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Articles / Preparing for College / How Many Extracurriculars Do Colleges Want To See?

How Many Extracurriculars Do Colleges Want To See?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Oct. 26, 2021
Are Outside-of-School Extracurriculars Sufficient?

Court Cook/Unsplash

How Many Activities Do I You Really Need for College Applications?

CC Editors Note:

When it comes to reviewing the activities list portion of the application, admissions committees can seem a bit like Goldilocks: too few activities might indicate you haven't been engaged enough, and too many might make colleges suspect you're padding your application with activities that you think will look good. But what number of activities is "just right"? What kind of activities should you mention – and which should you leave out? And finally, should your extracurriculars line up with with your intended major?

The Common App usually has room to list up to ten activities, but that doesn't mean you have to fill every slot. Most students applying to top colleges do fill out all or most of the activities slot. College prefer to see a few activities that you have committed a significant amount of time to than a list of ten casual activities, or clubs you just joined.

The activity list helps admissions committees get a sense of how you spend your time out of school. So, if you don't participate in many official school clubs and sports, it's better to include recreational activities, part-time jobs, and other responsibilities – like caring for siblings after school – than leave spaces blank.

Let's take a look back on questions from real students and parents and our resident Dean's responses from over the years.

Do I Have Too Many Extracurriculars?

Question:

HI! I would like to know if too many extracurriculars hurt my admission odds to elite colleges. I have 7 extracurricular activities I have in mind that I would most likely be doing: Jazz Band, my church's band, my own band, track, cross country, yearbook, and some coding stuff that I like to do (possibly creating an app or website by the end of my junior year). From those activities you could see that I like music, running, journalism, and computer science. I am doing yearbook out of curiosity. Would it hurt to have too many interest, should I drop yearbook, or just simply not list it on my extracurricular list? Please consider that it might be the easiest for me to get an editor position in yearbook and possibly section leader in jazz band.


From the Dean:

As you've probably heard through the grapevine, college admission officials are typically more interested in students who have made a major investment in a couple of activities rather than in “serial joiners" who boast of long lists of undertakings but demonstrate no real significant involvement with any.

If you love what you're doing—and have time for everything without sacrificing grades or health—then there's no reason to cut back. But if some of these endeavors, such as yearbook and jazz band, are staying on the roster primarily because you think you'll be in line for a leadership role, then “The Dean's" advice is to dump them.

Frankly at the “elite" colleges that you aspire to attend, yearbook editors and band or orchestra section leaders are a dime a dozen. You really won't get much mileage out of these at admission-decision time. So do them if you love them but not for application fodder.

Your coding sounds like the most unique of your activities so perhaps that's something you can continue and develop, assuming that you find it satisfying. Even if you're doing this coding on your own and it will never lead to a “presidency," it might just be the one item on your list that makes admission officials sit up and take notice, especially if you take it in an uncommon direction. You could be creative and combine this interest with another one. For example, launch a Web site called something like “All That Jazz," where members of high school jazz bands from throughout the country meet up to share suggestions, complaints, funny stories, and even college recommendations.

And if you're a good enough runner to catch a coach's eye, then that's another area that you may want to focus on. Recruited athletes usually get a big “hook" in the admissions process, although it can be a quantum leap from being a successful high school athlete to qualifying for a college team.

But most important is that you continue activities because you choose to and not because you're concerned about what admission folks will think.

HI! I would like to know if too many extracurriculars hurt my admission odds to elite colleges. I have 7 extracurricular activities I have in mind that I would most likely be doing: Jazz Band, my church's band, my own band, track, cross country, yearbook, and some coding stuff that I like to do (possibly creating an app or website by the end of my junior year). From those activities you could see that I like music, running, journalism, and computer science. I am doing yearbook out of curiosity. Would it hurt to have too many interest, should I drop yearbook, or just simply not list it on my extracurricular list? Please consider that it might be the easiest for me to get an editor position in yearbook and possibly section leader in jazz band.

As you've probably heard through the grapevine, college admission officials are typically more interested in students who have made a major investment in a couple of activities rather than in “serial joiners" who boast of long lists of undertakings but demonstrate no real significant involvement with any.

If you love what you're doing—and have time for everything without sacrificing grades or health—then there's no reason to cut back. But if some of these endeavors, such as yearbook and jazz band, are staying on the roster primarily because you think you'll be in line for a leadership role, then “The Dean's" advice is to dump them.

Frankly at the “elite" colleges that you aspire to attend, yearbook editors and band or orchestra section leaders are a dime a dozen. You really won't get much mileage out of these at admission-decision time. So do them if you love them but not for application fodder.

Your coding sounds like the most unique of your activities so perhaps that's something you can continue and develop, assuming that you find it satisfying. Even if you're doing this coding on your own and it will never lead to a “presidency," it might just be the one item on your list that makes admission officials sit up and take notice, especially if you take it in an uncommon direction. You could be creative and combine this interest with another one. For example, launch a Web site called something like “All That Jazz," where members of high school jazz bands from throughout the country meet up to share suggestions, complaints, funny stories, and even college recommendations.

And if you're a good enough runner to catch a coach's eye, then that's another area that you may want to focus on. Recruited athletes usually get a big “hook" in the admissions process, although it can be a quantum leap from being a successful high school athlete to qualifying for a college team.

But most important is that you continue activities because you choose to and not because you're concerned about what admission folks will think.

Is Junior Year Too Late To Add More Extracurriculars?

Question:

I will be applying to college this fall. I was talking to a friend of mine who is a senior now and just got into his top choice. He said he had to "narrow down" his extracurriculars to 10 because he had more than that, but the application would only let him list 10 of them. I only have two!

So my question is: Do I quickly start joining clubs and sports now? Or would that look suspicious to have all these new activities on my applications?


From the Dean:

While it can be daunting to hear war stories from the extracurriculars arms race, which can make even the busiest students fear that their activities aren't up to snuff, the truth is that admission officers are looking for commitment and leadership in such pursuits and not for quantity. So the actual number of extracurricular endeavors on a student's application isn't nearly as important as the level of interest and effort.

Atypical activities on an application are a big plus as well, but many teenagers overlook the opportunity to stand out in this area. They don't realize that “Activities" doesn't only mean school clubs or teams or community organizations. Your application can also include activities that you pursue on your own. For instance, do you write poems or songs? Do you cook or collect coins? Have you designed eco-friendly houses? These personal undertakings are often the most eye-catching in admission offices -- and yet most students assume that admission officials won't care about such private pursuits. But that's not true!

Once I advised a senior who saved empty burlap rice sacks and turned them into fashionable purses lined with splashy fabrics. Then she sold the purses and donated the profits to her favorite charity. When she described this venture on her applications, I suspect that it made a bigger hit with the admission committees than yet another Key Club or Model UN membership might have done. Of course, you should use your own judgment when you decide which of your individual enterprises are application-worthy. Being able to repair a car transmission definitely counts; reaching Level 68 in Grand Theft Auto not so much. ;-)

Note, however, that some students do themselves a disservice at application-evaluation time because they don't adequately explain their atypical enterprises. If the Activities section of an application doesn't offer sufficient space to clarify what you've been up to, use “Additional Information" or even an extra unsolicited letter or email to provide details. You can also send samples of your writing, your design for a dream house or other evidence of your efforts, as long as you do so sparingly.

Another “activity" that will work in your favor at admission-decision time is paid employment. As you've suggested, it's rather late to be signing up for a hundred new school clubs for the purpose of college admissions, but if your activity list is light and you have room in your schedule, it's certainly not too late to join the workforce! An after-school or weekend job will not only put cash for college in your coffers but should also garner approval in admission offices. College folks love to see that a student can hold a real-world job, and — perhaps surprisingly — a minimum-wage position (e.g., scooping ice cream, flipping burgers, stocking shelves) often looks better than a snazzy-sounding spot in your uncle's law firm. In addition, promotions at work (e.g., to head cashier or shift supervisor) count as “leadership" roles.

Bottom line: If there are one or two activities at school that you want to join because they call out to you, there's time. But when it comes to boosting admission odds, your best bet is to show commitment to those extracurriculars that you're already doing, and add a paying job to the roster if you're worried that your list is still too skimpy.

Help! I Have NO Extracurriculars For My Application

Question:

I am filling out my Common App and I have no extracurriculars, and I mean none. I haven't joined a club or worked a job or anything organized like that. I do play tennis and disc golf with friends all the time -- can I include that? I have also babysat my brother but not for money. Can that count? If I like to bake can that go on there? Seems like a stretch but I really have nothing else to list.


Admission officials are always eager to learn what students do outside of class time, and not just through the same-old-same-old school clubs and sports teams that they see on applications about 717 times on any given winter weekend. So your baking, babysitting, disc golf and tennis are all quite application-worthy.

In the small amount of space provided on your applications (and/or via a separate "annotated" resume where you add a sentence or two describing your assorted undertakings), try to provide a little more information than merely the name of each endeavor, adding a touch of humor here and there if it comes naturally to you. For instance, instead of just saying, "Baking," you might have room for, "Experimental pastry chef for family guinea pigs. (Who knew that chili sauce and chocolate frosting would be so compatible?)"

Here is an old but once very active College Confidential discussion thread on "Hidden Extracurriculars" that may help you identify other pursuits that could be fodder for the "Activities" section of your applications.

And here is a recent "Ask the Dean" question from another current senior, like you, who worried that her Activities list might be woefully short. You can read how "The Dean" advised her.

Bottom line: If you're aiming for Ivies and those other hyper-selective places where the lion's share of applicants have near-perfect grades and test scores and thus where impressive extracurriculars can help accomplished candidates stand out in the crowd, your own short list of more personal pursuits might hurt your acceptance odds. But at most colleges and universities, the admission folks just want to see that you're doing something constructive with your time ... and they may even be relieved that it's not a something that they've already seen a gazillion times before!

Question:

Do Activities Out Of School Count?

Question:

I'm a junior at an affluent, suburban high school – 4.1 weighted/3.8 UW GPA, 1490 SAT, will have 11 AP/DE classes when I graduate. I have extracurricular activities but very few at school. I works full-time during the summers as a camp counselor, take guitar lessons, perform guitar once a month at church and run the sound board at church monthly and participates in a monthly community service activity at church. I golf occasionally with friends but do not participate in the school golf team because it conflicts with my summer job.

I'm planning to apply to larger state schools (NC State, Virginia Tech, James Madison University, University of Delaware and Clemson) that, according to Common Data Sets, put extracurriculars as "considered" or "important." Will it be an issue/red flag for colleges that I'm not involved in activities at school, or are my activities outside of school enough?

From the Dean:

Given your strong academic record and testing, and the size and selectivity of your arget colleges (i.e., large and competitive but not hypercompetitive), your extracurricular activities sound fine. The colleges with single-digit acceptance rates may be looking for class presidents who published novels or cured cancer, but the schools you're aiming for seek applicants who found any worthwhile pursuits outside of the classroom, even if this also means outside of school.

But here are a couple suggestions for when it's time to fill out your application:

  1. Include activities that aren't organized or official. Guitar lessons, for instance, should be on the roster for sure, and — if you plays for your own enjoyment at home, this can be listed, along with his monthly performances at church. Ditto other hobbies or interests that you pursue independently and will qualify as appropriate application fodder, e.g., writing, cooking, camping, caring for siblings, etc. could count. (Call of Duty wouldn't!). Similarly, you don't need to be Tiger Woods to note that you play golf recreationally with friends.
  2. There's no need to explain why you don't take part in school endeavors. Focus on all that you do do and not on what you don't.

As you might imagine, admission officials can become pretty jaded from seeing so many multiple mentions of Key Clubs, Spanish clubs, yearbooks, Model UNs and marching bands. So reading about a kid who runs a sound board at church could provide a whiff of fresh air. Thus, as long as the college folks see that you engaged with others and using his free time productively, this is one aspect of the stressful admission process that you don't have to worry about.

Do Video Games Count As An Extracurricular?

Question:

My son is a strong student who got almost a perfect score on his PSAT but hasn't had a chance to take the SAT or ACT yet. His grades are all A's. So I think he has some good opportunities in terms of college choice, except for one thing: His only interest is video games. He doesn't have any extracurriculars, and he never went out on weekends, even before COVID. No school football games, no parties, no homecoming float, no school plays. Sometimes other kids will come over and play video games with him, but other times he will just play against other people online. We are talking about his college essay and he wants to write it about video games, and then for his activities list, he wants to list winning a video game tournament. Will it be a problem for him to highlight video games so prominently in his college application? I should add that he is not majoring in anything having to do with video games — he wants to major in education.

From the Dean:

With excellent grades (although you didn't mention the rigor of the classes) and potentially high test scores, your son will certainly have college options. However, as you probably already know, the vast major of institutions — even large public universities — practice "holistic admissions." This means that admission officials will look beyond the GPA and test results to see what else the applicant has accomplished. And, as you can imagine, an application that highlights just your son's prowess as a video gamer will probably work against him and will thus limit those options considerably.

Granted, there are folks out there — even in admission offices — who tout video games as a way to develop myriad skills or as a much-deserved stress-breaker for harried teens. But the fact that playing these games is your son's only extracurricular endeavor is going to be a greater negative than if his sole devotion were, say, volunteering at a community soup kitchen or leading the marching band. Yet any candidate who lists just one activity, however worthwhile it's perceived to be, is going into the potentially competitive selection process with a couple strikes against them.

It's fine for him to include winning a video game tournament on an Activities List. But if that victory isn't accompanied by other ventures outside of gaming, it will raise a red flag for admission officials. Likewise, while "The Dean" isn't quick to endorse an essay about gaming, of greater importance is how well your son writes and what, specifically, he writes about. More on that in a minute.

You say that your son wants to major in education. So how does he know this? Has he volunteered in a school? Tutored other students? Assisted a teacher? Even during these crazy times, he could test-drive his ambitions by providing online academic assistance to struggling elementary children or peers. Even better, he might design and present a summer Zoom class on a topic that will engage youngsters (yes, even video games, although that wouldn't be the ideal choice!).

I would also suggest that your son pursue a paying job that gets him out of the house and away from those controllers, if you're in a place where it's safe and pragmatic to do so. (Grocery stores and fast-food restaurants are hiring teens in many areas.) If working isn't practical or wise, it's time for your son to find an activity other than gaming that he can do at home. In fact, this "activity" could even be tied to his interest in video games ... as long as it's not more video games (e.g., he could read about a certain historical period that is featured in his games or teach himself graphic design/coding). Then, when it's time to write a college essay, he could amuse admission committees with a topic along the lines of "Coming Up from the Cave," which begins with his passion for gaming but then explains how it led him to new pursuits.

If, on the other hand, your son is skilled at eSports, that's a whole separate conversation. (You don't mention this, so "The Dean" is assuming that it's not the case, but I also know what's often said about those who ASSume!). Because I grew up in an era when Mr. Potato Head was considered a technological marvel, I never thought I'd live to see colleges recruiting eSport "athletes." Yet today over 200 schools not only field eSports teams but also offer scholarships. (These range from about $1,000 up to $25,000, but with most toward that lower end.) A Google search can provide an abundance of information or you can read more here. So if your son seems qualified to compete on a collegiate level and he contacts coaches and lands on their recruit lists, then his limited extracurricular life shouldn't be a negative after all.

Nonetheless, I'll give him the same advice that I would give to any prospective college athlete: "It will be clear from your application that you have achieved success in your sport. Yet, although a coach may advocate for you, it's ultimately the admission staff members who determine your fate. So you'd be smart to write your primary essay about something different, just to show them that you have other experiences, interests or ideas."

Hopefully, if you encourage your son to expand his horizons this summer, this will be true for him as well.


Will An All-Arts Activities List Hurt An Engineering Major?

Question:

I am filling out my Common App, and listing my activities makes me realize none of them are in my planned major (civil engineering). They're all in music or theater (or musical theater!) Is that going to hurt me when I apply? My GPA and SAT are competitive with other engineering applicants.

From The Dean:

As with many good questions (and this is one for sure), there's no clear-cut answer. On one hand, your list of music and theater endeavors will be a breath of fresh air for admission officials who have just snoozed through a few hundred activity rosters rife with robotics clubs and Math Olympiads. But on the other hand, some of these folks may wonder how genuine your interest in civil engineering really is and/or whether you'll be able to stick with what is usually a very specific and demanding academic program.

Many students these days pick engineering as a prospective major because they've been told (often by worried moms and dads) that it won't leave them flipping burgers or making macchiatos after graduation. So “The Dean" suggests that you let your colleges know why you've selected this field ... and that it's really your decision and not a parental edict. You might be able to do this as part of your Common Application essay or in one of the required supplemental essays. But if not, I recommend that you compose a statement for the “Additional Information" section of your application (or write an extra, unsolicited essay, which you submit separately) that explains your choice.

You can point out that, although your extracurriculars may scream, “Artsy," you are interested in engineering because _____. You could even find links between your current passions and future goals. For instance, I've seen theater sets so complex that they may have required a civil engineer to design and assemble!

So if you want to take a best-of-both-worlds approach to your applications, give your arts activities the attention they deserve but also assure admission committees that you've given careful consideration to your intended major.


Should I Tell Colleges That I Play Tennis – If I'm Not On My School's Team?

Question:

How can I show colleges that I play tennis regularly (as an extracurricular) without actually being on my school team? I'm in 9th grade, and my high school tennis team is extremely good, and therefore very hard to make. I do play in USTA tournaments though, and am planning on participating in them more often (~ once a month). Is this enough to present tennis as an extracurricular?

From the Dean:

First the good news ...

Your college applications will give you the opportunity to list (and briefly describe) all of your extracurricular activities. You can put whatever you want on this roster and aren't limited to organized school clubs or teams. For instance, if you compose flute solos in your free time, correspond with a pen-pal in a foreign country, and play daily heated chess matches against your dad, this is all legitimate application fodder and might even be more interesting to admission officials than the predictable school endeavors. Thus, you should definitely include your tennis on an activities list, explaining that you do it on your own and have also been in USTA events.

Now the bad news ...

While admission officials will certainly view your tennis as a productive use of your time, it probably won't do much of anything to make you stand out in a crowd or to push your application toward the “In" pile. College folks do respect students who make a commitment to sports, but when it comes to doling out admission “hooks," they are largely focused on the athletes who are strong enough to contribute to the college team and are recruited by a coach ... whether by being a star on a school team or by moving up the ranks in competitions outside of school. Most other athletic undertakings will be seen as “worthwhile" but won't give acceptance odds a boost.

Yet, regardless of its impact on college verdicts, tennis is a great addition to any teenager's schedule and can be a wonderful way to stay fit and make friends throughout a lifetime. So I hope you stick with it ... and maybe you'll even improve enough to make your school team later on.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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