It’s the oldest college admissions strategy in the book: extracurricular activities.
Year after year, I see a lot of students committing to all sorts of different extracurriculars in high school to get accepted into their dream Ivy League and Top-tier colleges.
And year after year, I see students overwhelmed and burnt out because they take up this strategy without really knowing how to use it.
In this blog post, I’ll break down how you can use the most popular extracurriculars that college admissions officers want to see so that you can stand out on your college application.
The Trick with Popular Extracurriculars
The Common App, which just launched its 2023-2024 application at the beginning of August, includes 10 slots to list extracurricular activities. But that can be deceiving for some students.
You could think that those 10 slots mean you need at least 10 extracurricular activities to turn in an impressive application, or that leaving one blank might hurt your chances of getting accepted.
But here’s the truth: colleges don’t expect you to have a laundry list of extracurriculars. Some students may need only a few to really stand out.
You still have to make careful decisions about which extracurricular activities to choose to join. Getting involved in several of the most popular extracurriculars can actually hurt your chances of standing out in the college application process. That’s because these extracurricular activities are popular for a reason — so many students participate in them every year.
If the entire applicant pool is filled with students participating in the same extracurriculars, that means you’re going to have to work even harder to stand out in them. (That’s why I always recommend having a strategically aligned Passion Project, too.)
Applicants should not be aiming for a certain number of extracurriculars to create a great college application. They just need to find the right ones.
Supporting Your Claim
How do you find the right extracurriculars that fit your unique application? With your college application, you’re trying to make a claim: that your personal qualities and strengths make you a worthy candidate for your desired program at that university. (I also call this your application’s theme.)
If I learned anything from all the lab reports I did in high school, it’s that your claim needs to be supported by clear and demonstrated evidence.
So, what can you use as your evidence? Your extracurriculars.
Now, you can’t start adding a ton of random extracurriculars to your list of qualifications. They need to feel authentic. Extracurriculars are less likely to stand out on your application if they do not align with your actual interests. That’s where you need a Why-Factor.
When college admissions officers look at your application, they are not only looking at what you did. They are also looking at why you did it. The Why-Factor is the answer to this question: Why did you want to participate in this activity?
What about that extracurricular piqued your curiosity or personal interests? What did you want to get out of it? (Hint: The answer can’t be “to get accepted into your college” or “to look impressive.”)
The Why-Factor is the most important element of any extracurricular on your list — if you don’t have a concrete answer, you may not have a Why-Factor!
How to Use the Most Popular Extracurriculars to Really Stand Out
Like I said, if you’re involved in popular extracurriculars, it can be tricky to really stand out. So, if you’re involved in any of these extracurriculars, it’s super important that you have a pretty great Why-Factor that proves they align with your personal strengths and interests.
Let’s break down a few of these common extracurriculars below to see how you should be using them in your application:
Physics club. Robotics club. Creative writing club. Spanish club. Clubs organized by your school can be an easy way to explore your intended field of study or personal interests. However, it’s important to remember that many other students participate in these same clubs each year. To stand out, make sure each club really aligns with your particular interests.
- Use similar school clubs & activities on your application to demonstrate your interest in a particular field.
- Seek leadership opportunities in a unique club that aligns with your interests, or create an extracurricular as a Passion Project to really stand out.
- Rely on school-sanctioned activities alone to stand out on your application.
I know what you’re thinking: Whaaat? But even though I’m a Passion Project coach, I know that so many students use this strategy incorrectly. That’s because a Passion Project isn’t just a box to check — it’s a project that needs to totally align with your true passion to show college admissions officers that you have a true, vested interest in exploring it at their university. Remember: it’s not about what your passion is; it’s about how you demonstrate it in your efforts!
- Start early. Passion Projects look best when a student has invested 1-3 years in them.
- Use your Passion Project as a topic in your college essays. Talk about your successes and your failures with the project, and what you learned from them. The process of creating your own project to explore your interests will intrigue college admissions officers.
- Check out my Free Intro Training to get more tips on creating your first Passion Project!
- Create a Passion Project just to look “impressive.” College admissions officers will be able to see right through it!
- Start your senior year.
While awards and accolades are certainly impressive, they aren’t your only hope of standing out on your application. If your passion is purely academic, this strategy might work (i.e. competing in a math decathlon if you want to major in math). But there’s a sad truth about entering competitions like these: most students don’t win. Instead of sinking hours into a competition where you may walk away empty-handed, you should put your efforts toward something with a guaranteed outcome.
- Replace competitions with other tangible accolades: getting publicity for your Passion Project, organizing an event, creating a successful podcast or YouTube channel.
- Devote all of your time and effort to competitions with no guaranteed outcome.
This one gets tricky, because obviously volunteering is an amazing and rewarding experience. Students who become active volunteers for social causes in their community can inspire others to do the work, too! However, it’s important to remember that the quantity of volunteer hours doesn’t matter. The days of needing 100+ hours of volunteer work to be considered for a top-tier university are over! What matters is why those volunteer hours are important to you. If you’re an active volunteer, you need to remember to talk about the real reason you’re devoted to that cause on your application.
- Talk about the reason why you do volunteer work for a particular organization on your application — hopefully it aligns with your major interest!
- Take your volunteer hours to the next level by creating a Passion Project that supports that specific cause.
- Mistake that a certain number of volunteer hours is a “prerequisite” for getting accepted — it isn’t!
Paid Summer Programs
Many universities invite students to participate in on-campus summer programs each year. These can be a good way to familiarize yourself with college living and even explore a certain academic track. However, many of these programs are set up in a “pay-to-play” model. That means students need to pay a fee to join the program. With thousands of students in attendance each year, these programs are not really designed to give you valuable face-time with professors at the university. And don’t be fooled: attending a summer program does not give you a better chance of getting accepted into that particular university.
- Contact college admissions officers at your desired university directly to learn more about the admissions process.
- Create your own networking opportunities by independently reaching out to professors for research opportunities. If you establish a relationship with a college professor, you can ask them for a Recommendation Letter to add to your college application!
- Consider taking online courses during the summer that will count toward your college credits.
- Use a summer program as an “express ticket” on your application to get accepted.
- Rely on crowded summer programs to provide you with networking opportunities at your desired university.
So, if you’re still wondering how you can stand out with popular extracurricular activities, start to focus on why you’re doing them in the first place. That Why-Factor is the key to understanding which extracurriculars are most important to you, and how you can write about them in your college application.
Need help determining which activities are actually going to help you get accepted? You can join me inside my free introductory training to learn the 3 Essential Steps you need to take to get accepted into your dream college.