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Stand Out and Fit In

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

Getting Extracurricular Activities Right.

The guidance from admissions committees about extracurricular activities for students applying to U.S. schools is confusing. Be yourself, they say, but be exceptional! We are seeking a well-rounded class of students, but show us something that makes you stand out!

It’s important to make sense of this, because as standardized test scores lose some of their primacy in the admissions process, schools are placing more emphasis on other indicators of a prospective student’s achievements and potential. Extracurriculars are seen as being one such indicator, and so they matter to the admissions committee, and should matter to you.

The purpose of this post is to provide some practical suggestions for maximizing the impact of your activities, but let’s first recall the larger admissions process. U.S. schools generally rely on a process that is “holistic” -- in other words, admissions decisions are based on an assessment of the person, rather than just test scores and grades. Essays and teacher recommendations help fill out the picture and tell a student’s “story,” but extracurricular activities can speak louder than words.

The fixation on extracurricular activities strikes many international students as a uniquely American mania. Maybe. As mentioned, admissions systems across Europe and Asia are generally less personalized and more objective. But U.S. schools are carefully, and increasingly, socially engineered spaces, and admissions committees look at extracurriculars to help them identify students they believe will contribute to the campus community.

The most important thing is not to panic, but to plan. Here are some suggestions to help.

Start early. Universities don’t want to see a long list of school clubs that you cobbled together senior year. Think about clubs you already belong to, or courses you’ve liked, or interests or hobbies or sports or talents you have, and find ways to develop and demonstrate your involvement over time, ideally starting no later than junior year. That said, there’s always room to experiment, but do it with purpose.

Go deep rather than broad. Quality will outshine quantity every time. If you have one passion -- whether it’s running, gaming, ceramics, anime, baking, STEM, robotics, skateboarding, or photography -- that’s great. Think about ways to develop it. Connect with a club, create a club, translate it into an individual project, teach it to an elementary school class, present it in a Ted Talk, or use it to raise funds or awareness for a worthy cause. To the extent possible, show initiative and impact in your activity, and meaningful participation, whether up-front or behind-the-scenes. Is COVID-19 a problem? Schools are very curious to see the creative and innovative ways that students during the pandemic are pursuing their passions online.

Consider getting a job. Maybe you need the money. But there are few better ways to learn about life and yourself than working. It shows (and teaches) discipline, organization, people skills, and humility. And it may provide strong material for a reflective personal statement or essay later in the application process.

Don’t forget the summer. Everyone needs a break, but summers are long and offer an excellent opportunity to get active and advance your personal story. But, again, choose wisely: admissions committees won’t normally view 1- 2 weeks of service in a far-off place with disadvantaged kids as evidence of a meaningful commitment over time.

If you don’t like an activity, don’t do it. There’s no such thing as an extracurricular activity that “looks good,” since, like everything else in life, the real issue is what you do with it. And schools want to see authenticity. There’s enough stress in life without having to fake enthusiasm for speech and debate.

In other words, yes, be you. Be the best version of you, inside the classroom and out. Try to find ways to exercise the curiosity and develop the interests you authentically have. Any activity that is rewarding to you as an individual can be rewarding to you as a university applicant, too. And you’re probably more interesting than you think.

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