For the last six months or so, I served as an alumni interviewer for Princeton, my undergraduate university. Interviewing students from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds has really broadened my perspective on what sorts of activities students are involved in these days. I truly believe that the admissions process gets more competitive each year, and I was AMAZED by the activities that some of the interviewees participated in outside the class room. In the spirit of using what I’ve observed to help current high school students thinking about what to do outside of school, so here are some tips regarding extracurricular activities in high school.
1. Doing a couple things amazingly is more impressive than doing many things mediocrely.
This is fairly obvious, but I didn’t want to neglect to mention it. This applies to anything- playing a sport or instrument, running an organization, etc. Make sure that you are doing REALLY well in all of the things you participate in, and try to seek to make the biggest possible impact you can within your co-curricular involvements. It’s easy to join ten different student organizations and attend their meetings once every month, but it’s much more difficult to lead a student organization and plan events and whatnot.
For example, when it comes to sports, it’s way more impressive to be one of the top rugby players in your state/nation than to be just okay at four different sports. Students are regularly recruited to play a sport for a given university, but no one was ever recruited to a college for just being okay at four sports, ya know? (My general thoughts are that you should never play a sport with the EXPECTATION of being recruited for it. You don’t want to bank on being recruited and neglect academics or forgo other co-curricular experiences because you can’t guarantee that you’ll get recruited. If you really enjoy playing a sport, great! Invest time into becoming the best possible player that you can be, and try to get to the varsity level, because that will (a) give you the highest chance of being recruited, and (b) be more valuable in terms of admissions than being a mediocre player on three different junior-varsity or club sports teams.)
2. Turn a hobby into an extracurricular activity worth talking about.
Many people have hobbies like ‘reading’ and ‘cooking’. Those are great, and you’re not alone in enjoying those things. But reading isn’t the most impressive extracurricular activity; chances are that many (if not most) students applying to college enjoy reading. In order to actually turn your hobby into an extracurricular activity worth talking about on college applications, you have to combine that hobby with initiative and/or creativity and/or leadership and/or service and/or something else.
So if we run with the example of reading as a hobby, here are a few common co-curricular activities that could relate to books. I don’t consider these activities to be super impressive or unique, and here’s why.
- Holding a book drive (this is a one time effort doesn’t really making a lasting impact on anyone, and it doesn’t show sustained commitment by the student)
- Starting a book club (this isn’t a BAD activity by any means, it just doesn’t show an astounding amount of creativity)
Some more involved activities might include:
- Identifying a favorite book that is perhaps underrated, and spending some time directing a film or play on that book. (This shows creativity and you can demonstrate skills as well- videography, direction, acting, organizing, etc.)
- Niche-ing down and identifying a particular genre as most interesting to you, and then doing something creative around that genre. (An example might be starting a blog where you review only historical fiction novels that take place in 18th century New England. I don’t think starting a blog is considered unique or creative, but it WOULD kind of keep a record/log of all the reading you have done. If you can talk about the 150 historical fiction novels you’ve read, that is actually pretty impressive and unique, whereas just saying you have read a lot of books in general is less unique.)
3. Service should equal filling a gap in the need space.
Many students ask me what activity they should do in order to show ‘community service’ on their college applications. I recommend starting out by volunteering with an established organization in your community and within your sector of interest. Learn as much as you can about service and about your community. After that, if you are interested in starting a project of your own, I think it’s important to remember that true service is NOT determined by what you want to do, but about what your target community needs. The way to serve your community effectively is to first identify a need in the community, and then work to meet that need. The key is to make sure that you are qualified to meet that need, though.
E.g. if you see that many people in your community are immigrants struggling with English language skills, perhaps you determine that a need in the community is for ESL classes. Great. If you speak the immigrants’ native language, you may think that you are qualified to teach ESL classes, and want to jump right into teaching such courses. However, it’s not fair to just assume that you are qualified to meet that need. People spend years in teacher preparation programs learning how to teach most effectively. You probably have to first take such a course yourself so that you are a high quality teacher. Don’t feel like you have to start right away and pad your resume. Colleges will appreciate it when you explain that you first prepared yourself to serve the community most effectively before you actually began your project.
4. Invest time to learn more about a potential career (even if it doesn’t sound exciting)
If you are considering a certain career field, it makes a lot of sense to spend some time shadowing, volunteering, or interning in that field. It may not sound like the most exciting or impressive co-curricular activity, but colleges can understand and respect students who take the time to really determine whether they are actually interested in a certain career field or not. This also doesn’t have to be something you spend ten hours a week doing. You can just spend some time in your summers to explore different career fields you are considering. I will say, though, that most companies and organizations seek interns that are in university, however, so you will likely have to reach out to companies on your own in order to set up an internship. The key here is marketing yourself and what you can offer to the company/organization, since they may not expect that a high school student would have much to offer.
5. Don’t think you are too young or inexperienced.
Based on my experiences interviewing students, I am CONVINCED that high school students can get involved in anything they are interested in. I recently interviewed a student who wanted to intern with a Congressman/woman, but he knew that congressional offices typically only accept university students as interns, not high school students. This student casually mentioned that he decided to just email 200 congressional offices and figured that he’d get at least one office that was willing to interview him. I was so impressed with how this student knew he would be considered young/inexperienced, but that this didn’t make him give up- it made him work twenty times harder in order to get what he wanted. I was more impressed with how hard he worked to get the internship than with the fact that he actually completed the internship itself. If a high school student can get an internship in a congressional office, I really think any high school student reading this should take that as a lesson in perseverance.
6. It’s totally fine for something to just be a hobby and not an extracurricular.
Don’t think that everything has to be turned into an ‘extra curricular activity’- some things CAN just be hobbies, and you can still talk about them in your college application. Colleges want you to have hobbies. However, it only makes you memorable to the individual(s) reading your application if the hobby itself is unique or uncommon. Going back to the reading example above, reading is not a unique hobby, and it won’t make you stand out. However, reading 14th century Persian literature is pretty unique. Glass blowing is pretty unique. Making perfume in your kitchen is unique. So if you already have a hobby that is relatively uncommon, own that, and feel confident talking about that in your application.