What Are Extracurricular Activities?
When you think about preparing to apply to college, you probably tend to think about taking classes that are appropriately advanced for you, earning good grades in those classes, preparing for the SAT or the ACT to attain a strong score, and crafting your college essays. Every piece of the college application process is important, and there’s one more important piece: extracurricular activities.
Whether you are just starting high school or entering your senior year, you have probably already participated in various extracurricular activities.
Defined roughly, an extracurricular activity is simply something you do outside of class or a paying job.
For example, if you play on the varsity football team or in a badminton club, those are both extracurricular activities. If you contribute to a blog reviewing music and television, or you are part of an after-school improv comedy group, those are also extracurricular activities.
Why Do Extracurricular Activities Matter?
You know that your GPA, difficulty of your course-load, and your standardized test scores matter to colleges because those factors show your academic preparation for success in college. Your essays matter because they show your ability to effectively communicate your ideas in writing, and they demonstrate information about your character, background, passions, and vision for your future that grades and scores cannot show.
These last few factors listed start to overlap with why extracurricular activities are important.
You are required to go to school and take classes, and you are required to take standardized tests and write essays to get into college. However, extracurricular activities are pursuits you choose to participate in on your own, and therefore they demonstrate drive, focus, and passion, and they show that you have likely committed yourself to developing talents and skills that interest you, and if you have stuck with one extracurricular activity for a long time, you have probably also had some leadership experience.
All of these qualities matter to colleges, because college students must be more independent in designing and keeping up with their course of study than high schoolers. Colleges also generally don’t want a completely homogenous population – they want students interested in various things so that academic and extracurricular life on campus can flourish.
What Extracurricular Activities Should I Do?
I tend to keep things pretty simple when I am advising students about extracurricular activities: do what interests you, do what you are passionate about, and stick with it.
You will see some students around you trying to do too much, collecting extracurricular activities like they’re catching Pokémon. Colleges won’t be tricked by a long list with lots of bullet points. You can be the secretary of one club, the treasurer of another, a participant in three different community service organizations, a two-sport athlete, a producer of the high school play one year, and a writer for the newspaper another year, but if you can’t show commitment and dedication, it won’t mean much to colleges.
I believe that a college would generally rather see that you have consistently dedicated yourself to two activities than note that you have participated in seven activities and wonder if you cared about any of them.
All of this is to say, what your extracurricular activities tell colleges about you is all about how you approach them, rather than which activities you choose. You may think you need to join “prestigious” organizations to be a competitive college applicant. It certainly will help for you to join academically rigorous extracurriculars (such as honors societies, debate or speech clubs, etc.), so long as you are active in the groups and have real dedication.
On the other hand, if you show initiative in pursuing your own interests, that also tells colleges a lot about you (a lot of good things); for example, if you write a food blog and you keep up with it consistently, and it shows passion and effort put into the writing and photography, that tells a college plenty about your organization, persistence, and self-determination.
List of Extracurricular Activities
I’ve compiled a list of various extracurricular activities that exist at high schools everywhere. Your high school likely only has a handful of these available, but don’t think you aren’t necessarily limited to the options that already exist at your school. This list is intended to spark inspiration. If you spot something here and think “that’s what I’d really like to do,” seek out a mentor or advisor (a teacher, other member of school staff, or a community member) to help you make a plan pursuing the activity independently and/or starting an organization devoted to it.
The activities are organized by category — browse through them and let the inspiration flow!
Sports and Recreation
Whether or not athletics are your main interest, you can probably find a sport that is right for you!
- Cross Country
- Field Hockey
- Martial Arts
- Swimming & Diving
- Table Tennis
- Track & Field
- Ultimate Frisbee
- Water Polo
One group of extracurriculars you can participate in that aren’t necessarily year-round (although sometimes they are!) are academic competitions, at either the local, regional, or national level.
- Academic Decathlon
- Academic Triathlon
- American Mathematics Competitions
- American Regions Math League
- Chemistry Olympiad
- Clean Tech Competition
- Google Science Fair
- Intel Science Fair
- Math League
- Questions Unlimited
- National Geographic Bee
- Mock Trial
- National History Bee
- Science Olympiad
- Science Bowl
- Odyssey of the Mind
- Physics Bowl
It is possible to form or join academic clubs in almost every area of study, such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, etc. There are also official academic societies such as the Math Honors Society, the National Honors Society, and the Science National Honors Society.
Many schools offer visual arts or crafts classes during the school day. You can also explore various media on your own or through clubs – this exploration might include animation, film production, video game design, sculpture, woodworking, and so on.
Music and Performing Arts
If you are inclined towards performance, you probably participate in a performance extracurricular actvity already. However, remember that if you don’t like the spotlight, but you love the arts, there are still behind-the-scenes roles for you.
- Concert Band
- Jazz Band
- Marching Band
- Solo Music
- Drama Club
- High School Theater
- Community Theater
- Film Production
Politics, Speech, and Social Studies
If you’re interested in government, policy, or rhetoric, there are many opportunities for you to hone your skills of argument, debate, and research.
- Mock Trial
- Doors to Diplomacy Competition
- Model United Nations
- Student Diplomacy Corps
- Student Government
- Any “young” or “teenage” political party organization
- Model Congress
- Speech Club
- Debate Club
- Junior Statesmen of America
Volunteering and Activism
Consider finding an organization in your community or your school that devotes its time to improving your local community or our world. Extracurricular activities where you put the needs of others above yourself will look good to colleges, but more importantly, they will help you understand the current issues facing our world, empathize with other people, and develop a strong sense of doing the right thing!
- Hospital volunteering
- Church volunteering
- Tutoring in school or at local organization
- Work at local charity or soup kitchen
- Best Buddies
- Amnesty International
- Humane Society
- Gay-Straight Alliance
- Clubs devoted to specific causes / issues you care about
Many Other Clubs and Extracurricular Activities
There are many other clubs, competitions, and extracurricular activities available to you via organized groups or independent study. Use this list as inspiration. Look for what’s available to you in school, and if you want to pursue something that’s not available, seek mentorship or advice from a teacher first, then spiral your search outwards to the community if you can’t find what you want to work on. Generally, local academics, professionals, business owners, and so on are going to be receptive to the idea of helping you pursue your interests if you show that you are organized, passionate, and dedicated!
How to Stay on Top of College Admissions
As I mentioned, extracurricular activities are one part of a diversified college admissions package that includes grades, test scores, essays and more. Developing a well-balanced admissions profile means staying on top of deadlines. Here’s where parents come in: keeping track of deadlines removes lots of stress. We’ve created a newsletter that alerts parents of key SAT and ACT deadlines and provides helpful resources. You can subscribe here.