Do Extracurriculars Matter in the College Admissions Process?

Last updated: Jun 19, 2019

High school students often wonder if extracurriculars matter in the college admissions process. The short answer is yes. But, before plunging into a longer answer about why they matter and what kinds of extracurricular activities you should pursue, consider that, for admissions officers, extracurriculars break into the Top 4 of must-haves for an applicant, but they do not outweigh what you do in the classroom or how you perform on entrance exams.

Students looking up volunteer options.

Where Do Extracurriculars Rank in Importance for College Admissions?

Despite some students’ panic about padding their applications with dozens of club treasurer roles and church mission trips in the hope of being accepted by their top-choice school, extracurriculars stand as a single factor in the package of attributes an admissions officer considers:

  • Grades/GPA showing an upward trend
  • Difficulty of course load
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Extracurricular activities
  • College essay
  • Letters of recommendations
  • Interview

There is good evidence for basing admission decisions more heavily on academic performance than on how many hours you volunteered at a triathlon or how many weekends you devoted to building a homecoming float. According to research cited in The Atlantic, the students who perform best in college are those who have good grades in high school. That’s why your transcripts are a better indicator of your college potential than either your extracurricular activities or your entrance exam scores.

While extracurriculars land on the middle rung of the importance ladder and cannot substitute for good grades and solid test scores, several studies indicate that students who participate in extracurriculars have better attendance, achieve higher SAT scores, and have higher GPAs than students who opt out of after-school activities. Pursuing extracurriculars also demonstrates several key qualities to an admissions officer:

  • Drive
  • Commitment
  • Time management
  • Talent
  • Interest

What Counts as an Extracurricular?

Colleges are generous in their definition of extracurricular. An activity does not need to be endorsed by your high school to be a legitimate extracurricular. Working a part-time job, caring for an elderly relative, volunteering, or creating your own small business — dog walking, social media monitoring, selling your artwork online — can count as much as if not more than French club and jazz band if you can describe why the experience was meaningful, pertinent to your academic interests, or important to your growth as a human being. According to the College Board, schools look to extracurriculars to determine the characteristics you will add to their student body, such as leadership and a thoughtful commitment to service.

High school students work together on a class project.

Which is Better: Quality or Quantity?  

As your high school career progresses, you will become aware of a low-grade mania to accumulate a long brag sheet of school-sanctioned activities, such as yearbook staff and cross-country team. These can be valuable experiences. But you should not collect club meetings like seashells in a jar, to rattle proof of your extracurriculars at colleges. Schools consider extracurriculars only to learn more about you as a person, not to tally how many student council meetings or Brain Bowls you’ve amassed.

Before you raise your hand for the prom committee or audition for Little Shop of Horrors, consider if that extracurricular tells the authentic story of who you are. Then ask yourself these questions before joining in:

  • Will it build my character?
  • Will it expand my intellect?
  • Does it have meaning?
  • Will it help my family or support a public good?
  • Do I really care about it?

A four-year commitment to building sets for a children’s theater might be a stronger indicator of your talents, leadership, and follow-through than six random club meetings where all you did was show up for credit. According to a survey cited in U.S. News & World Report, “72 percent of admissions officers prefer that students be consistently involved with one issue over a variety of causes,” so focus on quality, not quantity. 

However, “quality extracurriculars” should not be taken as a hint to spend an exorbitant sum (or any money at all) for the privilege of the experience. It is not necessary to pay anything to support a nonprofit, and your resume gets no extra credit if you do charity work overseas in an exotic location. Make an impact in your own community. Your local homeless shelter or school literacy coalition would benefit happily from your time and, yes, admissions officers will take notice.

But, Really, How Many is Enough?

There is no perfect number of activities to list on your college application. That said, zero is not your best option (hobbies actually can merit extracurricular status, so consider that manga review site you built sophomore year a strong possibility). Shoot for three or four extracurriculars you care about deeply and don’t feel locked into the traditional troika of sports, student government, and service. Teaching yourself Polish to chat with the residents of a nursing home? It counts. Organizing a beach clean-up? It counts. Making enough money mowing lawns to buy your first car? It counts. The Common App offers only 10 slots for extracurriculars and has a character limit, so 10 seems like a good cut-off point for even overachievers.

Though colleges are not looking for a set number, they do expect you to articulate your purpose for participating in the extracurricular and the payoff for those who benefited from your time. Emphasize the skills you learned and be specific, using action-oriented verbs and an economy of adverbs.

Students volunteer their time to clean up a park.

Is It Too Late to Start Now?

Even a desperate last-minute appearance at the robotics club your senior year is better than no extracurriculars, but earlier is always better than last-ditch. Some suggestions for getting the most of your extracurricular experiences each year of high school:

  • Ninth grade — Get involved in anything that sparks an interest. This is the most free time you will have in high school, so dabble until something takes, then run with it.
  • Tenth gradeConcentrate on a small number of activities. If you’re a high-energy, jack-of-all-trades, though, don’t limit yourself just to prove you can focus. Strengthen your skills and follow your interests, but keep personal growth and service, not a brag sheet, as your goal.
  • Eleventh gradeThis is your pivotal year to gain experience and pursue your passions. Seek leadership roles in clubs and on teams. Land a job or snag an internship. Volunteer outside of school-sanctioned programs to expand your base of knowledge.
  • Twelfth grade — Try something new that you care about or that aligns with your academic/major interest, but don’t sign up for anything and everything in a scattershot bid to score extracurriculars for your applications. This is the time to request letters of recommendation from your extracurricular advisors or supervisor at work.

High school students play basketball for their school's team.

How Can I Find the Right Extracurricular for Me?

If you’re not sure where to start, focus on four areas.

  • Academic activity: Link the activity to your chosen field of study, such as volunteering at an animal shelter if you want to major in veterinary medicine.
  • Service activity: Develop empathy and accountability, such as serving on Youth Court if you’re interested in criminal justice.
  • Leadership activity: Hone your people skills and responsibility. For example, you can serve as class president if you’re interested in politics.
  • Personality activity: Highlight your individuality. Join the physics club (or dance team), if you’re interested in quarks (or twerks).

If your school does not provide a range of excellent options to get involved in sports, academic competitions, visual or digital art, music, drama, dance, politics, speech, or service clubs, join a global movement or find a cause in your community. You can always create your own extracurricular: Become the founder of a campus club, neighborhood program, or entrepreneurial enterprise.

Whether your extracurricular activities are a point of pride or an area of concern, the USF Office of Admission has great advice for your college application. Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350.