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The Weight of Extracurriculars
If there is one thing we know for sure about the US university application process, it is that US colleges are genuinely interested in who you are and what matters to you. Unlike other higher education systems across the world, US colleges and universities ask the most personal questions and ask extensively about student hobbies. In the US, extracurriculars account for about 30% of your application. With the elimination of SAT Subject Tests and the trend of universities going test-optional, extracurricular activities are the one component that continues to carry a lot of weight.
When wading through tens of thousands of applications — many from great students all over the world — admissions officers need a way to get a better understanding as to who you are beyond your school grades and standardized test scores.
While your personal statement is an integral part of this holistic assessment process, it is your activities list that provides admissions officers with a real insight into your leadership and extracurricular achievements and more importantly, how passionate, creative, entrepreneurial, and original you have been when it comes to taking these activities to the next level. Navid Nathoo, co-founder of The Knowledge Society (a global innovation program for high school students), has found this to hold true for thousands of students who have been a part of the program.
“Schools often prepare students in very similar ways across the board -- which can make it difficult for students to find ways to stand out when it comes to college admissions, internship opportunities, and making an overall impact,” Navid explained. “More than ever, teenagers need to think outside of the box to make sure they come out of secondary education as well-rounded individuals who can stand out from the crowd.”
How Much Time Should You Commit?
Universities are looking for evidence of commitment and consistency of effort over time. They will be much more impressed if you devote one hour a week to a cause for a year than if you spend 40 hours on a project over the course of one week. This is not to say that all of your involvements ought to be long-term commitments. However, you should strive to maintain involvement in three or more extracurricular activities for two or more years.
All students are different - some may fill their calendars with 20 different activities each week while others may have a central 2 or 3 activities that align with their passions. The trick is to find a happy medium that shows variety but also well-lopsidedness. What is a “well-lopsided” candidate? Rather than being good in several different areas, admissions officers are looking for students that are outstanding in one particular subject. Schools don’t want 5,000 students that are “pretty good” and involved in student government, soccer, and community service. They want 5,000 students that have varying interests, talents, and abilities! By being strong in one area and being the best (or close to it) at what you do, you’ll stand out to admissions officers.
This means narrowing down on 4–6 activities or projects that:
Different Types of Extracurriculars
There are countless ways for students to get involved and make a difference outside of the classroom. Whether this is through an accelerator or incubator, athletics, music, volunteering, summer programs, clubs, etc., finding meaningful ways to demonstrate your commitment to both your studies and the well-being of your community is essential.
We recognize that creating your own initiatives and getting involved in your community is likely much harder than it was a year or two ago! To get some ideas of what Crimson students have done during the COVID-19 area, check out: How to Create Your Own Online Initiative.
Further reading: Hong Kong-Based Extracurricular & Leadership Activities
In addition to looking for evidence of dedication, US universities are also looking for indications of thoughtfulness and genuine interest in the activities you have chosen.
It is natural for a student to have a variety of interests, but it can become concerning if a student lists 10 different activities on the application that are drastically different from one another. This could indicate that the student has not chosen these activities with care and that they’ve not yet developed an understanding of the types of activities they find rewarding and meaningful.
A great way to present yourself in the most compelling way possible is to narrow down on activities that can be grouped into themes (e.g. sports, philanthropy, entrepreneurial ventures, creative pursuits, technology competitions). These themes help admissions officers to get a real feel as to who you are and what you will bring to campus.
For example, students who participate in The Knowledge Society explore a variety of science and technology subjects before choosing a narrower number of focus areas. They then dedicate their time in the program to gaining a deeper knowledge on those specific topics and developing related, impactful projects.
“We’ve had students who discover a strong interest in renewable energy and then develop, for instance, a brand new type of solar cell. Some students are more interested in the intersection of technology, human longevity, and medicine; one recent student developed a way to use a computer program to detect pneumonia with 99.5% accuracy,” Navid shared. “People are able to achieve remarkable results when they’re focused on subjects they’re really passionate about.”
Going Beyond Your Comfort Zone
To really impress US universities, especially those ranked highly on national and international lists, you must demonstrate a willingness to stretch yourself and push beyond your comfort zone. This could be communicated by taking on leadership positions, participating in competitions at the regional, national, or international level, and by creating a project or organization from scratch.
Top universities are looking to attract students who openly embrace challenges as opportunities to grow, and who can positively impact others during the process. If you can demonstrate both personal growth and impact through your extracurricular activities, then you’ll succeed in differentiating yourself from the majority of your peers.
Recruiting for Your Extracurriculars
The most impactful extracurricular projects that we’ve seen come from our student community are innovative, one-of-a-kind, and a step above the rest. One common misconception about extracurricular activities is that in order for the activity to matter or stand out on an application, students must be the president and/or founder. However, this simply isn’t true!
What’s most important about a student’s extracurricular profile is that they are able to demonstrate their commitment to the activity as well as the positive change/impact they had on the initiative. Your extracurricular activities should clearly showcase three things: your interests, your intentions, and your impact. Starting your own club, project, or non-profit organization comes with many benefits, but many students wonder how can I recruit others to be a part of this mission?
Social media is a fantastic way to find students who might be interested in your initiative. Social recruiting allows you to share your project with your entire network and encourages a two-way conversation. Even if they aren’t particularly interested in your project, it never hurts to ask them to repost it on their own accounts for their network to see. Consider making a Facebook page dedicated to your organization and inviting others to join. If you have a website dedicated to your project, consider linking it in the bio of your Instagram account and any posts you make.
Be sure to promote and advertise your club or project in an enticing way that makes others want to join. You can do this by creating a short blurb to send out via email, post on social media, or text if you have their contact information. Another incredible way to connect with students with similar interests and goals is to join Crimson! Crimson has an extracurricular network of hundreds of students looking to collaborate across states, nations, and even continents! We’ve had students connect and collaborate on projects ultimately resulting in large-scale organizations that have made incredible impressions on admissions officers!
The Evolution of Extracurriculars Throughout High School
Exploring: The first year or two of high school (Grade 9–10/Year 10–11/Form 3–4) should be dedicated to exploring your passions. If something sounds interesting to you, try it out! Take Crimson student, Jessica, for example. Jessica started off high school by exploring activities such as science, technology, working with children, and getting involved in her community’s youth commission organization. While she didn’t know just yet what she would decide to focus on and pursue, Jessica knew these particular topics piqued her interest.
Consolidating: Around the time you turn sixteen or the second semester of sophomore year (Grade 10/Year 11/Form 4), you should start to discard activities that are no longer of interest (for Jessica, this was identifying that she really wanted to focus on STEM and working with young students). This is also the time to start pursuing leadership roles and taking on more responsibilities within your established initiatives. You can still try out new activities, but it’s important to only pursue new interests if you intend to stick with them. Try to branch out and divide your involvement between inside and outside of school.
Measuring and Mentoring: By your senior year (Grade 12/Year 13/Form 6) or age 18, you should know exactly what your interests are and this should be easily identifiable on your college applications. Senior year is the ideal time to really level up your extracurricular involvement and think about scale. How can you expand your organizations or clubs outside of your school or local community? Now is the time to demonstrate mindfulness of your wider community and to deeply reflect on how your involvement benefits others. In Jessica’s case, she was able to finetune her interests and that’s when she founded STEMpower: a voluntary organization dedicated to providing virtual and in-person STEM-related workshops with hands-on activities and discussion for preschool and elementary students. Initially offered this spring to children of frontline healthcare workers. Jessica has expanded her reach and now has a team of approximately 15 volunteers helping to develop and curate the curriculum and deliver programming to a larger audience.
It is initiatives like Jessica’s — ones that start off small and eventually scale to reach a wider audience — that are most successful in high school. Creating and providing resources to one’s community is not always a straightforward task. In order to have a successful extracurricular project, it is key to be patient, be persistent, and be passionate!
Now that you’ve made it through this primer, you’re ready to get started with your extracurricular journey. Now is the time that many extracurricular activities are signing students up for next school year.
Take the first step toward preparing for your future today by deciding what type of extracurriculars you’d like to pursue and signing up, applying, or trying out. Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a well-rounded, impactful student!
Furthur reading: Hong Kong-Based Extracurricular & Leadership Activities