What Are Extracurricular Activities?
Exploring & Choosing Extracurriculars
Benefits of Extracurriculars
Extracurriculars and College Admissions
Ways to Stand Out in College Admissions
Extracurriculars offer you a plethora of personal benefits, but they also have an impact on your college applications. Colleges don’t just care about your GPA or test scores. They want insights into how you’ll interact with the campus community, contribute to campus life and academic discussions, and if you have motivations, aspirations, and personal qualities that will elevate and shape your learning and what you’ll do with that learning.
With this in mind, many students seek extracurriculars which will be fulfilling personally while also scouting for activities offering ample opportunities for developing and demonstrating qualities that can support a strong college application. In this post we’ll explore what extracurriculars are and a range of substantial benefits — for personal growth and wellbeing, and for college admissions.
It used to be the case that the best college applicants had perfect test scores, top grades, and well-rounded extracurriculars — but the admissions landscape is ever-evolving. As universities receive more applications every year, the baseline requirements to get accepted have changed. Now, top universities look for much more.
In addition to outstanding academics , today’s admissions officers want to see proof of tremendous ambition and initiative, illustrated by compelling extracurricular activities that are an expression of authentic commitments and aspirations.
This means that taking part in a laundry list of activities outside of class probably won’t reflect a coherent personal story and the deeper introspection that will make an applicant stand out.
In this article we’ll highlight the full range of benefits that extracurricular activities can offer, for life balance and personal wellbeing, for academic enrichment, and for your college admissions process down the road.
If you’re aspiring to pursue a degree at a top-tier university, a rich participation in extracurriculars is perhaps more a necessity than a choice. That said, there's plenty of decision-making to grapple with when it comes to which extracurriculars are the right fit for you — for your fulfillment and wellbeing and for building a remarkable application profile that really helps you stand out.
We encourage you to consider the benefits discussed below and use these insights to make your own extracurricular journey as satisfying and empowering as possible!
By definition, extracurricular activities are “pursued in addition to the normal course of study.” In short, extracurricular activities are positive and purposeful activities you engage in outside of the classroom and in addition to doing homework.
While clubs, debate teams, athletics, and marching bands come to mind for many people, extracurriculars are truly defined very broadly, and even your hobby or part-time job will be considered as relevant in holistic admissions contexts, as will summertime pre-college courses, internships, travel and study abroad, and more.
When it comes to your college applications, though, extracurriculars will have more value for admissions when they require some commitments, social skills, or initiative-taking, and spotlight your ability to juggle priorities and manage your time effectively.
In the best cases, a student will also choose activities that provide ample opportunities for personal growth, in the form of developing and demonstrating qualities such as leadership, organizational skills, a commitment to community service, or purposeful activism — qualities you won't fully develop or express in your academic classes, and which you can't spotlight through GPA and test scores alone.
The world of extracurriculars is truly limitless and there is no single “right way” to approach your own decision making. Maybe you want to simply try something new, like taking an online course in coding or trying out a poetry writing workshop. Others may harbor a desire to create something on their own and decide to start a podcast, or even their own business!
The authenticity and dedication that make your choices personally meaningful are typically more important than the difficulty or grandeur of your extracurriculars.
When choosing extracurricular activities, start early because the personal learning involved, and the friendships you could build, will deepen over time. In addition, when choosing ECAs, don’t just think about how they’ll “look” down the road on college applications. You probably want to consider a range of factors and motivations that make sense for you individually.
Check out our blog for more great examples of extracurricular activities that look great on college applications.
Extracurricular Activities Around The World
Now that you understand what extracurriculars are and you know they’re crucial for personal wellbeing and amplifying your college applications, let’s see some specific ways you can benefit so you have real insights for your own decision making.
Loads of studies have been conducted on the relationship between extracurricular activities and academic performance. These investigations, in education journals, medical research, from the National Institutes of Health, and science journals all agree that extracurricular activities correlate with improved academic success.
The kinds of connections and benefits vary, based on the type of activities, the individual, and other factors. From promoting better attendance to boosting “executive function” — like organization and time management skills — extracurricular participation is an exciting way to set yourself up for a more positive school life and better academic achievement as well.
Check out just some of the ways researchers are finding positive connections between extracurricular participation and academic success:
Some students worry that participating in extracurriculars may take away too much time from their schoolwork, thus hurting their grades. And, actually, some studies have found that in the later years in high school, spending too much time in extracurriculars can sometimes hinder academic achievement.
This could be a reminder to apply some common sense: while extracurricular activities offer great benefits, balancing your extracurriculars and your academic workload remains paramount.
In most cases, though, whether it’s better focus and concentration when you’re studying for exams, or better results managing your time, extracurricular activities have clear benefits for academic performance and success inside the classroom in addition to the change of pace they bring to your life outside the classroom.
Here’s an intangible but tremendously powerful benefit of extracurriculars that’s often overlooked: they can be a catalyst for uncovering an authentic and bigger personal vision.
That’s right, simply being more intentional about how you want to leverage your time spent doing extracurriculars can lead to valuable introspection and insight.
These insights can amplify your vision and accomplishments in ways you perhaps never thought possible at first, naturally connecting your extracurricular activities to your bigger life story — to deeper personal passions and motivations.
When you stop to reflect on where you’ll commit the limited time you have — to what kind of activities — your introspection can unexpectedly open doors to an inner voice or passion that sparks a bigger, more creative set of future-oriented aspirations for your college journey and life journey.
At Crimson Education we work day-in day-out with motivated students from around the world who are passionate about using a top-tier education to pursue outsized dreams. We’re keenly aware of how students’ visions can inspire and motivate amazing extracurricular interests and accomplishments, including highly creative, research-focused, or entrepreneurial initiatives.
Often, by dreaming big, students uncover visions that connect their educational aspirations with a deeper sense of purpose and service and a broader awareness of the world around them and its many urgent needs and diverse communities.
When you succeed in the activities you love, your self-confidence will improve. For example, let’s say you’re really good at math and your teacher encourages you to get involved in competitions. You decide to join the school team and start training for the national Math Olympiad. You realize how fun math can be and how talented you actually are during the process, which gives your confidence a massive boost.
Working hard and mastering new skills in a fun, relaxed — and sometimes competitive — setting allows you to be successful without the pressure of getting a good grade. Plus, once your confidence improves, you’ll be more open to taking risks in all aspects of your life, not just in Math Olympiads.
Lower levels of anxiety and depression, and higher levels of satisfaction with life and more optimism, are among the reported benefits.
Researchers affiliated with the National Institutes of Health, concur, and identified crucial emotional benefits linked to extracurriculars:
No doubt university leaders understand how important this emotional landscape is for individuals across college communities too. This means your participation in positive and relational extracurricular activities should be personally fulfilling for you, while also demonstrating your own investments in personal growth and emotional resilience as you prepare for college life.
Let’s be honest. Making friends can be challenging. But just as challenging can be stepping into opportunities that will allow you to build deeper interpersonal skills and friendships, expand your social network, stretch beyond your regular interpersonal comfort zone, and even get better at cross-cultural communication.
With screen-time distractions and social media apps filling our lives, it’s more important than ever to spotlight social opportunities as a crucial benefit of extracurricular activities. The right ECAs will lead you to opportunities that make it easier to ratchet up your commitments to social wizardry — helping you cultivate a vibrant circle of friends around some common interests, build community, and more comfortably navigate interpersonal communications, including with people from different cultures or walks of life.
Your participation in the kinds of extracurriculars that help you gain and demonstrate social confidence around diverse peers and larger communities will boost your admissions profile and ease your transition to college, so you can do more and be more, with less social jitters and more fulfilling friendships and partnerships.
Extracurricular activities give you something fun to do aside from school, an important way to be productive and creative, while also taking breaks that are essential to feel rejuvenated and focused during class time. It also gives you the chance to explore your passions, to discover things you may be interested in beyond academics. For example, you could take yoga or self defense classes, take guitar lessons, experiment with digital animation tools, or write a collection of poems or short stories.
If you’re motivated to succeed academically, you’re likely to find that productive breaks help you maintain balance and mental acuity for the long run. And, some individuals, more than others, cultivate their best selves by exploring passions, by enjoying healthy relaxation, or by making space for free-flowing creativity.
On top of all the benefits of extracurricular activities we’ve already discussed, one of the greatest advantages extracurricular activities give you is a wide range of valuable foundational life skills — sometimes called “soft skills,” “professional skills,” or “real-world” skills. Whatever the name or the category they fall into, skills like these reward you in virtually all your efforts and endeavors, for a lifetime.
In fact, some of these skills, such as critical thinking, leadership, collaboration, active listening and interpersonal communication… are also referred to as “cognitive skills.” Economists and business leaders highlight many of these skills — both cognitive and relational — as being drivers of workplace success in today’s information-driven, tech-infused, and change-dominated global economy.
These skills include:
The more you push yourself in your extracurricular endeavours, the more you’ll develop these skills. If you’re passionate about coding, you might join the school coding club, where you’ll develop teamwork, problem-solving, and analytical thinking skills.
Or, if you organize a student group for environmental activism, you’ll need to hone a wide range of leadership, coordination, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills and help other group members identify their individual talents and work cooperatively with others.
With bigger aspirations, the road ahead can seem a bit intimidating. But that’s a reflection of your growth trajectory too! Each and every step will teach you a new skill you can use for the rest of your life.
Learn more about how you can turn an idea into a portfolio of leadership projects.
Without previous work experience, one of the only ways hiring managers can assess your ability and work ethic is through your extracurricular activities. It’s kind of the same for your college admissions journey as well. There are some really important abilities and personal qualities that college admissions officers can only appreciate by virtue of the ways you participate in various extracurriculars, and by what you accomplish in those roles.
For example, your grades and test scores aside, if you were on a debating team, the manager would know that you’re able to speak publicly (or at least be brave enough to work at it) and communicate professionally. These are all awesome skills to be able to demonstrate, and your extracurricular achievements spotlight important areas of future promise in academic settings and in many professional roles!
Participating in extracurricular activities exposes students to new people, including classmates, teachers, coaches, and community leaders. This allows students to build and maintain relationships, which can lead to valuable connections and opportunities in the future.
If you want to build networks and networking skills, you might want to consider participating in workplace internships — at businesses or nonprofits — or look for roles in advocacy or activism that also align with your longer-term life and career interests. If you want to study law or major in political science, for example, internships or volunteer roles in relevant organizations should help you get acquainted with a range of people active in these sectors, and help you hone your professional communication skills.
Many studies, as we’ve seen, find positive benefits for teens involved in extracurricular activities, such as better academic success and more life satisfaction generally.
In 2020, Eva Oberle, an Associate Professor in Public Health at the University of British Columbia set out to see if there were similar positive impacts for mental health in particular, for teens participating in extracurriculars.
The research found that engaging in extracurricular activities can help reduce stress, improve mood, and provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Teens in extracurricular activities were also likely to suffer less from the negative impacts linked to recreational screen time and have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Mental health was strongest for those teens, boys and girls, who both participated in extracurricular activities and spent less than two hours a day on screen time.
Additionally, extracurriculars that involve physical exercise can have benefits for both physical and mental health.
Teens struggling with mental health may sometimes need more than good extracurriculars, but research suggests that putting down your phone and putting yourself out there by engaging in fun and stimulating extracurricular activities can be a meaningful step toward improving, maintaining, and boosting your mental wellbeing!
In today’s ever-more competitive admissions landscape, boosting your application with a strong personal profile requires thoughtful and meaningful participation in extracurricular activities — be it athletics, clubs, internships, research projects, or academic enrichment…
Universities in the US & UK want to see that you’ve gone above and beyond in your intended area of study to learn real life skills and grow personally — that you’ve made a difference, learned from failure, pushed beyond your comfort zone, taken real initiative, tempered your self-discipline, or shown passionate commitments to a cause or to community service…
For example if you want to major in chemistry, a top US or UK university is more likely to accept you if you’ve joined a chemistry club, taken extra chemistry courses at your local university, and volunteered in a lab.
If you want to do pre-law curriculum at a top school, having tried your hand at legal research and writing, or having interned in a law office or legal clinic, will give you exposure to on-the-job skills and experiences that spotlight your readiness and motivation as you enter the next steps in your college journey.
Although this may sound like a lot to accomplish, extracurricular activities are essential to presenting a strong application and a well-rounded profile in a holistic admissions process. In fact, at some top US universities, extracurricular activities and leadership skills can carry a lot of weight alongside other prominent admissions criteria, such as GPA and test scores.
But also keep in mind that today’s admissions officers at many excellent schools are also focused on promoting equity in their school ranks. This means they are just as apt to honor the value of a student working a part-time job or managing other crucial family commitments as they are club activities, athletics, and so forth, knowing that individual journeys and life challenges form a kaleidoscope of valuable experiences and understandings.
But, in the US, universities don’t limit you to just one passion, nor do they care only about academic enrichment as such…
If you want to study science and love filmmaking, get involved in scriptwriting, directing, international film competitions, and movie nights that raise money for environmental science.
If you’re the president of your school’s science club — busy with leadership and coordination work as much as scientific tinkering — that’s all going to help you stand out!
Admissions officers at US colleges, viewing applicants holistically, often assess students’ extracurricular activities in terms of meaningful personal growth and professional skill building, so here’s a few tips to guide your decision making as you navigate your own extracurriculars:
In collaboration with current and former admissions officers from eight top universities, including Dartmouth, Stanford, and Oxford, Crimson's product team created a first-of-its-kind tool that helps you stand out in your extracurriculars.
Pathfinder is a comprehensive in-app tool that quantifies the value of high school extracurriculars in the context of college admissions success. Every student’s Pathfinder looks different because it’s customized to their interests, needs, and objectives. This intelligent tool helps students stay on track as they prepare to apply to competitive US schools.
Pathfinder is a groundbreaking tool designed exclusively for Crimson Education’s students. Check out the Crimson Pathfinder introduction video to learn more. If you have further questions, contact one of our Crimson advisors.
Introduction to Crimson Pathfinder
As you consider the many benefits of extracurricular activities — from making more friends, to building life skills and a more impressive resume, and for enjoying greater mental health and personal wellbeing — we encourage you to find the points that resonate most for you and factor them into your own decision making.
Whatever you do, don’t get stuck. Give it some thought and then get up and get out there — remember failing’s a skill too, so what have you really got to lose? Go join a club, or start one, discover an amazing online class, or volunteer for a cause or to help your school or community!
What Makes Crimson Different
If you’re inspired about the next steps in your college journey but are facing any hard decisions for college applications, talk to a Crimson Advisor. Your first consultation is free, and it’s an easy way to get some tips (and a little encouragement). You can also ask about our team approach and discover how it helps students in the Crimson network beat the odds when it comes to nailing applications and getting college offers that exceed expectations.