March 12, 2020
To stand out among the candidates applying to your target school, it's important that you have a good story to tell. Your GPA, recommendation letters and essay will help. But one of the strongest ways to showcase what's important to you and how you chose to spend your time in high school is by pointing to the extracurriculars you've been involved with. If you're not yet sure where your interests lie, here are some activities you might want to consider.
The easiest advice I can give students who are on the fence about what extracurriculars to pursue is that you should always choose things that you enjoy doing. So, to the many students who always ask me whether there's a spot for sports on their application, I say this: If you like to play sports, do so, and if you don't, don't. You don't need to play a sport to be considered by a top college. Likewise, if you do spend most of your time playing sports and don't have much space left to devote to academic clubs or other organizations, you're still good. Colleges know that sports can be a major time commitment, so don't feel like they will expect you to compensate elsewhere in your application by adding several clubs on top of a sport you already play.
What's important is that you strike a balance between sports and other activities that feels right to you, and which allows you to fully showcase your priorities and interests. This isn't just true of sports, by the way; it also applies also to other big-time commitments like theater, choir and band.
Outside of activities that showcase your skills, hobbies and passions, it's also good to demonstrate an interest in helping others. For one, some schools and honor societies may actually require this from applicants. But even if you're only doing this because you feel you need to, you can still choose to dedicate your time to causes that interest you. If that means volunteering at a local food pantry, go for it! Or maybe you'd rather spend your time volunteering at an animal shelter. What you don't want to do is treat this as just a box you need to check off in order to impress colleges. Admission officers will be interested to see not just whether you volunteered but more importantly, which causes you chose to support.
You can often find great community service options right in your own school, but if that's not the case where you are, you could think about starting your own service organization at your high school.
Whereas sports are optional and community service isn't usually required, many students find themselves having to take on paid work. They worry that having to dedicate time to a part-time job will send the wrong message to colleges. In actuality, even if your commitment to your employer means that you can't participate in clubs or sports, this is actually demonstrating a very important aspect of your character to colleges: your work ethic. When admission officers assess your list of extracurriculars and your overall engagement, they will give you much-deserved credit for working a part-time job throughout high school.
If you do seek out employment during high school, I advise you to do what you can to work in a field that is of interest to you. As with the others on this list, a job can be an integral character in the story you're trying to tell with your applications. Ask your advisors, family members or friends to see if they know of openings that might interest you. If the nature of your desired field doesn't allow for this type of work without further education, you can always ask to shadow someone who already has a similar role.
Above all, know that admission officers don't have a map that they want you to follow — they want to see that you've been finding your own way through high school and that you'll follow your own path with true intentions through college as well. For more tips on impressing college admissions officers, check out our book College Admission 101 and head over to our YouTube channel for more expert tips.
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