If you are a high school student worrying about how exactly you should spend your free time, this post may help you out.
As you may already know, your extracurriculars play an important role in college applications; the question is, which extracurricular activities are the best?
The truth is, there is no “best” extracurricular activity that will make or break your chances of getting into a certain university. However, there are activities that are generally valued more than others (discovered by analyzing the activities of many admitted students).
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In this post, I’ll reveal (in no particular order) some activities that many applicants who were admitted into top universities shared. Please note that this list is neither official (I’m not a college admissions officer) nor exhaustive, but I hope it will benefit you.
Find A Relevant Internship
Internships are often entry-level jobs where you can learn new skills and experience the workplace. Internships are difficult to land for high school students, so if you find a relevant and reliable one, it will no doubt look impressive on your college applications.
But what do I mean by relevant? The internships should be in the field of study you’re interested in. For example, if you want to eventually study graphic design, start with a basic-level internship in graphic design. This could mean creating social media images, making publicity posters, etc.
And what about reliability? Though this is difficult to define, I coined this term to differentiate big companies from small businesses. In general, you want to aim for an internship at a company that is easily searchable on the Internet. While your experience at a local small business may have been beneficial, it’s less impressive than one at a well-known company.
However, no matter where you intern, remember that the experience will be valuable in your future. Even if it doesn’t play a big role in the Activities section of your application, it may provide many interesting stories in your essays.
You can search for internships on any job-searching platform, such as Indeed. You can also ask around in your community!
While internships often help to demonstrate your passion for a field of work and your skills in that area, volunteering experience shows your dedication to your community and other admirable values.
Volunteering opportunities are much more abundant than internship opportunities, and you can start from a young age. I suggest starting as soon as you can, such as middle school or freshman year of high school.
While there’s no harm in starting late, volunteering for a long time shows your passion and dedication in improving your community. In addition, if you gather enough service hours, you could apply for the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
But remember, you should be genuinely invested in the cause that you’re volunteering for and not just volunteer for the sake of gathering hours for the college application.
You can often find volunteer opportunities in your local community. Many high schools also have clubs like Interact, Key Club, and Kids Against Hunger, where members volunteer for a specific or a variety of causes.
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Start & Run A Non-Profit
One of the most popular choices among high school students is to start a nonprofit organization. This is because the process (though it can be costly) is relatively easy. You determine a purpose or goal, name your organization, and register it as a 501(c)(3).
However, like the other activities on this list, don’t start a nonprofit organization just to put it on your college applications. Colleges will see right through your act if it’s extrinsically motivated (if you don’t genuinely have a passion for your cause).
Instead, find a current issue you’re genuinely passionate about, and one that you want to do something to cause change. This can be something small and local, or even large and international.
Your organization can have various purposes, such as raising awareness, gathering funds, increasing communication, etc. You can also add your own twist and personality into the way you run your organization; perform music, paint commissions, design logos… these are all ways you can publicize your cause and gather donations.
Once you’re ready to really establish your organization, you’ll have to officially register it with your state. Please reference this page if you’re seriously considering starting a nonprofit. If your organization stays active and makes an impact under your leadership, this can be a great boost on your college applications.
Land A Leadership Position
Leadership can be defined in many ways, but a direct leadership position is the most intuitive way that colleges can see your leadership skills. Many students strive to land a leadership position in school clubs or organizations.
For example, you can be the Editor In Chief of the school newspaper, the captain of the varsity tennis team, or the drum major of the school marching band. These all have different responsibilities, but they all require qualities of a leader.
It’s not easy to just “become a leader” in a group. Often, you have to have the skills, commitment, and trust to be entitled a leader by others or by a teacher. This means that if you’re truly passionate about a group or an activity, try to do the following:
- Be active in the group from the very beginning.
- Do your best and hold yourself to high standards.
- Build up your skills.
- Build relationships with others.
- Be yourself!
Contribute To Research
Research is hard. It takes hundreds of hours and a lot of drive to conduct significant research and write a paper. It’s very difficult to do research yourself, which is why many students apply to research programs at universities, where mentors guide you through the process.
You can find many research programs online, but many require an application. You must show your interest and passion, as well as previous experience you may have. Research programs are very time-consuming, so most students choose to do this over the summer.
Here are some of the most impressive summer research programs you can give a shot at:
- Research Science Institute
- Simons Summer Research Program
- Rockefeller Summer Science Research Program
- RISE Internship
You are also encouraged to use your connections to reach out to professors and other professionals for research opportunities. Don’t hesitate to ask around your community!
If you end up contributing to a research paper (preferably a published one!), that is a great achievement to put on your college application! You can also write about the process in your essays.
Attend Selective Programs
On the topic of summer programs: selective summer programs are a great way to spend your time productively. Most students, if they choose to go to a summer program, attend one during the summer before their junior or senior year.
The right summer programs will provide valuable experience and knowledge in a certain field or subject (ideally the one you’re interested in). But how do you choose the right summer program?
With a quick Google search, you’ll be able to find many summer programs, many hosted by famous universities. However, those aren’t always the best! If it is not competitive and costs thousands of dollars to attend, it’s not the summer camp for you.
In general, you want to find highly selective summer programs that are free or cheap to attend. These will hold the most impact on college applications and offer the most valuable experience. Visit this link for a big list of great summer programs!
Win Relevant Competitions
There are countless competitions out there for high school students, and many of them are very well respected by college admissions officers! No matter what subject you’re interested in, you can generally find a competition that holds value.
You can talk to your college guidance counselor (or school counselor) and research local competitions to find relevant ones. There are many out there, both big and small, especially for STEM subjects.
Some common and famous academic competitions include:
- American Mathematics Competitions (AMC)
- National French/Spanish Contests
- FIRST Robotics Competition
- Intel International Science & Engineering Fair
- Many more! You can research on Google, Reddit…
Many of these competitions welcome students from all over the nation (and even the world), and are highly competitive. Don’t be discouraged from entering, but be aware that if you’re not experienced and skilled, you’ll be less likely to win an award. But the experience is rewarding for all participants!
A Passion Project
If you’re feeling a little discouraged at this point because you don’t have the time, skill, or experience to do much of the extracurriculars mentioned, this last activity might be the one for you.
Passion projects can be any independent project that you take on during your own time and due to your own interest. It shouldn’t be a school assignment, but it should be significant enough to count as a “project.” This likely means days, weeks, even years of dedication and a lot of growth during that period.
Independent passion projects show your interest, dedication, persistence, resourcefulness, and passion for a subject/idea. And if the end result is impressive, it will demonstrate the skills and knowledge you’ve gained as well!
Some examples of passion projects include (but are not limited to):
- Writing and publishing a book
- Coding a functional app
- Starting a YouTube channel
- Starting a blog
- So many other options!
However, in order to stand out to colleges, you have to reach a certain level of success with your project. Simply starting it is not enough. For example, if you coded an app, it’s desirable to have a few thousand downloads. If you started a YouTube channel, it’s impressive to have over 10k subscribers.
Therefore, if you’re not truly passionate about this project and not willing to put in extra work for its success, it won’t be very beneficial for your resume. But if you are willing to make it work, it’s time to start now!
And that’s the end of this post! I hope you found it helpful, and please remember that I am not a college admissions officer or a guidance counselor. Reach out to a professional if you need extra help!
Extracurriculars are just one part of getting into college. If you need help studying for exams, use a service like ExamLabs.
But if you enjoyed this post and are looking for more like this, check these out:
- College Prep Checklist For High School Upperclassmen
- College Prep Checklist For High School Underclassmen