Your Extracurricular Activities Can Make a Critical Difference in College Admissions

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: April 25, 2019

GPA of 4.5? 1500 on the SAT? Those tell college admissions officers that you’re reasonably bright, perform well in scholastic matters, and can compete for admission with other students who have comparable stats.

But that’s all they say about the applicant – they’re data points, devoid, you might say, of personality. In virtually all competitive college admissions situations, those data are simply not enough. And while a high SAT score does matter, having a record of good college extracurricular activities is a must if you want to give your application the boost it needs.

This isn’t just theory: In a December 13, 2017 blog in the, Natasha Warikoo, an Associate Professor of Education at Harvard University wrote, “Harvard rejects 1 in 4 students with perfect SAT scores. The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University reject three out of five high school valedictorians”…

…and here’s why that’s so: According to a February 5, 2019 blog on, there are 43,500 high school senior classes that will produce about that many valedictorians. But the eight Ivy League colleges offered admission to only 23,178 freshmen applicants in 2017. Add to that the total number of freshmen applicants accepted in 2017 at Northwestern, MIT, Stanford, Duke, and the University of Chicago, and you’ve increased the number of admitted students to only 35,806. If, hypothetically, all 43,500 valedictorians applied only to those 13 schools, then about 18% would be denied.

statistics in college admissionIn this purely statistical scenario – but one with “real world” consequences, as you’ll see – the 7,694 rejected valedictorians would then join the about 43,500 salutatorians – students that graduated second in their class – as applicants to a second tier of selective colleges. Those schools would then have a pool of about 51,194 very high-performing applicants from which to choose. And that doesn’t include the 130,500 or so students that graduated third, fourth, or fifth in their classes. Or athletes who may receive admission based upon other criteria.

So even granting that the schools we chose to look at are among the most highly selective in the nation, the “pushdown” effect we’re describing makes it clear that for all selective schools, excelling at high school academics and on an admissions test simply isn’t enough to differentiate one student from the next; all the accepted students at selective colleges are cut from the same GPA/Test Score mold.

So what are the non-academic elements that help admissions officers make the decision about which of two well-qualified applicants to admit? Are good college extracurricular activities a part of the answer? It turns out that they’re the characteristics that best help the admissions officers answer the question, “What are we going to get in the way of a person and contributing member to our college community if we admit this applicant instead of that one?” 

Volunteering to help the homeless to get into collegeAn analysis of the survey data in The National Association of College Admission Counseling’s 2018 State of College Admissions Report shows that, excluding academic-related factors (we’re also excluding teacher and counselor recommendations because they’re so obviously influenced by academic factors), the admissions criterion garnering the most responses of having considerable or moderate influence in admissions decisions is good college extracurricular activities.

And that’s understandable because what people do that they don’t have to do opens a window into character: It shows better than anything what they value, what’s important to them – in short, who they are.

We want students to be aware that what they do and what they accomplish while doing it can make a very big difference, and that there are some of the things that make admissions officers look particularly favorably on applicants.

The fact is, college extracurricular activities are an important part of college admission. They help shape your identity outside of your classroom. Further, they allow you to showcase specific traits, such as leadership, adaptability to change, accountability, empathy, passion, and social responsibility.

The challenge, however, lies in building an authentic extracurricular profile for your college application. Because it can take years, you’ll be wise to start early to boost your candidature.

The eleventh grade, in particular, is of prime importance when it comes to gaining experience and pursuing your interests. Look for leadership roles in teams or clubs. Start a job or land an internship. Another option is to volunteer outside school-supported programs to expand your exposure and knowledge.

What are college admission officers looking for when they read your application? They take into account more than your GPA and test scores. Your character and the personal qualities you can bring to a college are important too. That’s why you need to think about your goals, accomplishments and personal values and figure out how you can best express those in your applications.

So, What Counts as Good College Extracurricular Activities?

There’s no fixed definition for extracurricular activity; the scope is pretty wide. In fact, an activity need not be endorsed by your high school to be considered legitimate by the college you apply to. Some examples of good college extracurricular activities include working part-time, starting a small business, dog walking, volunteering for community work, caring for the elderly, social media monitoring, or even selling art online. All of these counts as long you can elaborate on why the activity was meaningful and relevant to your personal growth.

Colleges look for qualities like leadership and a sense of social responsibility.

The Qualities Colleges Want

“What is it that makes you unique, and how will you contribute to the life of our campus?” That’s what admission officers want to know, according to Earl Johnson, dean of admission at the University of Tulsa. Have you been partaking in non-academic events? Are you consistently performing good college extracurricular activities? To gauge what students can bring to their campus, they look for these types of qualities:

1. Leadership
2. A willingness to take risks
3. Initiative
4. A sense of social responsibility
5. A commitment to service
6. Special talents or abilities

How Many Extracurriculars Should You Have?

You don’t need to worry about having participated in a certain number of activities. At the end of the day, extracurriculars is more about quality than quantity. You’ll do well to focus on a few meaningful areas instead of trying to be Jack of all trades.

Choose good college extracurricular activities than you genuinely enjoy. Consider what can help you establish your leadership ability and strengths, and how this will align with your career goals.

When it comes to counting hobbies as extracurricular activities, this can work only if you perform them consistently or in an official capacity or as part of a club/team. For instance, a one-time volunteer stint with Feeding America will not count. If, however, you volunteer regularly over a considerable period of time, you should definitely mention that in your college application.

Of course, you can always consult an experienced counselor to find out if your hobby qualifies as an extracurricular activity.

Two posts, one titled What Are Good Extracurricular Activities for College Applicants? on the National Society of High School Scholars website and the other titled Impressive Extracurriculars on mention these extracurricular activities as offering opportunities to demonstrate those characteristics:

  • Debatesoup kitchen - victoria-kubiaki-1402284-unsplash
  • Student Government
  • Academic Teams and Clubs
  • Creative Pursuits
  • Sports
  • Internships
  • Community Outreach and Volunteerism*
  • Part-Time Jobs
  • Culture Clubs
  • The Student Newspaper

*This is one of our favorites because it can reflect multiples of the qualities admissions officers like to see.

Regardless of which activities students engage in – whether on the above list or not – long-term involvement that shows passion and commitment will impress, as will activities that demonstrate your initiative, leadership, and results. Most important, such commitments will enrich your life many times over.

How JRA Can Help You Building Extracurricular Activities

At JRA Educational Consulting, we provide expert guidance to help you get into your top choices of colleges and universities. It doesn’t matter if you’re a star athlete or an advanced scholar, a winning chess player or a leading debater – we’ll help you put your best foot forward.

We’ve given you some essential information on extracurricular activities for college admission, but that’s still just scratching the surface. Talking with a college counselor is the best way to understand what good college extracurricular activities are and how to prepare for application season.

Call us today if you need help developing an extracurricular activities strategy that will make you stand out from your competition. We’ll assess your school list, establish a plan for applying, and help you eliminate any blind spots you might have.

For other questions, you can also browse our College Admission FAQ resource.

Our students have been accepted at a wide range of schools, from Notre Dame to Duke and beyond. Let us help you make your college dreams a reality.

Topics: College Admission Extracurricular Activities


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