How to Manage your Extracurricular Activities

First, Let's Define (and separate) Extracurricular and Volunteering.

"Extracurricular" generally means any activities not involved with academics, however for purposes of college admissions they have come to be a sub-category of extra-curricular.

So, extracurricular refers to those non-academic activities that involve things like sports, the school paper, dance, theater, music, leadership, yearbook, student body offices and possibly part-time jobs.

on the other hand, means those things you do to help others, sometimes the less fortunate. The word that means unselfish regard for others as a principle of action is Altruism. (Think SAT Vocab.)

This group includes working with seniors, volunteering at animal shelters, working with disabled, volunteering with children's groups, coaching children in sports programs, and other similar activities.

A note about "Extracurricular", especially sports. Grades and test scores still represent the most important part of your college application. Three sports during a school year, for instance, is excessive, and will impact your grades and your test scores. In addition, one cannot imagine that the great thinkers of civilization grew up with no time to dream and reflect.

An important part of maturation is achieving a balance in your life. Having no time to start your home work until after two sport practices a day, you get home after 8:00 P.M., eat, and start your homework.

Unless you are good enough for college recruiting, one sport for fall, and one for spring, minimizing the overlap, and a consistent record of volunteering, with one or two long-term activities will fill your college requirements. In addition, join high school clubs and look for leadership positions.

Music: All studies tell us that music is the single best activity for brain development. Band students have collectively the highest GPA of all high school groups. Don't neglect other aspects of your college preparation, such as a spring sport, and community or school volunteering.

Managing academics, extracurricular activities and volunteering(all at once):

Freshman Year:

Now that you are a high school freshman, life is a bit different. Grades count, extracurricular activities count, and success in high school will affect your choices of colleges.

In your first year, get a handle on the academic part of your high school education, and begin to think about extracurricular and volunteer activities that might interest you. (Link to suggestions)

You have more freedom in high school. Use it wisely. If, for instance, you allow yourself to be sucked into using drugs or alcohol, you may be compromising your possibilities for good grades and college choices. In addition, you may cause yourself physical, emotional, or academic damage that can take years to undo.

Sound preachy? It is easier to keep it together, and maintain your best chances to have all the options available to you than to try to put your life together later with bad grades, psychological problems, and limited options.

Sophomore/Junior Years:

Time to narrow down your extracurricular activities. Hopefully in ninth grade you got a chance to sample some of the many activities that your high school offers. Maybe you didn't stick with all of them, but at least you tried them out. In the meantime, check out community activities as well. Many communities offer year-round, or summer programs for children, and children usually love to work with high school students- who are, in their eyes, the coolest people around. Don't overlook activities involving seniors, disabled, and animals.

By the time you're in the 10th Grade, it's a good idea to start thinking about how those extracurricular and volunteer activities are going to play a role in your college application, and to begin acquiring some continuity in your extracurricular/volunteering choices.

So soon? Yes.

Check out Volunteering (A special category of Extracurricular activity)

  • Join or remain in organizations that interest you or that you enjoy.
  • Quit organizations that waste your time or that are of no interest to you.
  • Focus on organizations that allow you to develop, give you responsibility,

You already know that colleges want students who are capable of doing college-level work. They also want students who are interesting and involved with their community and their school. To a large extent, a college's opinion of how you would fit with their school will be determined by what you do when you're not in class. Your extracurricular activities can play a big part in distinguishing you from other applicants and determining your chances for admission.

I am not suggesting that you join or quit organizations simply because it will help or hurt you in college admissions. If you enjoy an activity, by all means keep doing it (as long as you're also able to get good grades!). On the other hand, as you evaluate which and how many activities you're going to pursue, you should understand the way that college admissions officers at selective and especially highly selective colleges will look at you.

Here are the facts:

1. Quantity is less important than quality and commitment

Some students think that the way to impress an admissions officer is to sign up for every activity their school offers. No. This is not a good idea. Colleges are not impressed by students with one of everything on their applications. one year of cheerleading, one year of yearbook, and one year of soccer.

You're much better off if you're deeply involved in just a few activities that you remain committed to year after year.

Colleges want to see students who rise to leadership positions in interesting extracurricular activities. They want to see a student who is sports reporter for the school newspaper as a freshman, assistant sports editor as a sophomore, managing editor as a junior, and editor-in-chief as a senior.

The way to impress an admissions officer is to demonstrate that you can stick with something long enough to excel and to demonstrate a commitment. You want to show that you can be a leader.

This doesn't mean you can't become involved in lots of different activities. To the extent that it's possible, you should try lots of different activities in which you have a genuine interest. But by the end of sophomore year, you might consider narrowing your activities to the ones you truly want to pursue, and then give those activities a high priority for your last two years of high school.

2. All extracurricular activities are not equally impressive.

Ultimately, you need to be involved in activities that you enjoy and that you are good at, but you do need to understand that college admissions officers tend to look favorably on students who are involved in any of the following activities:

  • Student newspaper, especially in leadership positions

  • Yearbook

  • Student government, especially if you hold an office

  • Choir, band, or orchestra, especially if you are a soloist or a first-chair

  • Varsity sports, particularly if you are a captain, MVP, or an all-star of some kind

  • Leadership positions with substantial time commitment in organizations or community service activities

  • Activities with a special significance at your school or in your community. If the Homecoming Queen is the most important person at your school, more important than the president of the Student Council, and you are the Homecoming Queen, then of course it's a big deal

  • Anything unusual that took a lot of time and effort, such as organizing a major community service project, founding a new club at school and seeing it through, being a volunteer firefighter, Eagle Scouts

  • All-state anything, national competitions

    3. Remember why colleges are interested in extracurricular activities.

    • Colleges are most interested in students who do interesting things, stick with them, and rise to positions of leadership in them. Beyond this, they are most interested in activities that show you have the respect of your peers.

    • You should be careful about putting too much emphasis on activities that don't bring you into contact with other people such as hiking or other frequently solitary activities. These are great activities and they're worth pursuing, but be sure you're also doing things that demonstrate your ability to be a leader and get along with groups of people.

    • Balanced, well-rounded individuals are desirable to colleges. Colleges also look for your involvement in activities that reinforce academic or other goals that you mention in your application. If you plan to say in your college application that writing is very important to you, you should emphasize activities that gave you opportunities to write. If planning to major in Sports Management, some experience working with school or city sports teams would indicate more than a fleeting interest in this field. Those planning medical careers might consider working or volunteering in activities connected with your area of interest-veterinary medicine, pediatrics, hospital administration, or other related medical disciplines.

    • Many colleges offer summer programs centered around college preparation, SATs, sports programs, or career goals. While some are a bit pricey, some offer scholarships to worthy students, and obviously it is an activity of interest in your application "portfolio."

    • Extracurricular activities can make up for less-than-perfect grades, but only a little. Read that last sentence a couple of times. Colleges look for a balance, but that does not mean that you can explain away bad grades by saying you were busy with community activities:

      Students who are deeply involved in extracurricular activities often find that their grades suffer as a result. Admissions officers understand this, but don't believe for a minute that your list of activities will make up for mediocre grades. If you want to attend a highly selective college, remember that there are a lot of high school students out there who are both editors of their newspapers and straight-A students.

    • Don't overextend yourself to the point where your grades tank. It's one thing for your grades to go down slightly the week that you are in Washington D.C. participating in National Competition Civics, or you are leading your debate team to the state championship. It's quite another thing for your grades to suffer for an entire semester.

      Colleges might forgive slight declines in grades due to extraordinary extracurricular accomplishments, but they'll think you've got your priorities messed up if your grades go down significantly.

      Do not wait until your senior year to begin your volunteering.

  • What if I have to work?

    • After-school jobs can be impressive, significant activities.

    • If you can't take part in extracurricular activities because you have to work after school, you won't necessarily be at a disadvantage.

    Work can be an impressive activity, and you should think about your job in the same way we've told you to think about your other extracurricular activities. You can use your job to convey what a good college candidate you are.

    As with other extracurricular activities, the best after-school jobs are the ones you stick with for an extended period and ones in which you rise to positions of responsibility. Unusual or creative jobs are better than ordinary, after-school, minimum-wage drudgery. If you have the choice (and not everyone does), try to choose a job that gives you skills that are valuable and useful.

    Does it matter why I work?

    • If you have to work so that your family can make ends meet, be sure to make this known in your college applications. Helping to support a family is a serious, adult responsibility, and it demonstrates maturity, character, and motivation.

    • If the money you earn after school goes for luxuries like expensive clothes, a $400.00 coach bag and a new stereo, you need to be a little careful about your after-school job.

    • Some students become so wrapped up in earning money that they lose all interest in activities offered by or associated with their schools. A student who helps his family make ends meet looks like a good prospect to an admissions officer; a student who misses out on school government because he's working to meet payments on a new car may not.

    Consider choosing activities based on potential careers or majors

    If you are strongly interested in a particular career or major, then consider activities, jobs, or community service opportunities that allow you to explore that field. That way, if you later decide that you want to pursue the career or major, you'll have some background experience in it already.

    On the other hand, if the activity, job, or service project makes you realize you're not interested at all in that field, then it's a good lesson to learn while you're still in high school. Try to live life deliberately and consciously. Rather than picking a random summer job, why not pick one that allows you to build on your interests or explore a career?

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