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 Southeast Asian senior whose family ate rice every day. So she saved the 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.
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