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Articles / Applying to College / Are Outside-of-School Extracurriculars Sufficient?

March 13, 2020

Are Outside-of-School Extracurriculars Sufficient?

Are Outside-of-School Extracurriculars Sufficient?

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I have a question about extracurricular activities. My son is a junior at an affluent, suburban high school. He's a strong student -- 4.1 weighted/3.8 UW GPA, 1490 SAT, will have 11 AP/DE classes when he graduates. He does have extracurricular activities but very few at his school. He works full time during the summers as a camp counselor, takes guitar lessons, performs on guitar once a month at our church and also runs the sound board at church monthly and participates in a monthly community service activity at church. He golfs occasionally with friends but does not participate in the school golf team because it conflicts with his summer job.


He's tried a couple things at school but drops out because in his big and very competitive school there are just so many kids in every activity that he doesn't feel like it makes any difference that he's there. Also, he doesn't feel the need for school activities socially because he has a good group of friends. He's mainly 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 he's not involved at his school, or is it seen just as favorably that he is involved in other things?

Given your son's strong academic record and testing, and the size and selectivity of his target colleges (i.e., large and competitive but not hypercompetitive), his 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 where your son is aiming are seeking 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 for your son to fill out his applications:

1. He can (and should) include activities that aren't organized or official. His guitar lessons, for instance, should be on the roster for sure, and — if he plays for his own enjoyment (or yours!) at home, this can be listed, along with his monthly performances at church. Ditto other hobbies or interests that he pursues independently and that — when viewed through a parental lens — will qualify as appropriate application fodder (e.g., writing, cooking, camping, caring for siblings, etc. could count. Call of Duty wouldn't!). Similarly, he doesn't need to be Tiger Woods to note on his applications that he plays golf recreationally with friends.

2. There's no need to explain that he doesn't take part in school endeavors because of the size of his school and the feeling that he isn't making an impact. In other words, his application should focus on all that he does do and not on what he doesn'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 your son is 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.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please send it along here.

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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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