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MAR 14, 2020 • 10 min read
Standing out on your college application is no easy task.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of students applying to colleges in the US each year. In 2018, Harvard alone had 42,742 students apply, smashing their previous application record.
As more and more people discover the benefits of studying in the US, the numbers of applicants will continue to grow. Standing out will become harder and harder with each year.
So how do you make your college application pop? There are only a few aspects of the college application where you actually have the ability to make yourself different.
One is the application essay where you can discuss some of your passions and interests that make you tick.
The other, is your extracurricular activities where you can elaborate on these passions and interests and demonstrate how you’ve turned your interests into projects with a positive impact.
But what do colleges look for in extracurricular examples? And what determines a good extracurricular from a bad one?
Can you list video games on the Common App? Card tournaments? What about social media involvement?
Well, you can’t just list a bunch of things you enjoy doing outside of schools hours - most of these interests would probably be pretty ordinary. You need to demonstrate how you’ve acted on your interests and created a tangible positive impact on your community.
Easy, right? Hmm, maybe not. Let’s take a look a little deeper.
Gone are the days where colleges expect to see you in generic school-sponsored activities like being a member of the National Honor Society or the school band.
They’re looking for individuals who display leadership and initiative by pursuing passions and interests beyond school hours. They want an insight into who you are as a person and how you’ll be able to contribute to the campus community.
It might be something as simple as your passion for video games or perhaps your interest in the cosmos - whatever it is you love, colleges want to see it.
However, it won’t look great if you just sit on the couch playing video games or spend your nights staring at the stars alone, you need to have displayed leadership and done something tangible with your passion.
Literally any hobby or activity you have a passion for can be turned into a killer extracurricular activity, you just need to give it some time, love and effort.
It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it. Let’s take a look at some unique extracurricular activity examples.
As we mentioned, sitting on the couch for hours on end playing Fortnite is not going to make for a great extracurricular example (even if you win solo battle royale). That should go without saying.
However, if you truly love video games, you can channel your passion for gaming into an activity that colleges will love - no problem!
All you have to do is take your passion off the couch and into the real world in some way or another.
For example, you could found a school club for video games, organise a FIFA competition that raises money for charity or you could build a YouTube channel where you teach others how to reach your level of gaming expertise.
You could even start volunteering in your community where you connect second-hand gaming consoles with underprivileged kids.
I’m just spitballing here, but as you can see there’s plenty of opportunities to turn gaming into a tangible extracurricular example. You just need to channel your inner leader and get up off that couch!
Unfortunately, there’s a common rhetoric in society that video games are bad for children and students; but as we’ve seen, they don’t have to be.
Colleges are realizing this as well; and recently some US colleges started offering hefty scholarships for e-sports video game players.
So if you’re a competitive player, you can not only leverage video games as a unique extracurricular activity, but a way to help you afford college in the US too.
Social media is another form of technology that often gets a bad wrap. However, there are plenty of ways to use your social media platform as a solid college extracurricular example.
When I mentioned above you need to make your passion have an impact on the community, this wasn’t exclusive to offline communities. Online communities can be a powerful place to initiate positive change too.
However, simply listing your activity as garnering 100K followers or getting 200K retweets is not enough to secure your place at college. You need to take your online presence offline.
For example, if your online account is about make-up, why not turn that into something profitable by running one-on-one makeup tutorials via Skype?
You could even consider campaigning for a good cause; something such as organizing a meetup to promote mental health awareness or a cause close to your heart.
The ultimate goal with social media involvement as an extracurricular activity is to use your captive audience to demonstrate your social responsibility and initiative. This is an insight into the positive impact you could have on a college community.
This is another simple extracurricular example to spin up from one of your hobbies - starting an online business.
If you love working with your hands or you’re a budding designer, architect, or engineer, this is perfect for you.
It’s a super clean, super quick example of how you’ve taken your passion and shared it with the world.
It demonstrates initiative, leadership, talent and a business mind (which colleges love to see!).
There’s no limit to what you can sell online, but just make sure you’re giving it as much attention as it deserves. There’s nothing worse than listing your online store as an extracurricular and when they check your store is empty or outdated!
Again, it comes back to wanting to do something for the passion and love of it, not because you think it will look good on your application. Plenty of TLC (tender loving care) needs to go into any extracurricular activity you’re sharing.
BONUS TIP: to really make this extracurricular stand out, consider making your business a not-for-profit or a social enterprise. This shows you’re a selfless, big picture thinker!
One last example of a quirky extracurricular example is competing in a cards or board game tournament.
This shows you’ve pursued your passions, prepared for something and executed on it by competing at a high standard.
BONUS TIP: To really make this the most of this activity, why not try to organize the tournament yourself? Showing that you have the initiative, passion and drive to produce something from nothing is a huge boost on your college application.
Having said that, you’d probably want to have performed relatively well at any competition you’re listing. Saying you came 598th out of 600 is an Uno competition is not a great look. Just use some common sense here.
The ultimate outcome of a competition result, whether it be a cards, boardgames, mathletics or a geography competition, is that you’re a leader in that community. You can demonstrate leadership with impressive results or through organizational skills.
Now we’ve looked at some examples of unique activities, let’s take a quick look as some of the more generic activities that won’t help you stand out.
The majority of US applicants have some form of volunteering on their application. So, I hate to say it, it doesn't make you that special.
Volunteering is more often than not a “one off” activity - helping out at a shelter for two weeks here and then supporting a book drive for a week or two there.
These type of sporadic volunteer involvements don’t have the same impact on your application as an activity you are committed to and fully invested in.
Having said that, volunteer work isn’t going to have a negative impact on your application - by all means add it if you’ve done it, and all the better if you’ve dedicated yourself to volunteering over a long period of time - it’s just not going to make you stand out. And as we know, the college admissions game is about finding ways to separate yourself from the masses, not blend in.
Are you a member of a club that meets for two hours every two weeks but don’t do anything beyond showing up? Do you play soccer but sit on the bench for 85 minutes each game? These aren’t the best activities to list on your application.
Remember, the point of extracurricular activities is to be seen. You want to demand attention. Listing your part-time job or extracurricular sport involvement as an activity is not going to help you get in anywhere.
While they are great at illustrating what you do with your spare time, they don’t show off your capabilities as an outstanding person who can make an impact on the environment around you.
Colleges want to see the potential you have to make an impact on their campus.
I’ve touched on this throughout this whole blog, but insincere extracurricular activities are a huge no.
It’s obvious to the trained eye when you submit a half-baked extracurricular example, and it’s a huge red flag for any admissions officer.
The only thing you’re demonstrating with an insincere activity is that you don’t have the drive to pursue your passions with 100% effort, let alone impact the community.
A solid extracurricular activity takes time, effort, and most importantly, passion. Without all three of these you will not impress any admissions officers or gaining admission anywhere!
At the end of the day a successful extracurricular activity is a combination of three things:
Your unique passion This is non-negotiable. Extracurriculars need to provide insight into what you love doing outside of school hours and who you are as a person. The only way to achieve this is by sharing something you’re passionate about. Plus, this will help when you’re asked about your activities during the admissions interview - your passion will soon become very apparent.
Time, effort and leadership Spinning up a strong extracurricular activity takes time and effort - no activity worth its weight can be spun up overnight.
BONUS TIP: Keeping a journal of your progression, planning and process of your extracurricular activity is a great way to prove your efforts and hard work.
Making an impact (something bigger than you and your application) The third and final requirement for a killer extracurricular activity is community impact. It needs to have a greater goal than just being an afterthought on your college application.
Without these three elements, your extracurricular activity will be sub par, but if you get a balance of the three, you’ll all but guarantee your place at your dream university.