How Important Are Extracurricular Activities?

            The short answer is that they can be extremely important, especially given how competitive the college applications process has become. Before exploring this topic, however, it is crucial to make something very clear: extracurricular activities (the so-called “soft” factors in a college admissions decision) basically do not matter at all unless all of a student’s “hard” factors—quantifiable things like GPA, SAT/ACT scores, AP course grades and SAT II Subject Test results, etc.—are in order. For instance, if you have poor grades, a low SAT/ACT score, and an unimpressive AP and Subject Test record, admissions officers will be unlikely to even look at the rest of your application, even if you have the most interesting and impressive record of extracurricular activities imaginable. However, once a student has satisfactory numbers in these areas (depending on the college’s published admissions standards), extracurricular activities are an essential part of a competitive college application, since they can set you apart from other applicants with the same or similar numbers. Not only do they give you a chance to make yourself appear interesting by showcasing your personal interests and aspirations, but also (assuming your grades and test scores are good) they can demonstrate effective time-management skills, which are an integral part of success in college and beyond.

From an admissions point-of-view, the most compelling extracurricular activities you can put on a college application are governed by the following 3 principles: (1) Quality Over Quantity: If you are a member of lots of different clubs and organizations, that is fine, but not as great as when you demonstrate serious commitment and leadership effort in, say, 2 or 3 different organizations. Admissions officers have also said that elected positions, such as student body president, generally hold more weight than club memberships. (2) Tell A Clear Story: Your extracurricular activities should reveal something interesting or memorable about you. If you are the president of the math club, captain of the football team, and leader of the debate team, this is a rare and impressive combination of extracurricular achievements. However, admissions officers are likely to be more confused than impressed by it. They are forced to ask the question, “What is this student’s real interest? Math? Athletics? Politics?” Variety is good in extracurricular activities, but involvement in several very different organization tends not to be as compelling as commitment shown in one or two related areas. The fact is, there aren’t that many world-class chess players who are also accomplished athletes and politicians. (3) Supporting Evidence: Suppose you are the president and founder of the German Language club, having been a member all four years of high school. This is great, but if your application also shows, say, that you taught yourself German in your free time, or spent one or more of your summers in Germany, this point on your application receives a lot more weight in the eyes of admissions committees, because you’ve reinforced your stated interest in this area with actual evidence. Or, maybe you are in a leadership position in your school’s Environmental club. If your application can show that you have also dedicated significant time outside of the school year to environmental or sustainability-related causes, this can also give the extracurricular part of your college application a significant boost.

Interesting Extracurricular Activity Ideas

Recently, admissions officers have expressed that there is a need for what you might call “non-curricular” activities. Extracurricular activities in general are great on a college application (provided they satisfy the 3 criteria above), but such activities tend to be limited to clubs, organizations, and activities sponsored by a student’s high school. If you can show in your application that, in addition to these types of activities, you are proactively pursuing and dedicating time and effort to unique personal activities, not only can this serve as good supporting evidence as discussed above, but also it gives admissions officers something significant to remember and like about you. For example, if a student’s application mentions that he or she had written and published a short-story, admissions officers would likely want to find out more about, and maybe even read, the story. Or, suppose you taught yourself the guitar and now play in a band you started with some of your friends. Seeing this in an application, admissions officers might then want to listen to some of your music, or view one of your band’s live performances. Either way, you are giving them something very specific and memorable about you, which, in the end, is the most important goal of all the “soft” factors on your college application.


Andrews, Erinn. 2011. “Former Stanford Admissions Officer – Video Case Study #2” https:// Date accessed: March 23, 2016.


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