What Role Do Activities Play in College Admissions?

May 23, 2019

When you look at success stories of students who made it to the college of their dreams, they all seem to share several standout qualities: 4.0 GPAs and near-perfect standardized test scores, to name a few.

But academics alone is not all that distinguishes these students, who appear to have clawed their way to the top of the pack. Their resumes, which are often long and storied, are typically packed with activities.

“Your transcript tells colleges whether you’re a good student or not,” said counselor Olivia Beck. “Getting involved [in extracurricular activities] shows colleges who you are as a person.”

Every year, top-ranked universities with notoriously narrow acceptance rates are faced with thousands of applicants and must make decisions on the basis of the many applications that come across their desks.

Therefore, many students go to the effort of making their application as distinguishable as possible. Extracurricular activities, such as clubs and sports, are one way to accomplish that.

“I feel that the attention is shifting away from standardized testing and colleges began to look more at a person holistically,” said junior Noor El-Gazairly, who participates in several extracurriculars such as the school’s dive team, Model United Nations and Young Democrats, as well as volunteer activities and an internship at the High Museum of Art.

While a student’s academic record is undeniably imperative in the college admissions process, their interests outside of the classroom can inform colleges about their interests, work ethic, and leadership skills.

“Their behavior and conduct outside of a school setting, especially shown through their clubs, plays a huge role,” said Beck.

A question that often gets raised when discussing extracurriculars’ roles in the application process is breadth vs. depth or quality vs. quantity: do colleges want someone who is well-rounded and does activities in many different areas or someone who has devoted much of their time to one subject area?

According to the U.S. News and World Report, a media outlet best known for publishing its highly influential annual “Best Colleges” list of the nation’s top-ranked postsecondary schools, “the quality of a college hopeful’s extracurricular activities matters more than the number of activities he or she participates in.”

Beck believes it ultimately comes down to one’s level of investment in their activities.

“Anyone can go to a couple of meetings and say that they’re in that club, but really digging into it carries a lot of weight,” said Beck.

“It looks really good because it shows that you’re able to commit to things and follow through, but it also shows that you’re able to have an impact and show what you’ve learned,” she said.

From a student perspective, being a part of various extracurriculars is a way to show that they are passionate about something outside of school, and differentiates them amongst the applicant pool.

“If you’re lacking extracurriculars, even when you have amazing grades, you need to show that you’re passionate about something,” said sophomore Shir Halfon, who is a part of several clubs at the school including Mock Trial, SkillsUSA and the National English Honors Society in addition to a job outside of school.

Many clubs are also geared towards students’ future career aspirations, which can also certainly help if they are applying to certain collegiate programs.

“When I think about what my clubs are all about, they’re all stuff I’m genuinely interested in. Like Mock trial, I want to be a lawyer,” said Halfon.

And for students who are genuinely passionate about a certain subject area and are sure of what they want to pursue through college and beyond, being in certain extracurriculars is a great way to convey their dedication.

“I have a genuine interest and drive in all branches of my extracurriculars. While I can admit that some clubs look great on applications, I truly enjoy doing them,” said El-Gazairly.

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