Extracurricular activities. College-bound high school students know they are important and that admissions officers want to know what applicants have been doing outside of the classroom. Far too often, however, students (and parents) approach extracurricular activities from the wrong perspective. Which activities will be most impressive to the colleges?, they usually want to know. Readers of this blog should understand by now that students should not approach extracurricular activities (or college applications generally) based on assumptions about what admissions officers will find most impressive.

Time and again, admissions officers note that they want to see authenticity in applications, which means that students should be pursuing what interests them, not what they think is most likely to turn admissions officers’ heads. This is especially true for participation in extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities are an excellent place for students to pursue their passions and interests. But school clubs can often fall into ruts or have difficulty retaining members.

Following are some questions for extracurricular club members to ask so that their membership can get more out of their participation:

What is the purpose of the organization? Successful clubs know why they are gathered in a classroom after school. They know why they exist. For instance, if a club is dedicated to current events, will it serve to educate students on world affairs? Will it seek to become involved in local or national political issues? Will it bring in speakers to inform students or will it send club members articles that the group will later discuss together? Meetings to discuss such questions at the beginning of the school year can help to bring clarity to what will be done in future meetings and the tasks that members need to carry out to be faithful to the club’s purpose or mission.

Which students would be most interested in participating in this club? How can the club reach out to potential members and keep them coming back? Thinking about these questions can help recruit new members to the club. For instance, if students wanted to start a reading group, who would be most interested? Students on the newspaper? Students in the AP English Literature class? Bringing ideas to students who are likely to appreciate the club’s purpose will help bring in new members and make

What does the organization hope to accomplish? How will the organization know if it has achieved its goals?

Discussing and setting specific goals for club activities help to clarify want needs to be done in order to make them happen. Achieving those goals, or at least attempting to achieve them, also fosters a sense of camaraderie among students that can help keep members coming back. Aim for achievable goals. For instance, if a school group wishes to take action on homelessness, solving homelessness in Madison, Wisconsin is not really an attainable goal for a high school club. A more appropriate goal would be to raise X amount of dollars to give to Y homeless shelter, or to hold a food drive to donate to Z food bank. Clubs can then break down the goals into manageable steps and who will carry them out and how they will do so.

Make sure that people know what is expected of them. It can be frustrating if one person ends up taking on most of the responsibilities, while others do little work. Some members get burnt out, others want to help out but do not know how, leading to a decline in membership. Brainstorm responsibilities and expectations in club meetings at the beginning of the year so members know what they need to do. By deciding the club’s mission, goals, and tasks together, clubs can keep members happy and move closer to reaching their goals.

Try to match tasks with interests and skills. For instance, if someone is really interested in math, he or she would be a good candidate for dealing with finances or fundraising. If someone else enjoys drawing, s/he might be a good candidate for making posters for events. Discuss what the club needs, brainstorm projects and figure out what people are most interested in doing. When club members are responsible for tasks that they enjoy doing, they are more likely to stay involved and to see an event to completion.

Bottom line

Students know that colleges are interested in leadership positions in extracurricular activities. But the reason colleges are interested in those things is because they want to see what interests students. They want to know that students are pursuing their passions outside of the classroom. Extracurricular clubs are excellent places to explore those interests, and by helping those organizations figure out what they should stand for, what types of projects they should pursue and how to go about achieving club goals, students will enrich their experiences and genuinely pursue their passions at the same time. And that will impress colleges by default.