Q&A Should I Mention ALL My Extracurricular Activities?

Should I mention the extracurriculars I only did for 2 years but didn’t have any leadership positions in for college applications? I don’t want to seem like those people who dabble in everything because they want to look impressive, since I know colleges are looking for depth instead of breadth. Thanks!

Great question! There is some debate over the answer to this so I will try to outline the common opinions and then give you my own:

1) Colleges are looking for students who demonstrate passion. An application that lists 10 different clubs ranging from knitting club to badminton club to math league, each with a few-year commitment here and there is not going to impress admissions officers. It doesn’t demonstrate that the student has any sort of matured interest that will create a material benefit for the college campus. When writing your application, you should seek to package yourself. Include activities that all hone in on one common interest. Needlepoint club? Forget it—unless your application is about your desire to change the world through needlepoint.

2) Colleges care about commitment. They want for you to demonstrate that you can join an activity and stick to it. The activity itself is less important than your time spent in the activity and your leadership positions. Needlepoint club is great, so long as you were a member for at least 3 years and became president. Varsity swimmer for just a year? Forget it. Colleges don’t want a “joiner”.

3) Do what you love and stop worrying about college! Ultimately, you want to satisfy your own interests, not satisfy a college’s nebulous desires. Be upfront about every club you’ve participated in.

My response would combine all three opinions (of course). You should do what you love throughout high school, which thus demonstrates your commitment to pursuing one or two passions in great focus. I’ll use myself as an example to explain. Education reform was my passion in high school. I didn’t realize, however, that I wanted to study education in college until my senior year:

That’s a lot of activities that don’t seem to have much of a common theme, right? Looks to me like a laundry list of clubs I joined throughout high school. I didn’t even stick with any activities all 4 years except for Science Olympiad. I didn’t want to seem like a “joiner” but at the same time I wanted to demonstrate my passion to colleges. I wanted to show these schools that I did have mature academic interests that would contribute to any college’s community.

So remember how I love education reform? That’s the point where I decided to start. I wanted to make sure each college knew that I had a keen interest in improving access to high quality education for all students. I narrowed my list down to these activities:

  • Science Olympiad
  • Elementary Science Olympiad Coach
  • Serviam Girls Academy Tutor and Student Advisory Board Member
  • Intern at the Lieutenant Governor’s Office
  • Johns Hopkins Writing Analysis and Persuasion Summer Course
  • The Young Idealist Political Journal Writer and Editor

But only one or maybe two of those activities relate to education, right? Wrong. When I was the Science Olympiad Captain, I was able to grow our all-girls team from 4 to 15 students, thus ensuring women had access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational opportunities. I worked to promote STEM education for girls again as an elementary school coach. As a member of the Serviam Girls Academy Student Advisory Board, I helped promote access to a free, private education for economically disadvantaged middle school girls. One day at the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, I was allowed to sit in on the Delaware Superstars in Education Award process which enabled me to understand what good education policy looks like. My Johns Hopkins writing instructor gave me an assignment to analyze a subculture. I decided to observe a democratic, free school that had no required courses for its students. That gave me the opportunity to explore comparative education. And finally, at the Young Idealist, I wrote an article about teacher quality in American public education.

I looked for any way I could to tie my different activities to my passion. But I soon realized that even though I knew these activities connected to education reform, colleges didn’t. My best option was to include a resume on my Common App. It was impossible to explain these activities in the 5-10 words you’re given on the CommonApp extracurricular activity section. I attached a list of my education-related activities and included brief, two-sentence explanations of how the activities tied into my interest in education.

Of course it killed me to not even mention that I was a varsity swimmer for three years (year-round). I spent 2.5 hours a day at the pool completing grueling workouts. But, not only had I quit swimming at the end of 11th grade, but I also had no intention to continue swimming in college so what would that add to my application? I could think of nothing. Ultimately, I had to remember that the purpose of my college application was not to demonstrate how many things I was able to accomplish in 4 years. Instead, it was to demonstrate who I was as a a person and what I could bring to a college community.

All of that said, if there is an activity that is really meaningful to you that doesn’t necessarily fit with one or two of your passions, by all means include it. For instance, if piano was a big part of my life and was a real outlet for me, then that would be an important extracurricular activity to include. Demonstrating who you really are is what counts.

In summary, my opinion is that you should do what you love throughout all of high school (which it sounds like you did). Then, when you go back to complete your CommonApp, identify a passion or two of yours. Then, look at every activity and see if it fits in with those passions. If it doesn’t, ask yourself if the activity says something important about you as a person. If it doesn’t, chuck it.  If it does include it. It’s okay if you you aren’t a leader in every club or if you only stuck with a club for a year or two. What matters more is that you pursued your passions in unique and interesting ways. That’s real commitment.

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