The Ivy Coach Daily

April 24, 2023

Are Extracurriculars Important for Getting Into Colleges?

A laptop computer is featured on a desk with paperwork surrounding it.
Highly selective universities seek singularly talented students, not well-rounded ones (photo credit: Calvinius).

With summer on the horizon, many students (and their parents) are considering how they should spend their months off from school. And while they’d love to create experiences to remember for the rest of their lives, they also want to be practical by participating in activities that will serve their cases for admission to elite universities. So what kinds of high school activities wow admissions officers, and which kinds of activities inspire yawns? Wonder no more!

How Elite Colleges Weigh Extracurricular Activities

There are several factors in the elite college admission process. Among them are a student’s grades, the rigor of coursework, the competitiveness of the high school, test scores, letters of recommendation, the many college essays, the alumni interview, the applicant’s demographics, and, yes, extracurricular activities.

But any specific weight you find online that admissions officers assign to any one of these factors lacks credibility. Here’s the bottom line: you need the table stakes — or the hard factors, if you will — to be considered for admission to America’s top universities. Without top grades in the most rigorous courses, a student’s critically important soft factors — like their extracurricular activities — aren’t going to matter. And, yes, this is true for every elite university since each elite university is looking for the same thing: singularly talented students who are going to shape our world in one super specific, often small way.

Is It Better to Have One Strong Extracurricular or Multiple Extracurriculars in College Applications?

Back in the 1970s, students who competed in three sports in which they captained two, played a musical instrument, volunteered at nursing homes, tutored underprivileged young people, and wrote for their school newspaper impressed admissions officers at our nation’s elite universities. But that day is long gone.

Ivy Coach’s business was launched in the 1990s with an article touting the importance of presenting a singular talent rather than well-roundedness. We’ve been pontificating about how colleges want singularly talented students who together form a well-rounded class — of award-winning science researchers, recruited baseball players, literary voices of a generation, and more — for over three decades!

Yet, to this day, most applicants to elite colleges invariably present as well-rounded in their activities and their many essays. Even when students (and their parents) know they shouldn’t present as well-rounded, they so often can’t help but do so anyway.

Over the years, we’ve determined that students don’t know how to execute presenting as singularly talented, even if they know that’s the way to go. They don’t know how to showcase how they will change the world in one super specific, often small way.

How Much Time Should Students Spend on Extracurriculars?

When you think about extracurricular activities, we encourage students to reflect on Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, which he popularized in his seminal book Outliers: The Story of Success. As Gladwell wrote, “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” In short, to be great at something, one must do it a lot. So what is a lot?

Extracurriculars During the School Year

During the school year, 25 hours is a solid amount of time to devote to extracurricular pursuits. If a student lists many more hours, admissions officers may find it difficult to believe (even if it’s true). If a student lists significantly fewer hours, admissions officers may question the student’s commitment.

But it’s not like all of a student’s extracurricular activities should be spread out evenly. For instance, if a student is involved in five activities during the school year, admissions officers don’t love to see that a student participates in each one of those activities for five hours. They’d rather see a spike in the activities that showcase a student’s singular hook.

Extracurriculars During the Summer

During the summer, 40 hours is a solid amount of time to devote to extracurricular pursuits since students aren’t concurrently attending school. It could be one activity that a student participates in for 40 hours per week. Or it could be a couple of activities that add up to 40 hours. 

But, no, if you attend a summer enrichment program, which we at Ivy Coach are wholeheartedly against since they flaunt privilege and demonstrate a lack of initiative, don’t include the number of hours you sleep. That’s ridiculous!

How Colleges Ask About Extracurricular Activities

The Common Application Activities Section

And how exactly do students present their extracurriculars to colleges? On The Common Application, they’ll be asked to include their ten most significant activities.

With 50 available characters for the position/leadership description, 100 characters for the organization name, and 150 characters for a description of the activity, students have limited space to make their case on what the extracurricular was all about and how they participated.

Students are also asked what years of high school they participated in each activity, how many hours per week and weeks per year they devoted to the extracurricular, and if they intend to continue participating in college.

Optional Resume Uploads on College Supplements

Some colleges also allow a typically optional resume upload. However, we only encourage students to include a resume if they have so many wonderful activities they can’t fit in the activities section. And when students present resumes, they should only be a single page — not multiple pages. When the game is likeability, presenting multiple-page resumes undercuts that objective.

Additionally, students often include resumes that regurgitate information previously included in the activities section, as though presenting the same information in the resume format will add a nice touch. Admissions officers don’t have amnesia! As such, students should refrain from repeating themselves.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance Developing An Extracurricular Hook

Need assistance developing your hook to stand out in the elite college admissions process so you don’t present as well-rounded? That’s a big part of what we do at Ivy Coach. If interested, fill out Ivy Coach’s free consultation form, and you’ll learn more about our college counseling services.

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