Extracurriculars – The Right Mix

SC Test Prep

Over the next several months, millions of students across the country and thousands here in Spartanburg County will fill out college applications. Almost all of them will ask, in one form or another, about involvement in high school extracurricular activities. The weight and consideration given to a student’s answers varies from institution to institution, but extracurricular involvement matters in college admissions and financial aid. This is particularly true if you are applying to small-to-medium sized liberal arts colleges, especially selective ones.

So, how does a conscientious student or parent know? How do you know if you have “enough” extracurricular activities for the school? How do you know if you’re involved in the right things? What if (and this concern is all too real) you’re just wasting your time? If you’ve asked yourself these questions or something like them, this post is for you.

I touched on this topic last spring and it remains true that admission counselors are looking for significant, sustained involvement within a focused group of activities and interests rather than a broad but shallow sampling of a dozen or more organizations. For most counselors and schools, this type of significant involvement begins with one commitment on the part of the student of at least 15-20 hours per week for 16-20 weeks each year. What the activity is isn’t quite so important – varsity athletics, marching band, newspaper or yearbook staffs, regular volunteer work, or even, and sometimes most especially, a job, will all typically suffice. What is important is that the student is demonstrating commitment and passion and that they are capable of juggling a busy schedule while maintaining their grades and responsibilities.

After a student’s primary extracurricular activity (which should always be listed first on an application), most are looking for 3-5 additional activities which should be listed in a descending order based on time commitment. Usually, a student’s secondary commitment should still be 10-15 hours per week for at least 10-12 weeks per year. For many students, options like a secondary sport or club team, drama, chorus, orchestra, student government, or a leadership role in a club or organization will fill this role on an application with lesser involvement in another of the choices listed fitting solidly into the space for a third activity on an application. Most students can afford to fill the remaining slots with basic membership or participation in clubs or organizations with a couple of caveats:

  • These guidelines vary depending on the college or university. If a school is more selective, a student needs to increase their extracurricular involvement accordingly to stand out with at least 2 commitments of 20+ hours each week and several instances of solid, significant involvement supporting those activities. These primary activities preferably will be split across fields, such as student government, varsity athletics, and yearbook editor. Moreover, be aware that at the most selective institutions this level of involvement is almost a prerequisite rather than just a point of strength on an application.

  • Please do not list or consider your membership in either Beta Club or the National Honor Society as an activity unless you hold a leadership position. Admission counselors know and remember just how little students must do to maintain that membership at most schools, so it does not impress them nor do they appreciate a student trying to stretch their participation into something it probably wasn’t.

Some final advice:

If you’re a sophomore or junior (or the parent of one), NOW is the time to start building the strength of extracurricular involvement. Start getting involved in different organizations and try something outside of your comfort zone. If you are a senior and your extracurricular résumé doesn’t look something like what I’ve described, realize that time is running out. Get involved now, because in a few weeks it will become increasingly obvious that you have signed up just to add to the extracurricular activities on your application.

Check back next week when I’ll be preparing you for the college fair most juniors and seniors in Spartanburg County will be attending on September 23 & 24, 2014, at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium.