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Articles / Applying to College / Importance of Extracurricular Activities in College Outcomes?

Importance of Extracurricular Activities in College Outcomes?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Sept. 28, 2015

Question: How important are extracurricular activities in the admissions process? On top of my head, I am an Eagle Scout, I have been Treasurer and President of my school’s Key Club, I have started a cancer foundation and founded an organization that teaches science and engineering/design to low-income elementary school students. My ACT score is in the top ten percentile and my UW GPA is roughly a 3.9. Do my extra-curricular activities strongly help me in the admissions process, or do colleges really only care about my empirical scores?

The importance of extracurricular activities is closely tied to the selectivity of the college or university in question. At the most sought-after schools (those where the acceptance rate is about 25% or lower), it’s common for many applicants to submit near-perfect grades in grueling classes along with near-perfect test scores. Thus, in order to make the required hair-splitting decisions, admission officials usually turn to other factors to see what stands out. And at the top of the “other factors” list will be extracurricular activities.

If you are applying to the most hyper-selective colleges, the activities you’ve named above will be viewed by the admission folks as “worthwhile” but probably not head-turning. At the Ivies and their ilk, Key Club presidents are a dime-a-dozen, and—believe it or not—so are the founders of charities and other non-profit endeavors. Admission officials often have a soft spot for Eagle Scouts (it sounds so wholesome!) although, at the super-selective places, this achievement certainly won’t be unique. Your science/engineering organization sounds the most atypical, so perhaps this is where you can put some emphasis in your applications, highlighting it either via an essay or in the “Additional Information” section.

At colleges where competition is most keen, a student’s background is often very important as well. Hailing from a city, state, or nation that is uncommon in the applicant pool will boost admission odds. An underrepresented-minority, first-generation-to-college, VIP, or legacy background will be a plus too, along with any unusual life circumstances (e.g., growing up in a homeless shelter or on a houseboat).  Of course,  having an admissions-enhancing background is beyond the applicant’s control, unless, perhaps, you can convince your parents to move from Boston to Burikina Faso or Benin in the summer before your senior year. 😉

Bottom line: The more selective your colleges, the more admission officials will look beyond the transcript and test scores when making final decisions and thus the more your extracurricular undertakings will “count.” So while, at many colleges, your “numbers” alone will determine your fate, at the very popular (and picky) places, your extras will definitely play a role in your outcomes … perhaps even a sizable role although not quite a starring one.


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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