Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

Extracurricular Activities: Everything you need to know for US College Application

POSTED ON 08/03/2023 BY The Red Pen

Social cause as an extracurricular activity.

Along with grades and test scores, extracurricular activities are critical to your university application. They enable colleges to see if you can go beyond the classroom and contribute to their campus life. According to Jorge Delgado, Associate Director of International Admissions at Brandeis University, “there are only so many hours in the day. So seeing how students have involved themselves outside the academic arena is a great way of understanding their potential fit for a university campus”. So, let’s deep dive into what extracurriculars are, why they’re important and how you can create an impressive activities profile for your college application. 

What is an extracurricular activity?

Extracurricular activities for students are pursuits outside the classroom. They keep you engaged and go beyond hobbies to involve concerted efforts, contributing to your personal development. For example, playing video games is a hobby, but creating plugins for your game is an extracurricular activity. Universities only review activities from grade 9 onwards.

Some popular extracurricular activities you can mention in your applications are:

  • Student leadership: Being school captain, head boy or head girl, a club founder or an event organiser.
  • Sports: Playing on school teams, an intramural team, or a club team outside your school.
  • Volunteering: Engaging in social service work, either in your community, on a national scale, or abroad.
  • Employment: Taking up internships or jobs.
  • Music & Arts: Working on extracurricular activities other than sports and education like visual arts, performing arts, vocals, playing an instrument, comedy, and culinary arts—the list is endless. 
  • Co-curricular activities: Participating in academic activities outside your curriculum, like joining maths or science clubs and competitions or doing research and writing.

What to consider when choosing an extracurricular activity? 

If you plan to complete your bachelor’s in the US, select extracurricular activities that you genuinely love and enjoy. Doing so will help you express yourself as you fill out forms and write essays. So, instead of signing up for several clubs and activities, focus on a few meaningful ones. The key is to demonstrate quality, not quantity. If you enjoy dancing, get professional training and do a few stage performances. If baking is your passion, start a YouTube channel or blog to share tips. You can even combine your baking or cooking skills with social service. For example, you may organise a bake sale to raise funds for a social cause and use social media to chronicle your activity. If you enjoy playing a sport, participate in competitions. Leadership positions are also great.  

But colleges also value personal experiences that have contributed to your growth. For example, if you’ve spent time caring for your siblings, it could reveal a high level of maturity and responsibility. So don’t forget to reflect on these experiences to show you’re good at balancing schoolwork and other commitments.  

Jim Bock, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Swarthmore College, says, “many students believe we count activities and that more is better. What we seek is commitment to a few activities.” He further advises, “pursue what you want and find the college that matches, and you will be much more satisfied in the end. You may also have less choice as you care for siblings and families, and there may not be the ability to work. We value all commitments”. 

Why are extracurricular activities important?

Most colleges in the US, lay emphasis on extracurricular activities. Extracurriculars for Ivy League universities are just as crucial. Colleges rely on these activities by students to gain insights that coursework and test scores cannot reveal. These activities help you demonstrate leadership, management, and commitment, enhancing your candidacy and differentiating you from applicants with similar credentials. That’s why presenting a robust and diverse extracurricular profile is important. 

US universities are also renowned centres of charity, culture and activities beyond academics. That’s why they prefer students who are contributing members of their communities. From their vantage point, if you’ve done social work through high school, chances are you will also continue these endeavours in college. 

Extracurricular activities showcase initiative and signal your chances of succeeding at a major. If you wish to pursue a career as a doctor, you can volunteer at a hospital or attend a STEM summer camp. So, participate in activities piquing your interest as soon as grade 9. Doing so will go a long way during your application process.

How to approach the activities section in the Common Application form?

The activities section is one of the critical components of the Common Application form. Filling this section and writing essays on your activities may seem daunting.  But worry not; here are a few tips to help you make an impact.

1) Select your activities wisely

Mindfully handpick ten key activities you’ve persistently pursued instead of choosing an activity you participated in just once or twice. Doing so demonstrates how diligently and productively you spend your free time. For instance, discussing the embroidery work you’ve focused on for three years is far more impressive than mentioning a one-time salsa class. You must also elaborate on your activities to show how they’ve helped you or others develop. But sharing details within a 150-character limit is challenging. Therefore, it’s important to select keywords that let you reveal the details. For example, instead of writing, “I created embroidered hoops”, describe your activity by saying, “Created embroidered hoops, mastered seven stitching styles, raised funds for charity by selling work”.

2) Prioritise quality over quantity

If you do not have ten activities to write about, don’t let that demotivate you. Listing five that have contributed to your character and growth is better than mentioning activities to fill up slots in the application form. For example, suppose you’re a member of a state-level sports team, which requires you to practise and play several matches constantly. In that case, admissions officers understand that engaging in multiple activities meaningfully becomes impossible.  

However, remember that not everything is an extracurricular activity. Running one marathon or participating in one awareness campaign may not warrant space in the activity section.

3) Be honest about the time spent on each activity

The Common Application form also requires you to reveal the hours, days, weeks and months you’ve given each activity. It is essential to maintain a record of your time. But never exaggerate it because admissions officers know precisely how much time you have outside school hours and school work and how much you need to eat and sleep. 

4) Leverage the additional information space

The space in the activities section may not be sufficient to elaborate on your accomplishments. In such a case, you may use the Additional Information space right after the Writing section in the Common Application form. For instance, if you’ve participated in Model United Nations (MUN) debates, you cannot list every conference, competition and recognition in the activity section. But you can list them in the additional information section. Or, if you’ve spearheaded a school festival and were involved in numerous ways, from administering it to managing it and participating in it, this section is where you can write the details. 

It’s worth noting that colleges do not expect you to excel at every activity and are well aware that the pandemic has affected your extracurricular involvements. However, they want to know how committed you are to optimise your time by adopting a new interest, adapting your activity in the virtual space or contributing to your community.  

Read The Ultimate Guide to Undergraduate Courses in the US and Nuances of How to Apply to Undergraduate US Universities. Please get in touch if you need further guidance with demonstrating interest or any application component. Our US undergraduate experts look forward to helping you.