The Ivy Coach Daily

March 16, 2023

What Are the Best Extracurriculars for College?

A desk is covered in paperwork, file boxes, and a laptop computer.
Learn how students should approach getting involved in extracurricular activities while in high school (photo credit: Calvinius).

Many students wonder what kind of extracurricular activities will wow admissions officers. So often, they emulate what other students are doing and get involved in just about every activity under the sun because they think that will make all the difference in the highly selective college admissions process.

But this differs from the approach we at Ivy Coach would ever recommend. After all, it’s not about getting involved in many activities but rather meaningful ones that showcase a singular hook. So what constitutes meaningful activities, and how can students get involved to stand out?

Do Extracurriculars Matter in College Admissions?

The holistic college admissions process is about more than just getting excellent grades in the most rigorous coursework along with top test scores. It’s about showcasing how a student intends to leave a mark on the world in their lifetime.

And what’s a good indication of how a student hopes to make a difference not only in their lifetime but over the next four years on a college campus? That’s easy — by examining the difference they’ve made outside of their academics during their high school years.

The 10 Best Extracurriculars for College

Yet if anyone were to recommend specific extracurricular activities that large swaths of the population should get involved in to stand out in elite college admissions, that list wouldn’t be worth the paper on which it’s written. After all, it’s all about differentiation in elite college admissions. That said, a student’s extracurricular hook should shine through the following avenues:

Extracurricular Activities that Do Not Impress Admissions Officers

Suppose you comb through lists of activities online. In that case, you’ll likely find some items listed below as excellent extracurriculars to get involved in during high school to stand out in elite college admissions. Yet that’s not the case.

Why Well-Rounded Extracurricular Activities Do Not Serve Applicants

In fact, the kinds of activities most students tend to get involved in often undercut their case for admission. While in the 1970s and earlier, America’s highly selective colleges sought to admit well-rounded students who excelled in sports, music, community service, and more, these institutions have not sought to accept these students in over 40 years.

But it’s not just about getting involved in a singular pursuit. The pursuit must serve the college to which the student is applying. Suppose a male student swims twice daily, just about every day of the week, as a high schooler. That’s some commitment! But the student’s best event is the 100-yard butterfly with a time of 1:08. This time is not fast enough to swim on any Division I swim team.

And while some parents think this will demonstrate commitment to the colleges their child applies to (or leadership in the event the student is captain of their high school’s swim team), and that can only help, admissions officers are unlikely to care.

If the student can’t help their school’s swim team, as indicated by the fact that they weren’t recruited, these hours spent in the pool — while great for their health — were for naught concerning admissions. And there was an opportunity cost: what could the student have been doing when they were swimming?

Instead, America’s elite universities want to admit students who excel in one specific area of interest to admissions officers. And what interests them are pursuits that will translate on their college campuses as they seek a well-rounded student body comprised of singularly talented students.

It could be a student with a passion for astrophysics or biomedical engineering. It could be a passion for a socks business. It could be a passion for promoting water safety. Whatever it is, it needs to be interesting (or weird, as we like to say at Ivy Coach) and serve the college.

Why a Singular Focus in Extracurricular Activities Serves Applicants

Think of each college as a business. A business has needs. If the college’s baseball team’s catcher and third basemen are graduating next year, that school will need a fresh catcher and third basemen. Likewise, if a school’s marching band has no drummers, the school will need a percussionist. Or suppose a student is a psychological researcher whose work has been recognized by the Regeneron Science Talent Search and the American Psychological Association. In that case, that school will covet the student of the mind, competing to land the researcher against other universities. And so on.

In the big picture, when someone is named our nation’s next Secretary of State or receives a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer, or an Oscar, or creates a social networking site that can help to overthrow dictatorships, or leads the charge for civil rights reform in their country, colleges want to brag that this student is theirs. They want to brag that this student is leaving a mark on the world in their singular way after being educated on their college campus.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance Zeroing in on a Singular Focus in Extracurriculars

A big part of Ivy Coach’s secret sauce is figuring out — and executing — how to make our students singularly talented in wonderfully weird ways. If you’re interested in Ivy Coach’s assistance in presenting a singular, weird hook that dares admissions officers not to offer your child admission, fill out our free consultation form, and we’ll be in touch to delineate our services.

FAQ About Extracurricular Activities for College

If my child spends her summer traveling with our family, does this count as an extracurricular?

No, it does not. Also, remember that a significant part of the highly selective college admissions process is trying to inspire admissions officers to root for students. Admissions officers are unlikely to root for a student who travels the world in their free time — even if they’re performing community service during their travels. In short, it flaunts privilege. And when admissions officers aren’t big earners, they will likely resent the student.

While my daughter won’t be recruited for squash, she competed throughout high school and is captain of her team. Her participation will thus show leadership and commitment, right?

Admissions officers at elite universities won’t care if the student isn’t going to help the college’s squash team. Students need to demonstrate leadership in their singular pursuit that will serve the college — not in an extraneous endeavor in the eyes of that college. Besides, squash, too, flaunts privilege!

Is it ok to only include six or seven activities in the activities section of The Common Application?

No, there are ten slots for extracurriculars. Students would be remiss not to fill that activity section with pursuits demonstrating their singular hook. Students should show they’re abounding in ways they’ve made a difference through their hook. If they’re not filling up the activities section, it’s sending a message that they haven’t gotten all that involved.

In terms of hours per week and weeks per year, which students are asked to indicate in the activities section of The Common Application, what are admissions officers at elite universities looking for in this area?

The hours need to be within reason. During the summers — each of which should be accounted for in this section — the hours can be around 40 hours per week since students aren’t in school. During the school year, the hours should be fewer (up to 25 hours per week is reasonable). 

Approach this section like a game of Tetris. If one activity is only six weeks per year during the academic term, it will not add equally with activities during the academic year that last for 40 weeks per year — and that’s ok!

But in this game of Tetris, it’s about more than including 25 or 40 hours (depending on the season). It’s about how those hours are spread out. Admissions officers at elite universities want to see students who are super involved in their singular pursuit, and this should be reflected in how the hours are outlined.

For example, students should avoid including pursuits that are one or two hours per week. Think of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. As the pop psychologist demonstrated in the seminal book, to be truly great at something, a person must devote around 10,000 hours to the pursuit — “the magical number of greatness.”

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