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A college application is composed of several parts: a student’s grades, test scores, essay or writing sample, letters of recommendation, and of course, list of extracurricular activities.
It’s well known that academics matter most in terms of college acceptance. Yet, high school students often hear over and over again from teachers, guidance counselors, and parents of the importance of extracurricular activities.
Many high school students take this advice and run with it—rapidly joining more clubs, teams, and organizations than can be counted on two hands. Are extracurriculars really this important?
According to some college admissions experts, extracurriculars matter, but probably not as much as most students are made to think.
Instead of loading up on so many activities, high school students should focus on the quality of their activities, said Shaevitz, which should be used as a supplement in their college applications. She added that in terms of admissions, it’s more important for students to be “consistently involved in one, two, or three activities and/or sports over a number of years, than superficially involved in eight, 10 or 12 for shorter periods of time.”
Indeed, admissions data supports the idea that student extracurriculars serve as supplements, not centerpieces, in college applications. When recently surveyed, the majority of U.S. colleges said extracurriculars have “moderate importance” (approximately 41 percent) or “limited importance (approximately 34 percent) when factored into a student’s overall college application, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).
In part, NACAC’s 2013 survey, which appears in the organization’s “2014 State of College Admission” report, asked colleges how much weight they gave common application factors: “considerable importance,” “moderate importance,” “limited importance,” or “no importance.”
In the eyes of most college admissions officers, students’ extracurricular activities are about as important as their letters of recommendation, based on the NACAC survey data. By contrast, most colleges surveyed ranked grades in college prep courses (approximately 82 percent), strength of curriculum (approximately 64 percent), admissions test scores (approximately 58 percent), and grades in all courses (approximately 52 percent) as having the highest levels of importance. Only approximately 10 percent of colleges ranked extracurriculars as highly important as these four factors.
Princeton University, a college that is both private and highly selective, says it places a high emphasis on all parts of a student’s application. Its online admission FAQ page states that the college does “not have a formula for weighing different parts of the application.” It additionally states that while the transcript is key, admissions officers take a holistic view at all components of a student’s application when making admissions decisions.
“As for extracurricular activities, we recommend that students follow their individual interests in the special talents they want to develop in the visual and performing arts, athletics, leadership activities, and that they engage themselves civically,” said Janet Lavin Rapelye, Dean of Admission at Princeton University. “But they should choose these activities judiciously. Don’t overload.”
As Rapelye recommends, high school students should first and foremost find one or a few extracurricular activities they are interested in. Starting early—joining a few clubs, teams, or organizations as a high school freshman—can give students time to find exactly what they’re interested in, if they’re not already sure. Sticking with one or a few extracurriculars throughout all four years of high school is especially impressive to colleges.
According to some admissions experts, besides commitment, talent, and leadership as demonstrated through extracurriculars is also notable. High school students should be encouraged to try leadership roles, such as art club president or junior varsity soccer team captain, and to pursue activities in which they are afforded the opportunity to display their skills, such as the chess club or varsity track and field team.
But most importantly, experts say, participating in extracurriculars should not be stressful. Instead of fussing over which and how many activities they have on their college applications, high school students should participate in extracurriculars because they are fun.
“My usual advice in this area is simply do things that you truly enjoy in high school, rather than trying to outguess an admissions committee,” said Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University from 2005 to 2013.
Brenzel added that students who participate in extracurriculars that they enjoy are likely to be good at those activities, and that, with time, their skills will improve further. Demonstrating this kind of personal growth, he said, is what is really the key to a student’s college application—and isn’t necessarily obviated by the typical list of extracurriculars.
“The important thing is: are you getting something out of it? Are you enjoying it? Are you learning how to do it better? Has it taken you some places that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone?” said Brenzel. “If so, you’re fine; because that’s what you’re going to talk about in one of your college essays. I’m often beset, particularly by parents—‘Should my daughter do this or do this?’—and they name three activities. And my answer is always the same: What is she most interested in doing? [Laughs] Because it’s your best shot at something that will also be appealing to the college because it’s going to proceed from your own set of interests.”
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