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. These activities can be excellent for demonstrating your leadership potential.
     
  • Hobbies: Be creative here. Something as seemingly trivial as a love for Rubik's Cube can be transformed into a meaningful extracurricular activity. Also, colleges are interested in your passion whether it be rocketry, model railroads, collecting, blogging, or quilting. These activities 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.

There are many reasons why colleges like students who have work experience. For one, you've most likely learned to work as part of a team, and you've proven that you are responsible and trustworthy. Many jobs also develop leadership skills.

What Are the Best Extracurricular Activities?

Many students ask 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. Music, sports, theater, community service... All can create a path to a selective college.

So what are the best extracurricular activities? The bottom line 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. Think about what your extracurricular activities say about you. What is it that you are bringing to campus in addition to your academic accomplishments?