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A lackluster extracurricular list can keep you out of many selective colleges so figuring out how to best present yourself is a must. With all the attention put on the college essay, the extracurricular part of the Common Application is often overlooked. But before you rush through it, make sure to consider the following four extracurricular list essentials:
Some people swear that the number of extracurricular activities you do doesn’t matter. They insist that doing a few things well is better than doing a million things on a surface level. While I’m not a proponent of sending in a list of 30+ activities (at that point, it can just be annoying to the admissions officers!), most accepted students to the most elite colleges fill in 8-10 activities on the common application. That is not to say that there aren’t accepted students with fewer extracurricular activities that get in for their academic/personal accomplishments or who stand out so strongly in the few extracurricular activities they have that it compensates for a lower quantity, but in general, a fuller extracurricular list makes for a stronger application.
If finding 8-10 extracurricular activities seems hard, think back to everything you’ve participated in over the past four years. Keep in mind that you can write down your summer activities, volunteering work (even if you only did it once for a few days), school clubs, local clubs, political activism, sports both in and out of school, music, theater, art, employment, as well as unstructured activities like baking, reading, and teaching yourself how to play the guitar. With a little creativity and reflection, most students I work with find that they have plenty they can use to fill up the list.
Although having a long list of activities is great, having a list that includes some high quality activities is also important. A high quality activity is one that you’ve shown a commitment to. It can be something you’ve done continuously for several years or something you devote a substantial amount of time to every week. Ideally, it is also an activity where you’ve managed to gain some level of distinction, either as a founder, leader or officer, or by winning some sort of award.
You should make sure to put the highest quality extracurriculars at the top of your extracurricular list. Those listed at the top will be the first ones your admissions officers read and will form their initial assessment of your extracurricular profile.
You’ve probably heard that there are two kinds of applicants who get into competitive colleges, “pointy” and “well-rounded.” A pointy applicant is one that stands out for one particular reason. For instance, a nationally ranked tennis player would conceivably stand out as a pointy applicant. A well-rounded applicant is one who excels in many different areas – academics, music, sports, etc. – but who may not have a any particular jaw-dropping accomplishment. Both types of applicants can succeed in the admissions process, but it can be difficult to know going into the process how you will be viewed. You may think your state-wide singing award will make you appear pointy, but maybe your admissions officer won’t see that as a standout enough accomplishment to grant you acceptance largely on that basis. The best strategy – whether you think you are pointy or well-rounded – is to fill out your extracurricular list with at some degree of extracurricular diversity.
Even if you see yourself as primary an athlete, try to put some artistic, community service-oriented, or civic pursuit on your extracurricular list. If you are a star member of your math team, see if you can add some less academic activities to your application like baking, theater, or art. While your primary focus may be in one area, showing that you can be more than one thing can help you seem more human to an admissions officer and convince them that you are the kind of student who will take advantage of the opportunities presented in a liberal arts institution.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the extracurricular list is clarity. You might know what the YRE Club is at your school but that doesn’t mean your admissions officer understands that means the Young Robotics Enthusiasts Club. Furthermore, just because you say you are the president of the YRE doesn’t mean your admissions officer has any clue that as president, you were required to organize five trips to local universities and robotics competitions, that you had to spend ten hours per week supervising robotics projects, or that you launched an annual school-wide robotics expo. It is your responsibility to make sure your admissions officer knows exactly what your extracurricular activities mean and what the position entails. There is a small amount of space given on the Common Application to explain the nature of the extracurricular activity and your leadership position. If you feel that you cannot adequately explain your role in this space, write up a description elsewhere and attach it to the last page of the application where you are able to send in any additional information you feel is pertinent for the admissions committee to review.
It would be a shame to lose out on getting credit for all of your hard work and efforts purely because of lack of clarity.
There is a lot to think about when it comes to your college application, but don’t overlook your extracurricular list. You must be honest about the activities you have done up to this point, and to some extent you are stuck with what you have, but most students I’ve worked with find that they can adhere to these principles if they spend enough time reflecting on the things they’ve naturally done while in high school. Chances are, you’ve likely invested hundreds, if not thousands, of hours pursuing your interests outside of the classroom, and you have every reason to make them count!