A College Admissions Perspective: Getting the Most out of your High School Experience from Day 1 (Extracurricular Activities)

Well into September, high school students are hopefully acclimated to the academic demands of the new school year. For some, fall sport seasons are already in full swing, necessitating that students manage their time wisely to stay on top of projects, tests, and homework.  Others may have extra time on their hands and may wish to sign up for a new club or volunteering opportunity.  In this segment of the series, I will examine the implications of these sometimes hastily made decisions, shedding light on how they impact the way college admissions officers will ultimately evaluate your extracurricular profile.

High School Sports

There are numerous benefits reaped from participating on a high school sports team, but rarely do they translate into a stronger extracurricular profile.  From a college admissions perspective, athletic participation, especially in popular sports, just doesn’t help you stand out in any meaningful way.  Why?  Thousands of other applicants are high school athletes too.  With that said, if you’re good enough to be recruited, your athletic abilities can influence an admissions decision.   This is undoubtedly true for the top 3% of high school athletes who are actively recruited by college coaches.  For the other 97%, there are several other factors that need to go your way in order for your sport to make an impact on your chances of college admission.

If you’re not good enough to be recruited, you can still stand out if you stick with your sport(s) all four years, win awards, and ideally become a captain.  Otherwise, athletic involvement (unless it’s in a unique sport) will help your extracurricular profile very little.  This is fine as long as you’re passionate about participating.  If you’re not, you have to acknowledge the opportunity cost of devoting so much time to something you don’t love.  This time would be better devoted to excelling in school, on standardized tests, or pursuing a unique hobby or passion.


Students often treat volunteering like a box to be checked off without regard to the scope or nature of the initiatives to which they contribute.  Erratic participation in multiple community service projects that have nothing to do with one another gives the impression that students are not committed to what they’re doing. Admissions officers easily and often detect this lack of intention and resolve just by reviewing an applicant’s extracurricular profile, and it doesn’t look good.

What does look good is consistency.  Colleges are looking for mature students who don’t volunteer simply for their own gratification (or worse, to look good on a college application), but who actually want to make a difference in the world.  If you spread yourself too thin, it’s difficult to make a significant impact anywhere.  As a result, colleges value participation that grows in scope each year.  Additionally, it looks great when students have volunteering experience that builds on pre-existing passions.  For example, if you care about the environment, join a cause that protects it.  Or, if you love basketball, try coaching students in underprivileged areas.  Think creatively about how you could best contribute to your own community; sometimes you’ll have to start a new initiative from scratch!

Everything Else

Whether you are participating in Model UN, It’s Academic, Key Club, or any other school-sponsored activity, consistency and level of involvement are always foundational.  However, showing up is not enough.  In your college applications, you will have the opportunity to describe your accomplishments and leadership positions for each extracurricular activity.  Lacking enough space to include all of these details is a problem you want to have.

Keep in mind that non-traditional, independent extracurricular activities are just as impressive as organized activities.  Informal tutoring, creative writing, and even arts and crafts can and should be included in your list of extracurricular activities on the Common Application.  The more unique ways you spend your time, the more you will stand out from the crowd.  So don’t just participate in activities because your friends are involved.  Stay true to yourself and your passions, and colleges will look favorably upon your application.

Check back next week for our third installment of ”Getting the Most out of your High School Experience from Day 1” when I will discuss how to plan standardized testing, college visits, and everything in between!