What Counts as an Extracurricular Activity for College Admissions?

Think Broadly about Your Activities when Applying to College

High School Marching Band
H. Michael Miley / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Extracurricular activities are simply anything you do that is not a high school course or paid employment (but note that paid work experience is of interest to colleges and can substitute for some extracurricular activities). You should define your extracurricular activities in broad terms—many applicants make the mistake of thinking of them solely as school-sponsored groups such as yearbook, band or football.

Not so. Most community and family activities are also "extracurricular."

What Counts as Extracurricular?

The Common Application as well as many individual college applications group together extracurricular activities with community service, volunteer work, family activities and hobbies. Honors are a separate category since they are a recognition of achievement, not an actual activity. The list below provides some examples of activities that would be considered "extracurricular" (note that many of the categories below overlap):

  • Arts: Theater, music, dance, painting, photography, creative writing and other creative endeavors. Note that many college applications give you the option of including a sample of your creative work whether that be a video of a performance, a creative writing sample, or a portfolio of art pieces that you've created. Vanessa writes about her fondness for handiwork in her Common Application essay.
  • Church activity: Community outreach, helping the elderly, event planning, community suppers, church-sponsored music and athletic programs, teaching or organizing for summer camps and retreats, missionary work, and any other activity run through the church. 
  • Clubs: Chess club, mathletes, mock trial, debate, animé club, role playing club, language clubs, film club, skateboarding club, diversity/minority groups and so on.
  • Community activity: community theater, event organizing, festival staff, and many other activities that are organized through the community, not the school.
  • Governance: Student government, student council, prom committee, community youth board (see Sophie's essay), advisory boards and so on.
  • Hobbies: Be creative here. Read these articles on how Rubik's Cube or Collecting Free Stuff can be transformed into an extracurricular activity. Also, colleges are interested in your passion whether it be rocketry, model railroads, collecting, blogging or quilting. These interests show that you have interests outside of the classroom.
  • Media: local television, school radio or television, yearbook staff, school newspaper, literary journal, blogging and online journaling, local newspaper, and any other work that leads to a television show, movie or publication (online or print).
  • Military: Junior ROTC, drill teams and related activities.
  • Music: Chorus, band (marching, jazz, symphonic, concert, pep...), orchestra, ensembles and solo. These musical groups could be through school, church, the community or your personal group or solo efforts.
  • Sports: Football, baseball, hockey, track, gymnastics, dance, lacrosse, swimming, soccer, skiing, cheerleading and so on. If you are a highly accomplished athlete, be sure to look into the recruiting practices of your top choice colleges early in the admissions process.
  • Volunteer Work and Community Service: Key Club, Habitat for Humanity, tutoring and mentoring, community fund-raising, Rotary, church outreach, hospital work (candy striping), animal rescue, nursing home work, poll worker, volunteer fire department, creating hiking trails, Adopt-a-Highway, and any other work that helps the world and is not for pay.

If you're like many students and hold a job that makes it difficult for you to commit to many extracurricular activities, don't worry. Colleges and understand this challenge, and it won't necessarily work to your disadvantage. Read more here: 5 Reasons Colleges Like Applicants with Work Experience.

What Are the Best Extracurricular Activities?

Many students ask me which of these activities will most impress colleges, and the reality is that any of them can.

Your achievements and depth of involvement matter much more than the activity itself. If your extracurricular activities show that you are passionate about something outside of the classroom, you've chosen your activities well. If they show that you are accomplished, all the better.

You can learn more in this article: What Are the Best Extracurricular Activities? The bottom line, however, is that you are better off having depth and leadership in one or two activities than having a superficial smattering of a dozen activities. Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions office: they are looking for students who will contribute to the campus community in meaningful ways. Consequently, the strongest applications show that the applicant is committed to an activity in a meaningful way.