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How Your Extracurricular Activities Can Boost Your College Application

Extracurricular activities can have a tremendous impact on the college admissions process, but how do you choose the ones that are most meaningful for you

Oftentimes students feel like they should join as many extracurricular activities as possible to boost their chances of getting accepted to college. The idea is that, by joining all the clubs and participating in every activity available to them, they will show the extent and breadth of their responsibilities; that they will appear to be well-rounded. While it is important to explore and discover different interests–and you definitely want to show that you are diligent-–students who join too many extracurriculars end up with a long list of commitments, but few long-term leadership positions. 

From a college admissions standpoint, an overly long list of disconnected extracurricular activities may have unintended consequences for an applicant. As admissions to top schools become increasingly competitive, it is not uncommon to hear about students who had near-perfect GPAs and SAT scores; who joined all the clubs; participated in a sport every season; did hundreds of hours of community service, and still got rejected by many of their top schools. While discouraging, these stories are not necessarily surprising. When an applicant partakes in so many extracurricular activities, it inevitably raises the question: ‘If this student was involved in so many activities, were they actually able to contribute meaningfully to any?’ 

The inquiry makes sense: The time you have to spend in extracurricular activities is very limited. By joining too many activities, you are telling an admissions committee that you couldn’t really fully commit to any. 

That said, extracurricular activities have tremendous potential to turn an application into an acceptance–or a rejection. So how do you approach these? 

a group of people standing next to a river

Be Real When Choosing Extracurriculars

In short, find something that you are really interested in and develop it into a project that can last for months, perhaps even years.

Extracurricular activities are often a reflection of what matters to a prospective student; they are an opportunity to tell your story beyond a GPA or an AP Exam. Therefore, it is important to get involved with projects that feel authentic to you–that you are excited about–not because they will look good in an application, but because they feel good to you.

In this case, the old adage, quality over quantity comes into play: When you apply to any given school, you are competing against applicants whose GPA, test scores, and academic club memberships will already be impressive. You will stand out not by joining an extra club, but by focusing on an independent project that will truly shine in an applications committee.

How Extracurriculars Illuminate Your True Potential 

Admittedly, admissions officers read thousands of applications, so how will they know if yours really is genuine?

The college application process is holistic: your writing, test scores, and grades are all closely scrutinized by admissions officers looking to build a class of innovators, creators, critical thinkers, change-makers and entrepreneurs. Most applications will have a supplemental essay asking you about a meaningful activity that you engaged with and why it mattered to you. While the length of this prompt will vary by school, all admissions officers want to see an aspect of your personality that simply does not come through in transcripts and test scores. In answering this question, you want to make sure that your enthusiasm is contagious: a seasoned application reader can easily tell whether you did something just for the application or because it was valuable to you.

In theory, you could convince someone about something you are passionate about, even if said passion,is not really there. This, however, is very hard to do. Passion–especially over something that lasts years–is really hard to fake. An application that does not feel authentic often isn’t, and it significantly decreases your chances of admission at any school; anything that comes off as disingenuous is an easy rejection.

Remember: The extracurricular activities that will stand out are the ones that you committed to for an extended period of time, not the ones that happened once a month.

So what’s the right extracurricular activity for me?

While the ‘right’ activity is completely dependent on your own interests, note that all these activities–when done well–have their own merits. I will explore the different categories and what they could look like, but keep in mind that what’s most important is for you to do something unique to you. 

Community Service and Involvement

Which communities are you part of, and how can you give back to them? 

Community involvement extracurriculars allow you to choose a group or cause that you care about and help accomplish a goal within it. Community service generally looks like volunteering at homeless shelters, food banks, libraries, museums, or and assisted living facilities. These organizations, and many more, are always looking for volunteers to help with their programming, and they will be very grateful for any support you can give them. 

For most people, this volunteerism consists of working one hour per week at one of these facilities. While this is a great start, it doesn’t always allow you to get to know the people you are working with or gauge the potential impact you could have. Meaningful service is often long-lasting. If you are volunteering, consider carving yourself a space at any given organization. Work alongside your local non-profit or animal shelter to figure out what they need and how you can help. 

When you craft your community service project, be weary of programs that require payment. Known as voluntourism, these programs are often short-lived experiences at remote locations, but their impact is often limited, and perhaps even damaging to local communities. While your intentions may be good, the optics of these programs are problematic. Instead of traveling far and wide, take a look at the spaces you already belong to, and work towards making these better.

Community service is an act of empathy: in order to better help, you need to fully listen and observe so that you can understand the needs of others. Whether you partner with an organization or build something on your own, what matters most is that you can proudly say that you identified a need in your community and then stepped in to address it. 

Academic Clubs and Pursuits

Academic extracurriculars involve pretty much all school clubs and related activities. Whether you are the president of your math club, a team captain, or a force to be reckoned with on the debate team, academic activities can showcase your intellectual curiosity, passion for learning, and ability to withstand rigorous academic challenges.

Furthermore, your involvement with academic teams demonstrates your willingness to engage with a more complex and nuanced curriculum and to take on additional responsibilities. Your successful participation in academic pursuits is clear proof of your intellectual prowess, commitment to learning, and willingness to be a leader within your school community as a whole. 

Activities like Mock Trial, Model UN, and debate are popular extracurriculars that will help you develop excellent oratory skills and sharpen your critical thinking abilities. 

Similarly, If you are genuinely passionate about math, science, English, history, or any other subject, consider joining the corresponding school club. If you are able, partake in competitions like the History Bowl. Your participation in discipline-specific competitions will surely show how committed you are to your learning, exalting your academic achievements. 

While schools often have multiple clubs for every subject, in addition to debate and student council, remember: less is more. You do not need to join every single academic club. Instead, choose two to three clubs that you are really interested in, and, over the course of your academic career, work on making these better. Whether it is the chess club or student government, by the end of your high school career you want to be able to say that you held a leadership position and that you improved the club’s visibility and programming. You cannot do this for every club at the school, but you can certainly do it for one. 

stack of jigsaw puzzle pieces

College Classes and Specialized Summer Programs

One of the best ways to demonstrate your intellectual vitality is to take additional classes. Many of the top universities offer excellent summer programming. People often don’t know, however, that taking these summer courses does not guarantee admission to a university. Additionally, these are often very expensive. Your nearest community college, though, has an extensive course catalog that can help you get ahead in your education journey.

Community colleges offer a plethora of college courses for high school students at very affordable costs. You can certainly take more advanced school coursework, but this is also a chance to explore other interests: maybe this is the chance to take that sociology course that you’re really interested in, but which your school doesn’t offer. Whatever summer class you choose, make sure that you are earning college credit for it!

Additionally, There are many summer programs for high school students that aim to create unique educational experiences and to help students discover different passions. Telluride, for example, focuses on critical Black studies and anti-oppressive studies, making it an excellent choice for those who are interested in social and political activism. Meanwhile, the Iowa Young Writers Studio aims to nurture creative writers and help them hone their craft.

These summer activities tend to be competitive, but your successful participation in them certainly will look impressive in any given application.

Personal Interests and Capstone Projects 

Personal interests projects are what will make your application truly stand out because, often, it is the one thing that no other applicant has; an opportunity to show that, instead of joining too many activities, you focused on one thing that you cared about and became really good at it. Students who work on a capstone project manage to find the intersection of their passions and interests and craft a project that elevates their application and gives them a unique branding that sets them apart from others. 

Why are these projects so effective? Because they are authentic. Students who work on capstone projects spend months–often years–reaching out to experts, building community partnerships, doing research, or building something tangible. At H&C, we have had the privilege to bring many of these passions to life. These include handbooks published by national museums in collaboration with top university professors, popular podcasts, launching a non-profit in a foreign country, and national initiatives connecting hospitalized children. A capstone project can be research, art, service, or anything in between. Regardless of what these projects are about, though, the students behind these were really excited to work on the project, not their college application. 

A good capstone project is scalable: you start small, but as you dedicate yourself to it and spend the time needed to grow your project, you will able to gain exposure in your community, talk to different individuals, and gain recognition for your work. A great capstone project is one that you can look back on and say ‘Wow! I did that!’

Independent projects are a testament to your gumption and tenacity. Importantly, they clearly show that, as an individual, you are willing to take initiative. Instead of following what everyone else was doing, you put your energy into developing something impactful and unique–the exact kind of person an admissions officer would want to have on their campus. 

Intimidated? Don’t be! At H&C, we know a lot about these projects, and we are excited to help you build your own via our H&C Incubator Program—click here to learn more.

man on running field

What About Sports Teams?

Student athletes often spend several hours practicing after school and therefore have to manage their academics and extracurricular activities with their chosen sport. 

If you do a sport, in addition to the physical component, you are telling colleges that you are a team player and that you are disciplined. You don’t have to play a different sport every season: Any sport that you commit to in high school will require intensive practices and time away for games and meets. Managing all these responsibilities shows how resilient you are. 

As with any school extracurricular activity, make sure you are committing to something long-term. If you are able to, play the same sport every season, and commit to a leadership position within your team. As an athlete, you have a great opportunity to build your community and to make a healthy impact on your school campus culture. This is amplified if you are a team captain, a position in which you’ll set a positive example for your peers.

While your commitment to sports is impressive, do not let this be your only activity. Consider balancing your athletic commitments with an independent project that is uniquely yours. (Yes–it can be about athletics!) 

Extracurricular Activities for Those Interested in Art

Are you a painter? A theater kid? Do you love singing or dancing? So do college admissions committees! Like athletics, performing and visual arts take some serious commitment and extensive hours of practice. Through your art, you have the power to evoke feelings and emotions from an audience and to use your platform to amplify social causes. 

If you are committed to your craft, consider taking it to the next level and building a service or capstone project around it. You can teach a class at your local library or shelter, or use your art to make nuanced commentary on a social cause that you care about. By the time you apply, along with your portfolio, show college admissions officers that you used your talents to make an impact. 

As colleges build their incoming classes, they look for individuals who can bring creativity and innovation to their campus. If you identify as an artist, keep at it. Whether you join the art club or audition for the local philharmonic, know that your skill is valuable and that colleges are excited to see it.


With so many opportunities to choose from, it can be daunting to decide what to do. It is okay to take some time to explore: If you are a freshman, talk to different clubs at school and figure out if you are a good match for their mission. If you are seeking volunteer opportunities, try out a couple of places before settling for one that you are truly excited about. Embarking on a capstone journey? Have fun and enjoy the experience! 

You are not looking to build the longest list of extracurricular activities. Instead, you are searching for the ideas that spark curiosity, and you are bringing them to life. 

Whatever you choose to do, always remember: be real. 

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