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The Best Extracurriculars for a College Application

There isn’t a specific list of the “best” extracurriculars to have on your high school transcript, but that doesn’t stop prospective collegians from trying to make one for their résumés.

The truth is, regardless of which activities you choose to do, college applications are a lot like job applications: it’s all about selling yourself.

Now there’s just the question of how to best do that.

Pick Them for the Right Reasons

Before we get ahead of ourselves, this needs to be said: choose extracurriculars because you want to do them, not because you think they’ll make you look good. That’s why you won’t see many specific activities named in this piece.

Colleges have a nose for discerning applicants who are clearly trying too hard to appear accomplished, capable, and well-rounded from the applicants who actually are those things.

The kind of student colleges and universities want is one who pursues what they want to pursue and is confident enough to stand by their decisions.

Quality over Quantity

There’s a good reason why that cliché has survived this long. A small number of good things is preferable to a large number of mediocre things.

Whatever you choose to engage in, be passionate about it, stick with it, and excel in it. You get major social bonus points if you stick with it all the way through your senior year.

After all, if you aren’t committed to an activity you (supposedly) enjoy, how would you stay committed in college?

Lead the Way

Colleges and universities want students who are either proven leaders or have shown potential to become leaders.

Some might think it’s a strange idea to fill an entire school with nothing but A-type personalities, but unless you strongly believe everybody is inherently born either a leader or follower, then there’s no reason everybody can’t find a way to demonstrate this in themselves.

For this part, it helps to think that leadership qualities do (or at least can) exist in all of us, to be accessed when we’re called upon, but colleges want the people who know how to access this side of themselves.

You don’t have to excel at every single thing you do (though I can’t say that wouldn’t help). But if you can stick with an activity long enough and prove yourself with it to gain status as the team captain or club president (or any position in student government), it will make you look like you have what it takes.

One last thing about leadership: if your high school doesn’t have a club or program you think they ought to have, create it. That’ll really make you look good.

Love of Learning

You’re going to college to learn first and foremost, so it helps to show that you and education have a healthy relationship and aren’t merely putting up with each other.

Find an extracurricular activity that has something to do with applying knowledge, whether it’s in one specific subject (like Math Team or Engineering Club), many subjects (such as Quiz Bowl or STEM club), or about the pursuit of learning itself (like Debate Team).

You can pick an activity that’s closely related to the subject you wish to concentrate in during college, or you can go for something that’s more of a side hobby of yours.

Whatever you choose, let it be something where you’re genuinely enjoying using your mind and not just faking it.

One for Fun

You know what? Take part in something that doesn’t have any direct connection to the subjects you’re learning.

This can be a cultural or religious club, something related to the arts like photography or theatre, or a club that’s purely about a diversionary activity like video games or cooking.

Once again, these clubs can be a great opportunity to demonstrate commitment and initiative, and if your school doesn’t have a club you want, try to make it happen.

But even beyond this, colleges want students who still have interests outside of academics – they want well-rounded citizens of the world.

Raise Your Hand and Step Up

This is toward the back because it’s not typically a school-sanctioned extracurricular, but volunteerism can make or break your high-school résumé.

Volunteering combines virtually all of the qualities colleges are looking for: initiative, commitment, leadership, responsibility, a sense of being part of a community, a desire to make the world a better place, and a drive to fulfill your sense of duty even if it means you don’t get paid.

Volunteerism doesn’t necessarily have to be about picking up trash or building houses. If you’re clever (and colleges like it when you’re clever), you might be able to figure out how to take something you’re passionate about and share it with your community.

This can range from entertaining the elderly; helping the sick, disabled, or impoverished access your hobby; or starting a program from scratch that teaches kids about your area of expertise.

Once again, the quality of work is superior to the quantity of work.

Work Backwards, or Look Forwards?

This is a decision that can help you decide which extracurriculars to take. Should you be choosing extracurriculars to please the college you want to attend or should you look for colleges who will be pleased by your choice of extracurriculars?

If it’s the first one, you can look into what skills a specific college values and choose your activities accordingly.

If you just want to choose what activities you think are best for you now and see which colleges match best with that, then follow your heart.

There is no right answer here, just a preference for long-term or short-term goals.

No Excuses (But Good Explanations)

Extracurricular activities take time, and time is a finite commodity. It’s entirely possible for you to not have time to take all the extracurriculars you’d like.

Perhaps you have a job or you have to study harder and longer to boost your grades? Maybe you even have to help a family member with a persistent problem or maybe you have a persistent problem yourself?

Those are good reasons to not load up on extracurriculars, and good things to let colleges know. Find a way to convey those obstacles to the colleges where you’re applying. This can be either in an application essay, on your high school résumé itself, or perhaps you can find a creative way to tell them the rest of us can’t even imagine what you’re going through.

This does not have to come across as a desperate attempt at saving face if you can turn it into an opportunity.

If asked, tell them about the lessons you’ve learned and the problems you’ve solved as a consequence of that experience. Explain how even though it was tough, it made you a better person in a way you may never have become if you didn’t go through it.

Use it to prove you’re more prepared for the college’s institution of higher learning specifically. Once again, it all boils down to selling yourself.


By the way, if you’re still looking for an answer to a specific club to join, try to get into the National Honor Society. You need to maintain good grades to be selected, but if you can manage it, you’ll be a shoo-in anywhere.