“The more selective the university, the more important [applicants’] extracurriculars are because they tend to draw such a large pool of applicants who already come with [strong academics],” said Christine Chu, former assistant director of admissions, Yale University and currently a college admissions counselor at IvyWise.
Admissions officers primarily want answers to three questions, Chu told Re:Set. The first two are “Can the applicant do the work and will they do the work?” Transcripts and letters of recommendation usually provide insight into this. “What else will you bring to our university and how will you contribute to life at the university?” is the third important question, according to Chu, which is where extracurricular activities come into play. Important personal qualities like passion, leadership skills, and initiative are deduced by understanding what the student is involved in.
How do you pick the right extracurricular activities for you?
For students who are in their first year of high school, Chu suggests probing your interests. “Explore, join a few clubs, do stuff outside of school,” she said. But as you proceed through high school, she recommends sticking to a few key extracurricular activities to demonstrate commitment, discipline, and genuine interest in it which will also reflect in your college application.
“It’s not a great profile if I just see a scatter of one-year activities. [Like] ‘I joined debate for a year and then I was in band for another year and then I was in computing club for a year,’” she observed. Stick with your interests and show how you’ve progressed through it as you’ve moved through high school.
Not every high school student has a clear idea of what career they want to pursue. But, if you see yourself inclined to a particular field, it could be useful to get involved in extracurriculars within that space to add to your application. “Do something in your passion area,” Chu recommends. If you’re interested in a career in STEM, explore clubs like coding, robotics and you can also see what kind of competitions you can participate in. If writing is more up your alley, the school newspaper could be a good place to start. If law is on your horizon, youth courts or volunteering at non-profits with a legal focus could be interesting to explore, she added.
Universities are interested in the impact you’ve created with the initiatives you’ve been involved in.
Learning how to talk and write about your extracurriculars on an application is also key. Spend some time reflecting on your activities, Chu told Re:Set, ask yourself questions like “How did I feel about this experience?” and “How did I grow by being involved in this?” Universities are interested in the impact you’ve created with the initiatives you’ve been involved in, she added. For example, if you’ve volunteered to help raise money for school supplies, you could demonstrate your genuine interest by showing what your learnings were from the experience while talking about it in your application as opposed to only discussing the number of hours spent or the amount of money raised.
But we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so now what?
With some school campuses across the world having been shut for nearly a year now due to COVID-19, it may be time to explore how you can move your extracurriculars online if you haven’t already. For students looking into going to art schools, their portfolios are a prominent part of their application. “Demonstrate your art…online. I’ve also seen students organize art shows on social media,” Chu remarked. Creativity is key when it comes to exploring the possibilities for yourself. Online video platforms have now become more integrated into our everyday lives, so clubs like debate and poetry can easily be transitioned online.
“For computer science, students can…start projects, [learn to] develop, work on AI, research projects and even scrape data,” she added. But, she reiterated that it can be difficult to find the motivation to continue when you’re not face-to-face especially since students are busier now. Depending on the COVID-19 situation in your region, you could also explore volunteering options like food donation drives or helping elderly folks with their groceries. For those who are involved in more active pursuits like sports, Chu cites the examples of students who’ve been training with their teammates via Zoom.
With the pandemic still raging, many colleges have made tests like SATs and ACTs optional and many have also extended their application deadlines. “There’s been a huge increase in early applications,” Chu said. While it’s now easier for students to apply due to longer deadlines and optional testing, admissions officers are now looking at more applications, she added, pointing to “an increase in the rigour” with which they’re viewing them.