First things first. Parents and students often fret over which activities will look most impressive on a college application. Which activities will make an application more compelling or competitive for college admissions officers is the wrong question to ask. There is no formula of extracurricular activities guaranteed to get a student into college. College admissions officers have read enough applications to know when a student is padding his or her application with activities that s/he is only superficially involved in, or trying to present an activity simply because he or she thinks that a certain activity will impress the admissions officers. Conversely, admissions staff can also tell when a student truly cares about the activities s/he does. That’s why students should participate in extracurriculars that genuinely interest them.
Early on in high school, students should experiment with different activities to see what most appeals to them. Once students have narrowed down their interests and find activities that speak to them, they should commit to those activities and have a good time while they’re at it. Two or three activities that students are really dedicated to are better than many different activities that a student doesn’t spend much time doing, or doesn’t like doing. Sustained participation and leadership positions indicate commitment; brief stints do not.
Ultimately, colleges want to know what students do outside of the classroom because they want to know what students value, what makes them tick, what they are passionate about, and how they engage in the world around them. An honest picture of what a student does outside the classroom and why s/he does it can help colleges get a better sense of who the student is as a person, and what he or she will contribute to the campus community.
When students prepare their extracurricular activity essays, which activity should they write about? Again, students should write about the activity that s/he finds most gratifying. Extracurricular activity essays should demonstrate not only what a student has done, but also why s/he has committed to it. In order to tell colleges why they engage in the extracurricular activities they do, students should first make sure to reflect on what their activities mean to them. In our experience, students usually haven’t spent much time truly thinking about this. Some questions that students can ask themselves to help guide their reflection on what an activity means to them are: What activity is most enjoyable for me? What would I do if I could only do one activity from now on? When did I feel happiest doing this activity? What would I miss most if I couldn’t participate in the activity anymore? What made me feel most fulfilled during this activity? What has the activity taught me? Thoughtful answers to these questions will help students write an activity essay that gives admissions officers a better idea of who the applicant is and what s/he cares about.
Remember: just as college admissions counselors can sense when a student is simply trying to tell them what he or she thinks colleges want to hear, they can also tell when a student is passionate about his or her involvement in an activity. Students should be certain to write about an activity that is meaningful to them. In order to do that, of course, they need to have participated in activities that they find stimulating and satisfying.