Importance of Extracurricular Activities for College Admissions

Colleges in the United States set three major criteria for admissions of domestic and international students. Chief among these criteria is a student’s grade point average (GPA) from his/her previous schools. After all, students complete dozens of classes with dozens of different teachers and instructors, and neither the grades nor the average of those grades can be a coincidence. Colleges are aware of this reality. Under this criterion, we can add the quality of classes taken by the students as a sub-criterion. Competitive schools in particular complete a detailed transcript evaluation. In other words, they look for the challenging classes that a specific student has taken. The college admission counselors know the difference between high-level classes (e.g., AP Calculus, AP Physics, etc.) and ordinary classes (e.g., gym, 2D art, etc.).

The second admissions criterion involves standardized tests including but not limited to the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, IELTS, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT. In addition to review of the student’s GPA, colleges double-check and make sure that the student is performing well with the standardized tests. In recent years, however, the standardized test requirement has been made optional at many universities. In other words, many schools in the US may not require students to submit any test scores, especially for undergraduate applications. The reason for this change is simple. Test results may not paint an accurate picture of achievement of ability for many students who are academically successful. Some students may have test anxiety. Straight A students with strong academic and social skills may not perform perfectly in those tests. Accordingly, many schools are waiving test requirements for admissions. I also personally believe that the number of higher education institutions that decide to waive the test requirement will continue to grow in the coming years.

The third criterion for college admissions is extracurricular activities. This criterion is the blurriest measure and is usually misunderstood by both domestic and international applicants. Nevertheless, it is well known that the top schools in the US distinguish their applicants with respect to this blurry criterion. Extracurricular activities are the real deal-sealers for college applications for the top schools, since almost all applicants apply to those schools with perfect GPAs and the highest possible test scores. The schools then focus on the extracurricular activities to make a reliable decision. In this blog, I would like to focus on extracurricular activities and their role as one of the most important college admission criteria at US colleges.

Many students, including international applicants, think that they need to complete a specific number of extracurricular activity hours to satisfy an admissions requirement. This is not true for US colleges. None of the US colleges require a specific number of hours for extracurricular activities. Instead, they look for quality within the activities that have been completed by the students. Almost all schools would like students to list the activities that they have completed during their education either in high school or colleges years. They also require brief explanations about the activities to gain insight into how those activities have contributed to the student’s personal development. Further, if students believe that some of the extracurricular activities in which they have been involved are unique, they can give more details about them in their personal essays. Especially for undergraduate applications, students can even sometimes make specific activities the subject of the essay. Of course, I recommend a good brainstorming session with an expert before completing this personal essay for both domestic and international students.

So, what do those higher education institutions like to see in extracurricular activities? Put simply, they are looking for at least one of the following: (1) leadership, (2) passion, or (3) social impact. Since hundreds of different activities can be counted as extracurricular activities, we cannot list all the potential activities for you; however, I would like to consider some specific examples. Let us say that a senior from an ordinary high school has a YouTube channel on which she teaches origami, the art of folding paper. This may not sound interesting to most people; however, if she has uploaded more than a thousand videos over the last five years and every single video has been watched by more than one hundred thousand people, we can say that this student’s “passion” is reflected in her extracurricular activity. Another example can be drawn from one of my students (not a client) whose test scores were not top 90th percentile. Her GPA, on the other hand, was very good. She was the captain for the science Olympiad team in her school for four years. She received an acceptance letter from one of the most competitive schools in the US. It was clear that her position as the captain of this science Olympiad team distinguished her greatly at the time of her college applications. A third example would be working part time while studying. Another student of mine was making a good amount of money with his business. Simply, he was selling shoes online and making more money than his parents. Such a successful business venture shows that this young man has the discipline and drive needed to accomplish his goals. Volunteering can be given as yet another example. Working voluntarily may impress admission officers at colleges. However, the same rule applies here. If you worked voluntarily continuously and your contributions made a real social impact, you win. If on the other hand you have a low number of volunteer hours during certain years, the admission committee may think that you just completed those volunteer activities to log the hours and did so without a “passion”. Student clubs are also very popular; however, the student’s role and his/her active involvement and productivity are more important than being a member of several organizations. Sport activities are also very popular; however, the same rule again applies here. The sport activities should be official and should have yielded some success stories. Competitions, medals, and representations will make your extracurricular sport activities more convincing and meaningful. For instance, being a member of the high school basketball team at all grades and receiving some recognitions from regional competitions shows that you have a strong passion. You were a team member for a group that has scheduled meetings with specified goals for years. This story makes a difference. Many students state that they played sport during one specific grade (i.e., 10th grade), and they think that this means a lot.

Schools would like to accept well-rounded students. Good GPA and test scores are meaningful; however, the schools would also like to see the potential for contributions to their own school community from those students. Success stories are clearly reflected in GPA and test scores, but the extracurricular activities category has no specific limits or borders for definitions and expectations. It is all about the student’s personal choice and interest. In other words, schools know that success cannot be narrowly defined by GPA and test scores. There are other indicators that give some clue about the student’s potential at their college and in real life.

Lastly, I always recommend receiving personalized college consulting for your applications. In many cases, students miss this blurry part of the college applications process (the importance of extracurricular activities) while they are preparing their documents. They usually think that listing some activities might create a good impression for the admissions committee. However, a detailed explanation with a little refinement and polish might have a serious impact on the committee’s final decision. Accordingly, receiving consultancy from an expert may increase your chances of being admitted with a higher scholarship amount at a higher-ranked college. If there is enough time, the professional counselors can even set and plan additional extracurricular activities to make your application package more distinct and notable.

Erkan Acar, PhD

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