What Extra-Curricular Activities do Colleges Look for?

A question that may not be on the top of mind for college applicants, but should be is: What extra-curricular activities are colleges looking for?

Applications for undergraduate schools and graduate programs are underway in many households this month.

As students from many backgrounds, both high school and college, pursue their next step in higher education; the goal is to present yourself authentically.  The demonstration of skillsets, mindsets, initiative, goal setting, goal completion, commitment and ingenuity are in the minds of the application reviewers at all institutions, particularly competitive programs.

Let’s take Natalie as an example. A successful graduate from a well recognized institution that completed both a six-year program in pharmacy and an MBA from the same institution. When Natalie applied for an MBA, she was turned down.  Both Natalie and her parents were at a loss as to the reason and next steps. As a parent or as an applicant, you can imagine, she was at a loss that her education was in flux.

But things changed when she demonstrated initiative in her college application the following year.

“When I reapplied, and documented I had started a business in the health care industry, I got accepted – no problem.  Not only was I accepted, they showered me with lots of extras – conferences, money and more.  I couldn’t believe the difference.”

That’s not just the case for graduate schools, but undergraduate colleges too.

Leadership – Show Initiative

While many students volunteer to boost their resumes or focus on getting top SAT scores, experts have shared with me that showing initiative – perhaps by being an entrepreneur or starting a community project – can carry more weight.

In fact, Harvard’s applicant criteria clearly focuses on leadership, asking:  Do you have initiative? Are you a self-starter?

Lynda Applegate, a professor of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School and an advisor to Girls with Impact, tells us, “There’s a tremendous disconnect between what kids do with their summer jobs, like dishing ice cream, and what they could be doing to build their futures. This program is a great way to help young people get into colleges, get experience, and build leadership skills.”

A Special Talent or Area of Excellence

Colleges also look for interests or, taken a step further, special skills, demonstrated knowledge, passion, or strength in a particular area, like sports, the arts, science or policy.

Think of Hilary Clinton, who stood out as one of the most ardent activists among her classmates or Bill Gates who, although he dropped out of college, excelled at computing.

“Do things that you truly enjoy in high school, rather than trying to out-guess an admissions committee,” says Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale University. “Why? Because what you truly enjoy, you’ll probably be good at.”
A question to pose yourself as a student or to your child – what is the quality of your extracurricular activities around those areas of interests?  Have you taken a leadership role or advanced your interests or education?

A student could have her hand in 10 different areas, the important difference in college applications is leveraging strengths and building upon those interests. Perhaps showing initiative and starting a project or business could be the compelling differentiator in your college applications.

“The important thing,” adds Brenzel about high school activities, “Are you learning how to do it better? Has it taken you some place that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone?”

The CollegeBoard has more on extra-curricular activities.

Diversity  & Character Counts

Universities and colleges are also often looking for a breadth of the student body they bring in. They don’t want too many in the arts, or too many with the same introvert or extrovert personality – or even too many from the same geography.

But either way, they are often looking for those who stand-out and who have a sense of social responsibility.

Earl Johnson, Dean of Admissions at Tulsa University, says character can come through in many forms, from your essay to your activities and the ways you demonstrate initiative.

Remember that in all the activities you do, direct your efforts to demonstrate real leadership and initiative. These are opportunities to form those important relationships that can lead to strong letters of recommendation and maybe even that internship or the job of your dreams down the road.