When I’m happily daydreaming about the good-old-days of my high school experience, I rarely think about my classes. I don’t think about the tests I bombed, the papers I aced, or the mountain of nightly homework. And I certainly don’t think about my grades.
I think about the videos I created to advertise for the annual 5k. I think about the Harry Potter-themed Homecoming Dance I stayed up all night decorating. I reminisce about the too-much-time I spent constructing an ultimate frisbee trophy out of nothing but a traffic cone, a ceramic dish, and some duct tape. I remember singing Christmas Carols outside Hy-Vee for charity and someone donating ten dollars for me to shut up. I remember the blood drive that ended with juice, cookies, and two of my friends in the hospital. I think about the time I messed up my lines during the fall play and the time I tried to do the splits in the spring musical. I remember the putt I missed on the eighteenth green and the three-pointer I drained at the buzzer.
To me, extracurriculars weren’t “extra.” They were essential to my high school experience. And though not all of these extracurricular activities led to wonderful memories—such as the day after I tried to do the splits in the spring musical—I know my high school experience would not be complete without them.
Still, sometimes I look back at my high school and think how things could have been different. Why did I quit the Knowledge Bowl Team when playing trivia is one of my favorite activities? Why did I stick with golf so long when competition took all the fun out of it? What would have happened if I had stuck with piano? Some of these decisions were due to sound logic at the time. Others were made due to a lack of foresight and my own stubbornness.
I don’t have many regrets, but there are some things I wish I could tell my younger self. So here is some advice for students starting out their high school careers—to those who aren’t just hoping to fill up their résumé, but also hoping to fill up their memory banks and make the most out of their extracurriculars.
As you begin your search for the right extracurricular activities this year, cast a wide net. Most school clubs are eager to expand membership, so you should figure out what is available to you before you decide how you will spend your time. Plus, a club’s reputation can be misleading; just because your cousin’s debate team across town offers a robust learning experience does not mean your own school’s debate team is up to snuff. You won’t really know what a school club feels like until you actually go to a meeting, mingle with the membership, and decide for yourself.
Pro Tip: If being in clubs with your friends is important, drag them along as you shop around. You’ll likely be attracted to similar clubs. And if you’re not, take the opportunity to expand your social circle.
Do What Feels Right
As previous blogs on this website have stated time and time again, there is no formula to figure out the perfect set extracurricular activities. Walk down any typical dorm hallway, you’ll find find a mix of people: a hockey player, a graphic artist, a drum captain, a student council representative, a cheerleader, an anime club president, and the state hacker champion. The only thing they’ll have in common is that they do something with their time. Colleges want to see students pursuing their passions. So follow yours.
Pro Tip: If you can’t find a club that fits your needs, figure out what it takes at your school to create your own.
Learn More: How do you spend your free time?
Depth vs. Breadth
There is not a perfect number of extracurricular activities. All we know is that colleges like to see commitment and success: four years of active involvement and a few tournament trophies for your chess club is going to count for more than a myriad of one-semester affairs with each club at your school. The Common App currently allows students to list up to ten extracurricular activities on an application. The worst thing you can do is pad that list with a bunch of meaningless activities; admissions offices will smell that out. Pick the activities that matter to you and dig deep. Do enough to make it worth it without affecting your school performance.
Pro Tip: Extracurricular involvement does not end when the school year does. Use your summers wisely to pick up an internship, summer job, or join a community organization.
Learn New Skills
I cannot stress this enough: school clubs and activities are the perfect place to experiment and learn new skills. In class your creativity may get stifled by rubrics and time constraints, but members of your club will be eager to see what you are able to do. Design a professional-quality poster. Build your first website. Design and execute a school-wide poll. Manage a budget. Create an infographic. These skills are transferrable and will make you a hot commodity. Do a good enough job and clubs will start flocking to you to design their logo or write their grant application. Plus, these skills make great bullet points for your résumé and activity list once it’s time to fill out those applications.
Pro Tip: Don’t expect these opportunities to present themselves. Seek them out and make them happen. Is it really necessary for you to create a commercial for your Environmental Club’s silent auction when a simple announcement over the intercom will suffice? Probably not—but what a perfect way to learn how to write a script, work a camera, and edit film.
Make Your Clubs Better
Clubs often fall into routines: they will have a certain event in fall, hold another in the winter, and wrap up a year’s work with an event in the spring. This year, try to initiate a new tradition, address a community need, or just do something different. Not only can this be a learning experience for you, but it can also revitalize an organization that has grown stale. Perhaps yours will be the event students look forward to for years to come.
Pro Tip: To really make a difference in your club, it helps to have a leadership position. These positions are also a great way to show colleges your commitment to your club.
Learn More: Make Clubs Matter