Fall discussions with my junior and senior students often contain variations on the following question: “The club fair is coming up. I should join three or four clubs, right? I’ve heard that colleges like that.”
As the kids say, allow me to throw some shade on that assumption.
Yes, colleges want to see students getting involved in extracurricular activities that are meaningful to them. But it doesn’t have to be many – it can be just one activity. In fact, it’s better to be one activity sustained over time than multiple activities added toward the end of high school.
Even better is an activity that helps a student mature, discover his/her likes and dislikes and get some feedback from others. This can be a club, a sport, music, art or drama involvement (all inside or outside of school), not to mention a job, volunteer participation, a role in a religious or scouting group, and more.
Sure, if there is just one activity that involves a minimal amount of time (one hour per week, for example), then yes, there is likely time for a high school student to be involved in more. But even then, it’s worth letting a college know that the student may have had to watch younger siblings after school to help parents who work (for example).
In addition to participation, colleges tend to place a premium on leadership. Not everyone can be a club officer or a team captain, of course, but there are other ways to demonstrate this trait. Students can figure out what they like and take some initiative to help start a project in a group they are part of or volunteer to be a coach or tutor of younger kids. That is leadership also.
An additional benefit of extracurricular involvement is that by exploring interests in high school – real interests, not just things that look good on an application – students can make better college choices. Do they like to take photographs, make movies, write poetry, play in a band, ride horses, play a sport, etc.? The more they know about themselves going into college, the better a fit when it comes to making a final decision.
Finally, if they have some sense of the kind of career they hope to pursue, it’s worth finding ways to observe, volunteer or intern in those professions. Nothing shines a light on what it’s like to do a particular job like watching other people do it for real!
Remember, when it comes to admission, colleges still care the most about the level of classes a student takes and the grades they receive. Some schools care about test scores quite a bit too, although many are now Test Optional and then there is always the option of not sending SAT or ACT scores if a student is not at the average level at a school to which they are applying.
So yes, activities matter, but less so than schoolwork itself. Students who are too overscheduled also run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, falling behind in sleep and underperforming in academics.
Encourage your child to pick and choose activities carefully. It is quality, not quantity that counts!