Extracurricular Mistakes: What Every Student Does Wrong

Every good college applicant knows that that there are three things admissions committees look at: grade point average, test scores (SAT or ACT), and involvement.  Students make the mistake in thinking, though, that since a high GPA and SAT score are good, a high amount of extracurriculars must be good, too.

How many extracurriculars should I have?

This type of question shows right away that students are thinking the wrong way about involvement.  A university does not simply add up the amount of clubs you joined and give you points.  Rather, they are looking for the quality of your involvement.  A four-year commitment to one organization is better than one-year commitments to four organizations.

The most important thing is to join clubs that you are actually personally interested in.   Colleges like to see focus, and it is much easier for you to focus on something that you like than to try to force yourself to do something.  Also, you will probably get more valuable experiences from an organization you truly enjoy, and these experiences are perfect for the personal statement.

Instead of aiming for a dozen extracurriculars, shoot for 2 or 3 really high quality ones.  This is all you'll really have time for anyway, and it will give you the chance to be involved in those clubs and perhaps even be elected president.

Do I have to be the president of all my clubs?

Absolutely not.  Colleges and universities are looking for leaders, yes, but they are also looking for people who can be good followers too. Being president of one club is good, but being president of all of them may make you appear scattered and unable to concentrate on a single activity.

Awards or other types of recognition are really important, too.  And remember, more than just the president of a club gets awards.  Being the leader of one club and also gaining recognition in another shows that you are not only an efficient leader, but a productive member as well.  You also appear diversely talented, another attribute colleges look for.

How important are extracurriculars compared to other things like GPA and test scores?

How important they are depends on many other factors, including the strength of your extracurricular, the time between graduation and application, and how good your GPA and test scores are.  For a school looking to recruit all-star football players, being the starting varsity quarterback on your high school football team for three years is obviously a great boost to your application.

In all cases, extracurriculars alone probably won't get you accepted, but they will be the key to differentiating yourself from other applicants with similar numbers.  For example, if you were an admissions officer and you had two candidates both with a 3.7 GPA and a 2130 on their SAT, and one volunteered at a homeless shelter all throughout high school and the other did nothing, which one would you pick?

You'll want to still follow the advice from the previous two questions, though, so don't spread yourself out too thin just to seem involved.  Rather, get involved to supplement your application, rather than be it.

But wait, extracurriculars will help me get accepted, right?

Right, but remember that they are just a component of your overall package.  If being president of the student body is causing you to fail geometry classes, then you should start focusing more on your academics.  Be a successful student first, then start looking toward just as much involvement as you can do without hurting your studies.  Colleges and universities want well-rounded, involved applicants, of course, but they also want good students.  Make sure that you're both.

So what does every student do wrong, then?

The mistake that almost every student makes is joining clubs or becoming involved in extracurricular activities simply because they think it will help them get into college.  It will, but that shouldn't be the reason you join them.

You should join an activity first because you're interested in it and will enjoy doing it.  You should join second because you want to help out and contribute to something you really care about.  The fact that it will also help your applicant is simply a beneficial side-effect.

If anyone tells you that you should have more extracurriculars, you are getting bad advice.  What you should do is increase the quality of your extracurriculars, but never to the detriment of your academics. Do what you enjoy because you enjoy doing it, not because it will help with college.

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