by Jonathan Piliser, Director of College Counseling
May 30, 2019

Choosing extracurricular activities can be overwhelming. There are school clubs, sports, internships, volunteer opportunities, and summer camps — to name just a few. So which activities will have the biggest impact on your college admissions?

Most colleges will give you about 10-15 spaces to list out any activities you participated in from grades 9-12. However, selective colleges prefer to see that you’re devoting significant time and energy into a few areas that you find genuinely interesting as opposed to spreading yourself too thin. Showing up to a club at lunch every few weeks, for example, isn’t likely to dramatically affect your chances of being admitted.

Schools give consideration to factors like longevity: something you do throughout high school will (in most cases) carry more weight than an activity you start at the beginning of your senior year. Likewise, being president of a club is more helpful than simply being a member.

But more important are the kinds of stories that might emerge from the work that you’re doing. When choosing which activities to pursue, you should give much more weight to anything that would afford you more autonomy. In other words, an extracurricular commitment where you have to make decisions, exercise leadership, and overcome challenges will lead to a much more compelling narrative than a more passive activity where you’re simply showing up and doing what you’re told.

If you’re just starting high school (or if you haven’t reached 9th grade yet), start by simply taking stock of the range of opportunities available to you. Visit your school’s club fair, for example, and ask upperclassmen that you meet which commitments they have found to be the most rewarding.

As you move closer to 11th and 12th grade, start looking for more opportunities to display leadership. Many students find the summer between junior and senior year to be a convenient time to pursue a more intensive commitment that builds off of the interests you’ve been developing in your first few years of high school.

In short, it’s often a better approach to build off of an interest you already have rather than to find an entirely unrelated activity. If you love tennis, for example, you could volunteer as a coach at a local middle school or put on a tennis tournament to fundraise for a cause that you value. If you’ve been studying computer science, you could offer to design a website for a nonprofit or design a curriculum to teach younger children how to protect their identities online.

There’s no precise formula that colleges use in assessing your pursuits. Colleges want to get a sense of what you might bring to their campus outside of the classroom. The essays and interview give these schools a window into the work you’re doing and how these experiences have helped to influence the person that you are today.

So have fun with whichever activities you end up choosing, and remember that it’s never too early to start thinking about what insights you might want to share from those experiences when the time comes to begin your college applications.