Need a break from studying? Core classes not exciting enough for you? Hoping to get into a decent college? Sounds like you need a good extracurricular activity.
But what exactly is an extracurricular activity? And what makes it different from an elective?
An extracurricular activity is basically anything you do outside of your school coursework. An elective, on the other hand, is simply a class that you choose -- or “elect” -- to take. It may align with one of your interests, or it may simply fulfill a diploma requirement. An example of an elective is psychology. You most likely do not need to take a psychology class to graduate, but it may fulfill a general elective requirement.
Some electives may overlap with what would be considered extracurricular activities. For example, you can take marching band as an elective, but you also perform at sporting events, in competitions, and for the general public. Since these events occur outside of school hours, band is considered an extracurricular.
Still confused? The University Interscholastic League, or UIL, which was created by the University of Texas to foster student development in extracurricular areas and sponsor statewide contests, defines an extracurricular activity as the following:
The definition is not limited to UIL’s description, but it can definitely help clarify what constitutes extracurricular vs. elective.
Why Should You Participate in Extracurricular Activities?
While you probably are already participating in at least one extracurricular activity, let’s consider the core benefits:
You grow as a person, developing friendships and understanding more about yourself
You have experiences that will become topics for scholarship and college admissions essays
You build a resume that will impress college admissions officers
I’ll spare you lectures on all the ways you can grow by attending debate or performing in theater or managing robotics club. Instead, I’ll lay this out for you: extracurricular activities are great because they are safe spaces for you to fail. And honestly, everyone could use a little bit more failure in high school.
Do I sound crazy? Maybe. But Stanford psychologists seem to agree. In fact, a recent study demonstrates that the whole idea of “finding your passion” is bad advice. Students don’t have, according to the study, inherent passions that are discovered like treasures at the bottom of the ocean. Instead, passions are nurtured and developed over time, and sure, there are inherent dispositions (maybe?) that make some activities more interesting than others, but you can’t let failure and challenges block you from falling in love with an extracurricular activity and thus developing a passion.
There are no “math people” and “English people.” But that will probably take you ten more years to realize, so take my word for it, and be willing to explore extracurricular activities that you think would clash with everything you’ve grown to know about yourself.
What Kinds of Extracurricular Activities Are There?
Extracurricular activities come in all shapes and sizes, and while many are linked to your school, there are still a variety of others that go beyond traditional clubs, music ensembles, and sports.
Let’s break down the different kinds…
A. School-related clubs
These are the extracurriculars that include not only electives like band and theater arts but also after-school clubs that are sponsored by teachers. Usually you finish your last block of the day and walk to the classroom where the club is held. How convenient!
Examples include the following:
Band, choir, orchestra
Newspaper, yearbook, broadcast
Organizations often offer high school students opportunities to intern, research, or volunteer. These organizations are local and national, including businesses, hospitals/clinics, religious institutions, and colleges.
Examples include the following:
Serving on a mission trip for your local church
Shadowing a doctor at a clinic
Working at a local startup company
C. Personal projects
These are extracurricular activities that you do out of your own interests and often require you to create your own paths forward. Maybe you saw a problem in the community that you wanted to fix. Maybe you got really excited about an idea from class and wanted to explore it more. Whatever the case, these are the activities that aren’t bound to organizations or school sponsorships.
Examples include the following:
Programing a new phone app, website, or software
Starting a business or non-profit
Creating a donation drive for a cause
Working on a political campaign
Writing and directing a play
Running a blog or online media resource
How Important Are Extracurricular Activities to College Admissions Officers?
Extracurriculars play an important role in your college applications, but it is hard to really know how high they rank. Different colleges, after all, have different ways that they use information about your extracurriculars. It is safe to say that they have a “middle impact” on your college admission chances. Grades, GPA/rank, and SAT/ACT scores typically are the most important factors, so extracurriculars are often considered after those.
This is what Harvard says:
Yale’s take on extracurriculars:
Duke provides similar advice:
UC System follows the norm of citing “holistic review,” but does offer some insights into what they want to see:
These examples don’t really provide a clear picture, but there is another tool that you can use to help clarify how important extracurricular activities are to your prospective colleges: common data sets.
Yes, common data sets. Most colleges should have them available, and in them, you can see what admissions officers considered important deciding factors for each new class of freshmen.
For example, the University of Texas at Austin has one that reveals this:
If you want to look up the common data set for a school, simply go to a search engine and type in “common data set” + “school name.” For UT, I typed in “common data set utexas.” Note: Some schools’ common data sets are more informative than others. Harvard’s most recent one, for example, says that they simply “considered” all of the available boxes (except a few that usually have nothing to do with college applications, such as religious affiliation).
These examples illustrate that holistic review is the choice method for selecting students and that extracurricular activities are a somewhat important piece of the puzzle.
How Should You Choose Your Extracurricular Activities?
Extracurricular activities serve many purposes, as I said earlier in this post. You should choose extracurriculars that will develop you as an individual, team player, and advocate. You shouldn’t only pursue activities that you know will match your supposed interests; you should break outside of your comfort zone and show how you are willing to be more than a single “math” or “English” person.
But let’s get to the heart of this question: what are the best extracurricular activities for getting ahead in college admissions?
Let’s consider three main strategies with your extracurriculars:
Well-rounded background: You show that even though you are applying to, say, computer science, you have a soft spot for Shakespearean drama. Colleges love when students can show diverse interests. (But don’t get so diverse that you don’t participate meaningfully in any of your extracurriculars.)
Subject expertise: You illustrate that you have significant experiences in the field that you want to study in college. For example, if you want to be a doctor, you need to volunteer at hospitals/clinics and shadow doctors.
Unique experiences: You participate in/lead a group that college admissions officers aren’t used to seeing in application after application. Sorry, but all the school-related clubs are very common, and while they are great for personal development, they often don't excite admissions officers.
You should try to choose extracurricular activities that fulfill all of these strategies. You don’t need to go wild -- as in, don’t create a nonprofit just because you want to seem unique. Actually follow your interests and curiosities into new experiences and activities. "Do you."
How Do You Find Extracurricular Activities?
School websites are great resources for knowing available extracurricular activities. They also are great resources for seeing what activities should be added to the school.
Austin High School, for example, is rather specific with their extracurriculars:
...and the list goes on.
...and the list also goes on.
As for extracurricular experiences outside of school, you should use search engines to find opportunities near you. I made a quick search for high school volunteering, and the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin, came up with this:
Extracurricular activities are an important part of your college application, and they are important way to define which colleges you will be applying to in the first place!
If you are just starting out your high school career, then you have time to explore many different fields and nurture your interests so that you will have a clear idea of what major you want to complete in college. If you are later in your high school career, you should now know where you have gaps in your background and also how to emphasize extracurriculars on your college applications.
Need help determining what extracurricular activities to pursue in high school? Set up a FREE 1-1 consultation with one of our directors and learn how you can strategize your extracurriculars for college admissions.