What Are the Best Extracurricular Activities?

Find out what type of activities will most impress college admissions officers

Volunteers picking up litter
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If you're applying to a college with holistic admissions, including the great majority of schools that use the Common Application, your extracurricular involvement will be a factor in the college admissions process. But what exactly are colleges looking for on the extracurricular front? Prospective college students and their parents frequently ask me what extracurricular activities will most impress college admissions officers, and my answer is always the same: the activity that shows your passion and dedication.

As you think about your extracurricular involvement, keep these points in mind:

  • Colleges would rather see depth of involvement in one or two activities than a large number of extracurricular activities that reflect superficial involvement. For example, it will be more impressive if you are theater for four years rather than theater for a year, yearbook for a year, chorus for a year, and debate team for a year. Show that you are dedicated to developing your skills, not a dabbler. Similarly, with sports, colleges would rather see an applicant focus on a sport for four years and progress from modified to JV to varsity. That student will bring more skills to a college than someone who never spent more than a year testing out a sport.
  • If you are doing what you love to do, doing it well, and taking the lead in the activity at your school, then you have found the perfect extracurricular activity. Something as quirky as being an expert at Rubik's Cube can turn into a meaningful extracurricular activity that will be attractive to college admissions offices.
  • No one activity is better than another. Drama, music, sports, yearbook, dance, community service... Any one of these can be a winner on a college application if you reveal dedication, leadership, and passion.
  • Do your research so that you know what extracurricular activities are offered at the schools to which you apply. If you are a virtuoso on the violin and your college application discusses your desire to continue violin in college, you'd better make sure the college actually offers opportunities for playing violin (or make sure the college has opportunities for you to start your own string ensemble). Colleges aren't simply looking for students with meaningful extracurricular involvement. They are looking for students whose meaningful extracurricular involvement will be an asset to the school.
  • Leadership in extracurricular activities can take many forms: designing the set of a play, being section leader in the band, organizing a fund raiser, starting a club related to the activity, designing a group's website, or, of course, serving as an officer for a student organization.
  • Finally, keep in mind that colleges are also happy to see work experiences on your application, and schools understand when your work schedule prevents you from being as involved in extracurricular activities at your school as other students. Here, as with other extracurricular activities, some work experiences will be more impressive than others. Have you won any awards for doing your job well? Have you been promoted? Did you accomplish anything innovative for your employer?

The bottom line: Any extracurricular involvement is good, but your dedication and level of involvement is what will really make your application shine. The table below can help illustrate this idea:

Extracurricular Activities
ActivityGoodBetterTruly Impressive
Drama ClubYou were a member of the stage crew for a play.You played small parts in plays for all four years of high school.You moved from small roles to lead roles during your four years of high school, and you helped direct a play in the elementary school.
BandYou played flute in the concert band in 9th and 10th grade.You played flute for four years in the concert band and were 1st chair by senior year.You played flute in the concert band (1st chair), marching band (section leader), pep band, and orchestra for four years. You played in the All-State Band your senior year.
SoccerYou played JV soccer in 9th and 10th grade.You played JV soccer in 9th grade and varsity soccer in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.You played soccer all four years of high school, and you were team captain and a top scorer during your senior year. You were chosen for the All-State Team.
Habitat for HumanityYou assisted building houses one summer.You worked on multiple projects every year of high school.You worked on multiple projects every year of high school, and you organized fund raising events and lined up sponsors to support the projects.