog :)
If it’s something you spend time on, something you value, something that adds to you as a person, it can be counted as an extracurricular activity.
NOT ALL ACTIVITIES ARE CREATED EQUAL.
And by this I mean that yeah, all extracurriculars (ECs) are good and all, but only some are truly great. And even fewer are truly extraordinary. Here’s a handy-dandy tier system to see which activities mean how much.
This is the real stuff, the very very legit stuff. It exemplifies superior excellence, achievement, leadership, and marks you as one of the best students in the nation, maybe even the world. Now, before I get into this, don’t be disheartened if none of your activities fall into this tier, very few do, it’s not the end of the world - there are still plenty of opportunities to build a strong extracurricular profile. (I’m forever in pursuit of this tier.)
That being said, having one of these activities is an automatic shining light that can be your golden ticket into college.
Some examples of a Tier I activity:
1. Winning a national award.
This includes getting 1st place in USAMO (USA Math Olympiad - or other national Olympiads), being an IBO qualifier (the International Biology Olympiad), an Intel Science Fair winner (or other well-known science fairs). These are incredibly selective and competitive, and by definition places you as one of the top students in the world.
2. Being at the top in a particular field...
Whether that be in a sport/athletic activity or in a specific instrument (I’m telling you, if the college needs an oboe player and you happen to be a good oboe player who wants to continue playing in college, you will get into that college - that’s not to say that you should start playing a musical instrument or anything for this sole purpose). And this is referring to national or higher level, where you are truly one of the best oboe players out there.
3. A highly competitive summer program.
(And I mean highly competitive - if you know someone else personally that got in, it’s unlikely it’s that competitive). I’m talking about RSI (Research Science Institute), TASP (Telluride Association Summer Program), MITES (Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science), programs like that. These are nationwide programs that only take the best of the best, and you need to be seriously qualified to be chosen. (To give you some perspective, my summer research program is probably a high/very high Tier II, not really close to a Tier I. You can read more about my summer research program here).
4. Founding a notable regional or national organization.
This does not mean starting a random charity, running a few fundraisers, raising a couple thousand dollars and calling it a day (funny story, I did that in 5th grade, check this out: 1d4amd.com). This means building an entire organization, being a 403(c) recognized non-profit, and receiving some significant news coverage. Enough that other reputable sources have vouched for your legitimateness.
These are the activities that most of us call our “best activities”. They’re a lot easier to have, and more people have them, therefore diminishing their prestige a little. But don’t worry, these are still solid activities to have as a part of your EC profile. Having two or three of these makes you an excellent candidate (in terms of college admissions, cause apparently that’s all I can think of these days). These are the activities where you have had substantial leadership, achievement, and distinction, but not necessarily at a national or even regional level.
Some examples of a Tier II activity:
1. President of a club/organization.
This can be from Model UN to your Debate Team to Science Olympiad. Any large school club with a significant amount of members that has a specific and known purpose. These clubs are the ones that are well-known to others (especially admissions counselors) so they can put your achievements into perspective. Showing leadership shows a capability to become an active citizen on campus.
2. Winning a State Level award
This can be Science Olympiad, Science League, state-level science fair, or other similar academic achievement. This is not quite at the same caliber as a national award, but it still shows significant achievement, especially if you come from a competitive state like New Jersey.
3. Playing an instrument with distinction
I personally cannot attest to this, but I know several people who were first recognized at the county stage and were then selected to the All-New Jersey Orchestra, or similar music group. Although not considered academic, this activity shows dedication and achievement, especially if you plan on pursuing this particular instrument into your college career.
4. Pursuing a sport with distinction
Even if you’re Captain of your fencing team or whatever, it doesn’t really count as a Tier II unless that fencing team is at the regional or state level, and is competing well at that level. That being said, if you have been recognized as a high-performing athlete in your state regardless of how your team is doing, it would count in this Tier as well.
Now we’re entering into the relatively common activities territory, where almost all applicants have a wide variety of Tier III extracurriculars. Of course, it’s important to have these activities on your profile - these suggest achieving a slightly larger role, small leadership, or moderate distinction. These activities are good for padding up that resume, and for the best profile, have your Tier III activities complement your higher Tier activities, to build that narrative in your profile.
Some examples of a Tier III activity:
1. Treasurer or Secretary of a club
Again, this would be for school clubs like Model UN, Debate Team, Science Olympiad, and other similar ones. Just like being the President of a student organization, having this leadership role serves as a reminder of your ability to lead and be an active member, just at a lower degree because of your diminished role. To play this up a little, I definitely recommend describing in detail what you accomplished as this council member, to give your position some context.
2. Playing an instrument with some common distinction
This is similar to its counterpart in Tier II, expect this is at the school or maybe district level, possibly county level. Something like an Honors award for violin. Nothing particularly outstanding, but an indicator of your dedication and the potential you have to receive this award at a higher, perhaps a state, level in the future.
3. Participation in a selective organization that is still relatively common
This is where most high school sports get lumped together. If you’re on a JV sports team, or perhaps only a senior year varsity player, it is considered as a Tier III activity. Even some varsity sports where you are not necessarily recognized or high-performing fall into this category. The only exceptions I can think of are if you are a true leader on the team and have been captain for however long, and maybe your coach even wrote you a recommendation letter attesting to your skills relating to the leadership position.
Generally, these are activities that imply open membership or few requirements for participation. These are the clubs that are open to everyone, and you are just a member of them, with no leadership position. Anyone can do what you do, there is no specific process or extra achievement. Ideally, only a few of your activities would fall into this category, but don’t worry if you’re an underclassmen and most of your activities are in this Tier - you still have time to cultivate and increase your involvement to the point where acquiring a leadership role could bring it up to a Tier III or even Tier II activity.
Some examples of a Tier IV activity:
1. Basic membership in a club
This is when you are just a member, nothing more, of a school club like the ones mentioned above - Model UN, Science Olympiad, etc etc. You have no specific role or responsibility, but are still showing dedication by participating in the first place. Again, this is how most of your clubs will start out, but don’t be afraid to take that initiative to run for a position.
2. Playing an instrument without distinction
This is your run-of-the-mill “I’ve been playing piano for the past 12 years but have nothing to show for it” type of activity. Unless you’ve participated in state or national level competitions or performances for your instrument, it’s likely it doesn’t mean much. This also applies to simply being in the orchestra or marching band or the like at school and not being recognized for your achievements. Again, however, the exception is if you have a leadership role that is extensive and can be attested to.
3. Pursuing a sport without distinction
This is when you don’t necessarily have to be good enough to even make a team, it is an open sport or something you do on the side. For example, if you’ve been doing karate since you were 9 but did not receive any awards related to your achievements.
Almost all volunteering activities are considered Tier IV activities, just because it is open to everyone and there is no real way to show leadership and growth. Of course, volunteering is great, but unless you are on par to get a crazy number of hours like 500 or something, maybe focus your efforts on activities where there is room for upward mobility. If you’re really into volunteering, try starting your own volunteering organization instead. Of course, of course, a lot of schools require volunteering hours and that’s sort of why it turns into an activity, but aside from special exceptions (the first one that comes to mind is if you’re vying for BS/MD type programs - clinical volunteering is important in that scenario) volunteering does not really hold any true weight.
**ALWAYS KEEP IN MIND**
Don’t feel bad if you think your activities are “bad” or “not up to par” or whatever it is you are thinking. Remember that every activity you participate in reveals a new facet of your personality - volunteering at a hospital vs volunteering at a library shows two vastly different interests that offer insight into who you are as a person. :)
Another interesting idea to keep in mind:
Try to think of activities as points on a graph (I know math, ugh, but stay with me here). The x-axis is interestingness - it goes from not interesting to very interesting - and the y-axis is impressiveness - from not to very impressive. Ideally, the best activities are those that are in the top right quadrant of the graph, ones that are incredibly impressive and interesting. These show a high level of achievement while also showcasing aspects of your personality. But because of the nature of this graph, you can somewhat make up for a lack in interestingness by having a lot of impressiveness, and vice versa to a lesser extent.
And one more quick note:
Do not waste your summer sleeping and binge-watching Netflix, you will not thank yourself later. Of course, the summers before and after freshmen year are pretty much useless, but even those I would use to do some volunteering or exploring or creating. But the summers before your junior year and your senior year matter, especially, especially, especially the latter. Summer is the one time where you can dedicate more than just a few hours a week to a particular project, and the way you spend your summers can define a large part of your activity profile, especially if you use them well.
I like to use myself as an example. My one claim to fame (at least, my largest one) is the research I conducted this summer (you can read about it here). Without it, I would just be your average everyday president of multiple clubs. (Plus, I would never have realized how much I absolutely adore research, but that’s a different story and a different reason to explore in the summer.)
That being said: please realize that if you do want to compete for these prestigious summer programs out there, applications start early, some are due as early as January, so make sure you’re on top of the deadlines. And in case you don’t know what summer programs to apply to, you’re in luck, I wrote three very extensive posts about different programs you can apply to, especially if you’re into science, which you can check out here, here, and here.
And don’t worry if you’re not into these competitive type programs, or you don’t get in, or you don’t get an internship or whatever other productive plans you had for a particular summer - try to pursue a passion project instead. Maybe you’ve always wanted to help educate inner-city expecting mothers about infant health (I dunno, it was the first thing that popped into my mind), or create an app to help people quit smoking, or maybe you want to collect old or broken laptops from your community to donate to the poor schoolgirls in the hills of Mussoorie, India (this is this specific because this was my plan, I just never had the time to carry it out). Whatever it may be, even if it’s not necessarily philanthropic, you have a good 1,440 hours during the summer (give or take) to make your passion project a real thing. (This blog is 100% my passion project.)
Using your activities to get into college
I know this whole post so far has been hinting at activities as they relate to college admissions, but let’s take some space to talk about (really briefly) some barebones strategies for representing your activities on your college applications (for more about the Common App, read my post here).
One of the most important things you can do is to build a narrative. This means finding a common theme in your activities (or if you’re still an underclassman - focusing on developing that common theme) and shaping your entire application around that one theme. Maybe you’re really into community service. Make sure your activities represent that characteristic while offering different takes on the idea of what you can use to serve your community. Maybe you tutor classmates and serve your school community as an NHS member, and you also hold cancer walks for your local community as a Cancer Society member.
Regardless of what the theme is, it might not always be apparent just by glancing at your activities. So it falls upon your shoulders to mold your application to create a theme and make it easier for admissions counselors to see that one pervading narrative throughout your application. This makes it all more cohesive, plus easy to categorize. (You can also use your essay to tie your theme together.)
Another age-old question relating to activities and college admissions is should you be well-rounded? Or very specialized?
Let’s define well-rounded first: having many interests and activities that span many different areas. So in one word, breadth. In terms of activities, it’ll be a couple Tier II, mostly Tier III, a helping of Tier IV (from varied interests). Let’s define specialized: having interests and activities focused on only one area at a very high level. In one word: depth. And this one in terms of activities would be one or two Tier I, multiple Tier II, maybe a couple of Tier III (but all focused in the same area).
So which one is better?
It’s hard to answer that question in a generalized way with everyone in mind, but tentatively I can say it’s better to be specialized. You are of more value to a college and that value is easily noticeable to admissions counselors if you have a significant strength that stands out in your application. (For more insider tips on college admissions, read my post on “How College Admissions Actually Works” here.)
However, that being said, it is incredibly difficult for most students to achieve that highly specialized, more than one Tier I activity type of profile. So I like to adopt Collegevine’s solution (read: not mine, I give them all the credit) on juxtapositional depth.
Besides sounding very cool and fancy, it means that you are a somewhat specialized person in 2-3 areas. So even if you aren’t groundbreakingly amazing at computer science or whatever, you are pretty pretty good at computer science, pretty pretty good at community service, and pretty pretty good at one club like Model UN or something. You can’t say you’re the best in the country at all three of these things, but you have achieved at a high level in each one, and have built strengths from the activities. In terms of Tiers, this would mean 1-2 Tier II activities per area, and with Tier III and IV activities providing a cushion, but still connected to your specialties.
An important part of juxtapositional depth is being able to connect those 2-3 strengths together into one cohesive personality. For example, for the three things I mentioned above, maybe your theme, your narrative, is using computer science to advocate for a more connected world, and you can show that by the app you helped program that allows people to catch up on foreign current events. (I dunno, it’s the first thing that came to my mind.)
Here’s a handy-dandy timeline (also provided a la Collegevine) that details how you should go about choosing and doing activities throughout your 4 years in high school.
Activities on the Common App
Very, very briefly, I am going to touch on how you will eventually represent your activities on the Common Application for college admissions, which hopefully puts everything into perspective.
1. They will ask you for the hours spent per week and number of weeks per year. Try to give a ballpark estimate for ones that don’t have established hours; usually activities with leadership require more hours than if you’re just a member.
2. You only have 50 characters (characters! Including spaces!) to state the name of the activity and positions you may have held. It is important to be succinct and use each character wisely.
3. You only have 150 characters (!) to explain the activity and talk about everything you have done for the 4 years you have spent on it. And you thought writing a Twitter status was hard.
4. Please don’t use full sentences. That is a waste of space; college admissions know that you don’t have much room, so they will understand the use of abbreviations and symbols and whatnot. Just make sure they are easily recognizable, try not to have random acronyms only you have heard of.
5. Just because you don’t use full sentences doesn’t mean it’s not serious. This is one of the largest parts of the Common App, take it seriously.
To finish this post off, I’m going to share some of my (bad and good) experiences with extracurriculars and representing them on my college applications.
1. I had way too many activities.
On the Common App, for those who don’t know, you have 10 slots for 10 different activities, and it was only when I started filling them out was when I realized I do so many things. I ended up not having space for explaining my shadowing, some of my interning, and other medically related ECs (which is fine for me, because I’m not applying to 7-year med programs - more on that here), but those were things I spent a lot of time on that I ended up having to scrunch together into one overarching, volunteering/internship/shadowing activity. And I had to combine so many of my other activities (like National Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society) so I would have room for others. And I outright had to delete other activities (like being editor of the school newspaper). It was a disaster. It also made me realize I did so much in high school and I never even realized.
The takeaway message here is to not feel pressured to get involved in every single activity, you end up having a lot more than you make think. But if you do end up with extra activities, choose the ones that fit best with your narrative and complement the rest of your application best.
2. It is so hard to order these activities.
Another important part of representing your activities is their ordering on the Common App itself. Your best, more interesting activities go first, and the rest follow in some sort of meaningful order. All my activities meant so much to me, so it was so hard putting one over the other. In the end, I went with what I thought were the most impressive first, the ones I spent the most time on (as in hours and whatnot) earlier, and obviously, trying to categorize them in Tiers and using that system to order them.
What I recommend is asking someone else, a third party, to look at not only your list of activities but also your 150 character descriptions, and asking that person to use those data to order them in what they think is the most impressive. This can come in handy because it offers a different perspective of what weight your activities hold.
3. You have to be very specific.
I come from a very small school, so it’s not like the admissions officers who will read my application will know, even generally, what some of the clubs in my school stand for, or how they work. So it was important for me to be very clear and specific when defining my activities and describing my involvement. I ended up using the additional information section of the Common App to briefly extend on 2 or 3 of my activities, to provide some additional context that was missing in just those 150 characters.
Whew! That’s all I have for you guys for that one, hopefully it was informational.
Remember, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask, either here in the comments or through the contact form on my home page :)
And as always, thanks for reading!