Extracurricular Activities The Secret to College Acceptance & Getting Hired After Graduation
Playing the flute, running cross country, being captain of the debate team, or editing the school yearbook: While these are all great examples of extracurricular activities (EAs) available at high schools and colleges throughout America, some students may be thrilled to know that this is just a small sample of what counts as an EA. An EA is just about any activity that doesn’t take place in a classroom and doesn’t count toward school credit.
Aside from offering students many opportunities they may not have otherwise, extracurriculars help admissions panels and hiring managers get a clearer, more robust understanding of who a candidate is and what they bring to the table. These activities can even be the deciding factor when it comes to getting a spot at a school or workplace. Learn more about choosing activities and deciding on quality versus quantity before gaining insider knowledge from our expert.
Extracurricular Activities in High School & College Admissions
As admissions processes become more competitive at well-ranked colleges and universities, many students may be wondering how they should go about selecting extracurricular activities and what qualities stand out to admissions panels when reviewing hundreds of applications.
Expectations of college admission boards and officers regarding qualities they deem important when considering the extracurricular activities of applicants share similarities across the board. Some of the best extracurricular activities show that a student has:
Sought opportunities to build or expand leadership qualities
Examples: attending leadership summits, stepping up during critical moments, admitting mistakes and lessons learned from them
Served less fortunate members of a community
Examples: helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity, volunteering photography skills for a non-profit thrift store
Exhibited measurable and concrete examples of making a difference
Examples: providing the number of peers a student tutored, verifiable statistics showing improvement as an athlete
Developed a new skill or talent
Examples: learning a new instrument, gaining a certain level of fluency in a foreign language
Expanded his or her horizons
Examples: traveling in America or abroad with the goal of learning about a culture, successfully reading a set number of books over a period of time
I should pick activities that encourage and further develop my natural talents and passions.
Insider’s Tip: Rather than trying to guess what you think an admissions officer wants to see, be true to yourself and your interests. Hint: that’s what they actually want!
Above all else, schools want to see that I can juggle school and activities, so I should participate in as many extracurriculars as humanly possible.
Insider’s Tip: “Don’t overload” advises Janet Lavin Rapelye, the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University.
It’s a good idea to change my activities often so admissions panels see the breadth of my interests.
Insider’s Tip: Aside from staying true to your interests, the second most important thing admissions panels looks for is long-term dedication.
Stepping up to a leadership or officer position speaks far more loudly than just being part of an activity.
Insider’s Tip: Admissions panels read between the lines and quickly determine how active you actually were in all those extracurriculars you listed, and they’re far more interested in knowing that you didn’t just show up to check a box.
I love photography and can tell I’m improving, but that activity probably isn’t impressive to admission panels so I’m going to stop doing it.
Insider’s Tip: Extracurriculars are defined as any activity outside of class that a student doesn’t receive credit for, and admissions panels are interested in any and all things that you love doing.
There are lots of things considered extracurricular activities that don’t happen at school.
Insider’s Tip: Whether you work a summer job, take part in equestrian events on the weekends, or are working on a science project in your garage, these all count as extracurricular activities that count when it comes to college admissions.
What do EAs mean to admissions?Extracurricular activities…
…provide insight into a student’s motivation and driving passions
…demonstrate their ability to balance academics and activities
…highlight whether or not a student takes initiative to have more responsibility/leadership roles
…help panels understand any time constraints such as a job or taking care of a sibling
…offer clues as to what they will bring to the university’s student body
Quality vs quantity of EAs in college admissions
What an admissions panel thinks when
they see a large number of EAs
Lack of focus
High potential for burnout
Inability to commit to something long-term
Doesn’t understand their talents or passions
They think this will be impressive
Higher possibility of grades suffering
What an admissions panel thinks when they
see 1-3 EAs the student fully engaged with
High levels of focus and determination
Self-possessed and confident of their talents
Demonstrable growth during their period of involvement
Capable of being responsible and leading
Has researched what panels actually want to see
Knows it’s important to balance school and EAs
Extracurricular Activities in College and Employment
Extracurricular activities may be more heavily weighed as students transition from high school to college, but that doesn’t mean hiring managers gloss over how students spent their time in higher education. Professionals in this arena recognize that it’s one thing to learn the skills and knowledge needed to perform a job in a classroom yet quite another to apply them to real-world tasks. And more often than not, the graduates getting called for second interviews and receiving job offers are those who filled their spare time with activities that complemented their future goals.
The value of classroom learning can’t be underestimated, but practical, hands-on experience gained by participating in EAs doesn’t go unnoticed. Some of the skills and qualities a student may gain from these opportunities that will benefit them in a career include:
- Working with different types of people
- Time management
- Giving feedback
- Travel experience
- Ability to follow instructions
captaining a group project, serving as a Panhellenic officer, organizing a peaceful protest against unfair university policies
engagement with campus organizations or clubs where teamwork is a central pillar, team sports
volunteering at a local nonprofit because you believe it’s your responsibility as a citizen, maintaining good grades
contributing articles to the student newspaper, blogging, participating in a speech club
overcoming a situation that didn’t go as planned, reworking a project when resources are limited or unavailable, being able to see the end goal and working toward it
Source: National Association of Colleges & Employers
It’s important to list every EA I took part in so recruiters understand the breadth of my experience.
Although you may look back on your knitting club fondly, if this activity isn’t directly relatable to requirements of the job, take it out. Lengthy resumes top the list of turn-offs for hiring managers.
Even if I don’t have time for an extensive range of EAs, I should make time for an internship.
A recent study by NACE found that 60 percent of employers favor students with internship experience.
It’s enough to participate in an extracurricular without striving for a leadership role.
While a few extracurriculars are better than none, students who demonstrate commitment to their activities by taking on responsibilities are more memorable.
If I’m only going to do a few extracurriculars, I should focus on those directly related to my future goals. (F)
Building skills in your chosen career is important, but employers also want to know that you have a giving spirit. Roles focused on providing public service or volunteerism let them know you’re a good person on top of being qualified.
Longevity matters when it comes to the activities I list on my resume.
Remember that recruitment managers view your EA list with an eye to what kind of employee you’ll be. If you jumped around from group to group, what does that say about how long you’ll stay with the company?
EAs for Job Seekers
Candidate never found their real passion
High potential for burnout
Inability to commit to something long-term
Should have done an internship instead of joining all these clubs
Do they think this will impress me?
I don’t really know who this person is based on these EAs, because they’re too disjointed
Focused and determined
Not afraid of hard, sustained work
The candidate has grown their talents during their x years with this activity
Knows how to be a leader and a team player
The activities they participated in are well-aligned to the job for which they applied
The candidate understands their strengths and weaknesses
Types of Extracurricular Activities
The number of extracurricular activities available to high school and college students is seemingly endless, ranging from astronomy club to yearbook committee. Regardless of a student’s emerging or established interests, there’s probably a fascinating activity available to them.
High School Extracurricular Resources & Ideas
National Academic Quiz Tournaments
This national activity involves regular practice sessions with teammates at school and the opportunity for students to represent their high schools at regional and national tournaments.
Whether ladling soup at a local food bank or hosting a canned food drive at school, this activity shows a student’s devotion to helping those less fortunate.
Organizations like the National Speech & Debate Association arrange opportunities for high school students to develop skills related to research, structuring an argument, debate and public speaking.
Aside from band, most schools have additional music activities such as chamber choir, Asian music, or guitar club. Depending on the activities of the club, students may have the opportunity to perform concerts.
National Honor Societies
Aside from the National Honor Society which is open to high school students in grades 10-12, there is also the Math Honor Society and the Science National Honors Society available at many high schools. These are an excellent option for students considering academically-rigorous universities.
Helping fellow learners understand material and raise their grades speaks to a student’s team spirit, passion for giving back, and their academic accomplishments. Students considering future careers in education can really benefit from this activity.
Opportunities for students considering a degree or career related to journalism, public relations, communications or even business benefit from the chance to hone skills in public speaking, management, advertising and writing provided by a high school radio station.
This national science competition ranges from K-12 and includes opportunities for students to compete against each other, both in their own schools and at regional and national competitions.
A great opportunity for students considering roles in leadership, government, or business, senates are comprised of students acting as conduits between school leadership and the larger student body. These roles teach students how to identify needs, listen, work with leadership, and enact change.
Helping pull off the yearbook is a fun yet educational experience for students who take full advantage of the opportunity. Aside from learning crucial lessons about deadlines, students can also build skills in working with lots of people, reaching a consensus, writing, editing, photography, and design.
Ideas for College Extracurricular Activities
These activities are typically held at the start of each semester and allow students to see the breadth of extracurricular activities available to them, including clubs or career paths they may not even know exist.
Whether it’s an icebreaker activity, movie night or dormitory social, freshman activities offer the opportunity to interact with new students, learn about their interests and build friendships.
Sororities and fraternities abound on college campuses and provide students with an arena to build lifelong friendships and participate in worthwhile activities as a group. Students looking to take on leadership roles can run for roles with interfraternity and Panhellenic councils to bring the various groups together.
Not all majors require an internship component, but they are an excellent way to build skills in a student’s chosen career path, network with prospective employers, and put their theoretical knowledge into practical use.
Just because a student isn’t on a college team doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a bit of fun exercise and comradery. Intramural teams run the gamut between basketball and wallybal. Northeastern University even has an intramural quidditch team for Harry Potter enthusiasts.
Welcoming new students to college, familiarizing them with campus, and showing them all the things that makes the school so great are just a few of the activities that orientation guides get to do. These roles are great for student leaders interested in building skills in teamwork, collaboration, higher education administration and leadership.
Much like student senates in high school, college-level student government associations are comprised of student leaders in various roles who serve as the voice of the student body. They work with students to identify initiatives or areas of work before going to the school’s leadership with proposals for action. A great choice for students interested in government.
Regardless of whether or not a student’s degree is internationally-focused, study abroad allows them to experience different cultures and ways of learning while meeting other students from around the world. Prospective employers look favorably on this experience as it provides different ways of thinking and problem-solving.
English, journalism, communications, graphic design and public relations students can frequently be found at the school newspaper office, and for good reason. This activity allows them to take real ownership of projects, develop their voice and create important content that can be featured on their resumes.
Whether volunteering as part of a student organization or independently, giving back to the community is always looked upon favorably by for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike. These opportunities also allow students the chance to build skills they may not gain in the classroom and interact with diverse populations.
Why Extracurriculars Matter
Aside from impressing college admissions panels and recruitment professionals, extracurricular activities often leave lifelong imprints on students and provide countless opportunities and benefits – both while they’re participating and for years to come.
Activities such as student government allow students to interact with school leaders who are often well-connected in the community, while school radio and newspaper positions mean students get to meet a variety of professionals in many different areas of work.
Internships & Jobs
Whether it’s through networking, volunteering, or an activity, students participating in extracurriculars have the opportunity to impress professionals and may be tapped for an internship or even a job.
Some of the best friendships form over shared causes or interests as students work together to win a game, debate an opposing team, volunteer at a local shelter or challenge leadership over an unfair policy.
Students participating in competitions – be they Model United Nations, speech and debate, or a science tournament – often get to travel both near and far if they’ve got a winning team.
Students may spend less time studying, but the U.S. Department of Education reports that those who take part in extracurriculars are three times more likely to have a 3.0 GPA or higher.
Leadership opportunities come in a variety of forms, including roles as captain of an intramural team, bandleader, debate chair or student government president. These early experiences in leadership help students identify the type of manager they want to be and build self-confidence for the real world.
Working as a group often exposes students to different viewpoints, ways of working, personality types and temperaments. Although it may not always be a smooth journey, these opportunities are invaluable when it comes to navigating team projects later in life.
Small budgets, lack of time and limited experience can all be problems for high-school and college-level activities, but resourceful students who can find ways to cut costs, delegate tasks, and call in skillful help will catch the attention of admissions and recruitment professionals when the time comes.
Students don’t often have a lot of free time after class, homework, and studying, but those who participate in activities and develop strong time management will benefit from this skill throughout their personal and professional lives.
Application of Classroom Learning
It’s one thing to learn about discrete math or government proceedings, but another thing to be able to use that knowledge in real-world settings. Students active in extracurriculars are able to apply their learning in meaningful ways.
Serving as editor of the school newspaper, participating in a choral concert or offering graphic design services to a nonprofit are all great ways to build your resume and stand out among new graduates.
Regardless of the personal and professional benefits of extracurriculars, the opportunities to contribute something meaningful to your fellow human, better your community and engender a spirit of goodwill greatly enrich any person’s life.
All work and no play can be hard on a student’s physical and mental wellbeing, but sporty activities allow them to step away from the books, have fun and get those endorphins moving.
Organizing Your Extracurricular Activities
For many students, the Common Application section devoted to extracurricular activities can create anxiety, especially if they feel they haven’t done enough to stand out. The important thing to remember when wracking your brain is that extracurricular activities take many forms, including those you may not initially consider. Most extracurriculars are organized by schools, but that doesn’t mean they are the only ones.
Remember: extracurricular activities include anything you’ve done that wasn’t in the classroom and doesn’t constitute school credit. This is an especially important rule of thumb for homeschooled students who often have many different interests and activities that aren’t organized by a school.
Some things to consider when assessing if a certain interest or activity can be counted include:
Has a job or family commitment kept you from being fully engaged in a school-sponsored activity?
Although these crucial responsibilities may not be traditional extracurriculars, they are well worth including as they demonstrate qualities such responsibility, work ethic, time management, discipline and motivation.
Is there a hobby you spend a lot of time doing?
These activities may include playing the guitar, hiking, taking photographs, sewing, woodworking, running or even collecting stamps. Regardless of the actual activity, these things highlight your natural passions and desires to learn.
How do you spend your summers?
Maybe it’s mowing yards to make some extra money or traveling internationally to broaden your worldview. So long as you didn’t sit in front of a television or play video games for three months, activities from the summer can often translate to an extracurricular.
Once students have a list of their most compelling activities, it’s time to find the best way of conveying the work they did. Tips for ensuring admissions panels and human resource managers understand each activity include:
Unless it’s a well-known extracurricular such as golfing or the National Honor Society, provide a brief description.
Describe your involvement in clear, succinct language in an active voice. Passive verbs are not your friend in these descriptions.
Consider dividing your activities into categories for better organization.
Include the amount of time you were involved in the activity, including an average number of hours you took part each week or month.
Remember that your personal essay and list of extracurriculars should not repeat each other. Although you may focus on a specific, meaningful activity in your essay, try to keep the information and examples unique to both.
After creating a list and using descriptive and persuasive language to describe activities, students need to drill down further and discuss each on a micro level. By talking about the intricacies of their work, students convey to readers the nuances of the activity and an awareness of what they can bring to a college campus or workplace. Questions to answer about each extracurricular include:
Some things to consider when assessing if a certain interest or activity can be counted include:
What did you do?
This is the place to move away from general explanations and provide examples of actual tasks. Rather than saying you helped with advertising for yearbook committee, talk about individual tasks such as calling donors, layout out logos or writing thank you letters.
What problems did you help solve?
Were you responsible for writing a letter to senior leadership on behalf of student government? Did you create a better way of organizing a food drive? Approach this question from a solution-based orientation to show how you can identify and fix problems.
What was the impact of the activity?
Whether quantifiable or qualifiable, measuring the work you did in some way provides concrete data to help readers understand your contributions.
What did you learn that will help you be a great student or employee?
Time to put all of that work in context by demonstrating an awareness of what you learned. If you were part of speech and debate, this is the space to discuss how it made you better at public speaking or helped you develop advanced research skills.
The following table provides examples of activities that students should strive to include. Creating your own table is a great way to organize notes and thoughts before translating the information into an essay or scholarship application.
2 years, 1-2 hours each weekRoles held
Business manager and writer
I worked with a group of friends to bring this national journalism program to my school. As business manager, I partner with senior leadership to offer our services in areas of website development, radio broadcasts, and newsletter writing. I’m currently writing a story for the front page of our school newspaper.
3 years, 1 hour each weekRoles held
Secretary and photographer
My role as secretary means I keep notes during meetings and help create activities for us to better our photography skills. I photograph school events and many of my photos have been used in our publications.
1 year, 2-4 hours per monthRoles held
I volunteer with this nonprofit to help elementary and middle school students enhance their skills in reading and writing. So far I’ve worked with 27 students and counting.
I won this award based on my 4.0 GPA, involvement in journalism clubs, and commitment to participating in community service initiatives.
Teachers bestow this award on students in the top two percent of their individual classes. I received the award for being at the top in English, American History, and Journalism.
3 years, summersRoles held
During the summers I work at my family’s beloved ice-cream stand in our town. It’s a great way to meet lots of different people and save money for college.
Choosing Extracurricular Activities
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, high school students shouldn’t stress out about picking activities they think admissions panels want to see. Rather, they should try to align activities to their interests and passions. When looking at the roster of activities for incoming students at most schools, they run the gamut from chess captain to swimmer and yearbook editor to viola player.
The most important thing a student can do is try to find activities they enjoy and stick with them. Sustained interest and moving into leadership roles speaks well about a candidate’s dedication and focus. By digging deeply into a few activities, students both demonstrate their devotion and don’t stretch themselves too thin between activities and schoolwork.
When thinking about extracurricular activities to engage in at the postsecondary level, students first need to consider future goals. Do they plan on moving straight into a job after school or perhaps completing a graduate program? A report by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that 23 percent of hiring managers valued internships the most, with employment during college (21 percent), volunteer experience (12 percent), and on-campus extracurriculars (10 percent) trailing.
Regardless of future plans, there are many activities both on and off campus that help students gain experience – and potentially make contacts – in their chosen field. Attending career and club fairs hosted by the university is a great way to get a quick overview of all a college has to offer, but students can also scan social media or check out bulletin boards in academic buildings and dormitories to learn about organizations or upcoming events.
In addition to activities correlated to a degree, hiring managers also want to see well-rounded students who value both self-improvement and helping others. There are lots of organizations catering to these interests, including those focused on multiculturalism, encouraging diversity, fighting against social injustices and furthering LGBTQ rights.
As is true with high school students, college students must find the balance between their studies, responsibilities outside school, and activities. Remember that extracurriculars are important, but so are good grades.
Expert Advice on Extracurricular Activities
Anne Macleod Weeks is a graduate of Lawrence and Villanova Universities. She has been an educational administrator and English teacher for 38 years, specializing in college admissions. Ms. Weeks has been a leader in the college admission and Advanced Placement arenas and has published on pertinent educational topics in a variety of national papers and journals. She also blogs for a career launch firm for college student and recent graduates.
What is your advice for students trying to decide between quantity and quality when it comes to extracurricular activities?
AFor both high school and college, quality should prevail. The ultimate goal is to demonstrate passion, commitment, maturity and leadership. High school students should choose one or two extracurriculars (beyond sports, if they are an athlete) to which they will devote themselves for all four years of high school. College admission officers see a four-year commitment as an indication of discipline and maturity, plus it demonstrates a passion for the activity. Students who spread themselves thin with too many activities will find they don’t do anything as well as they would with fewer commitments on which to focus their time and energy. College students should attempt to match their extracurriculars with their eventual career interest or at least match the skills they will learn to what will be logically applicable in a job environment. They should also seek internship opportunities to enhance their resumes for the eventual job search.
How can students pick extracurricular activities that will be impressive to admissions panels and job recruiters?
AThe activity is not as important as what the student does with the activity. Being an Eagle Scout is impressive, but there are plenty of boy scouts who accomplish this goal. However, if the student does a project for his Eagle award that is unique, demonstrates a passion, is somehow connected to academic interests, and indicates leadership, he will stand out in the admission process. Similarly, a college student who organizes a campus food bank is interesting. More impressive will be taking it a step further and creating a mobile food bank on weekends throughout the town that also offers onsite health check-ins by senior class nursing students.
Do you have any tips for how to list and explain their extracurricular activities on an application or resume?
AStudents should always list the activities in the order of what they most enjoy. This indicates not only where their passions lie, but it also tells the admission panels/recruiters something about the character and personality of the student.
Extracurricular Facts and Statistics
- Six of out every 10 students in K-12 participate in at least one extra-curricular activity.
- According to a survey of parents, 53 percent said their kids had done volunteer work in the last year.
- 70 percent of today’s CEOs held at least one office in an extracurricular activity while in school.
- The most popular extracurricular activity for K-12 students is sports, with 35 percent of all learners taking part. Tied for second place with 29 percent each are clubs and lesson-style activities such as dance, language, and music.
- Students who completed internships garnered salaries that were on average $2,240 higher than their peers who did not intern.
Sources: Census.gov, Pew.org, BYU.edu, FractusLearning.com
Extracurricular Help & Resources
Scholastic helps parents find the best extracurriculars for their child based on interests and future goals.
Although this list is specific to Oklahoma, homeschooled students looking for information about activities to take part in should research a similar program in their state.
Although this is a specific example of a school system, it provides a helpful guide as to what students should be able to find on their local school website in terms of information about extracurriculars.
NASC represents student councils for middle and high school students throughout America. If you want one at your school, this is the place to start.
CollegeBoard provides this extensive guide for students looking to align their interests to extracurricular activities.
Bentley University highlights the best reasons for continuing your extracurricular activities at the college level.
This national organization provides an overarching body for student government councils across the United States.
Gathered by the U.S. Department of Education, this is a great list for students seeking organizations focused on future professional endeavors.
Monster provides a nuanced review of the type of activities that will stand out to professionals with the power to hire you.
Students looking for a holistic view of factors to consider when picking activities at the collegiate level can find lots of good tips in this article by PrepScholar.