Extracurricular Activities: How Much Do They Matter?

By Lindsey October 13, 2021 College Application Press Summer Plans

In the 2020-21 cycle, 10% more college applications were submitted compared to the previous year. Students with impressive extracurricular activities were applying to more schools, as the most selective universities, like Harvard University, Brown University, and New York University, all saw huge increases in application rates. 

At these schools, many of the accepted applicants will have near-perfect grades, great scores on AP exams, and (if they submit) high SAT/ACT scores. So how does an admission officer distinguish between the top candidates? 

The secret to a successful applicant is in the resume: admission officers want to see passionate students who are already positively influencing their community. However, this doesn’t mean students should join every club and organization at their school. Instead, students should focus their time and energy on a few extracurricular activities that they enjoy doing so they can participate deeply, gain leadership positions, and have a real impact.  

Admission officers want motivated students who have strong collaborative and communication skills as well as a good work ethic. When reviewing resumes, they are thinking about how the accepted student will contribute positively to the college campus. 

The admissions process is often very holistic—every piece of the puzzle should fit together well to help improve your chances of acceptance at your dream school.

What Extracurricular Activities Are Best? 

At Moon Prep, we recommend that students spend time on activities related to their future major or career path while also exploring their other passions. Ultimately, admission officers aren’t looking for one particular type of extracurricular activity. Instead, it is better to find what you are passionate about and then take that passion a step further.

No matter what your future major is, there is a way to incorporate it into your activities. Here are a few ideas to get you started. 

For The Business Major

Aspiring business students should consider extracurricular activities like joining school clubs that are related to their future field. For example, competing in DECA or joining the club Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) can help a student gain a better understanding of the business world. 

However, aspiring business students should also try to gain hands-on experiences outside of school clubs. Youth entrepreneurship programs like Beta Bowl can help a student learn more about running their own business. Students might also want to learn about investing through learning platforms like Coursera or EdX and then try their hand at investing in the stock market. 

For The STEM Major 

STEM majors often have a plethora of school clubs to choose from, including HOSA (Future Health Professionals), Future Medical Professionals Clubs, Red Cross Club, Mathletes, or other STEM clubs. 

Aspiring STEM majors can also spend their summers and after-school hours participating in extracurricular activities like science fair competitions, volunteering in a hospital, or attending summer research camps, such as Rising Researchers.

For The Computer Science Major  

Besides computer science classes, students should put their skills to good use through clubs like Robotics or Girls Who Code. Other extracurricular activity ideas could include attending summer camps like Inspirit AI or working as a Code Sensei at Code Ninjas.  

For The English Major 

Showcasing writing skills through high SAT scores or classes like AP Composition is a good start, but getting published can be a great way for aspiring English or Journalism majors to distinguish themselves. Students might want to write for their school newspaper or yearbook. Next, to take their extracurriculars to the next level, they can pitch articles to local publications. Students can also research online publications and pitch ideas to them. 

Students might struggle to get published at first, so to establish themselves as writers, they can start their own blog or post articles on Medium. To get even more writing experience, students can reach out to nonprofit organizations in their area and ask if they need help with blog writing or social media management. 

For Students With Diverse Interests

High school students don’t need to feel like they have their career path completely planned. High school and college are the time for students to explore their interests and join a variety of different clubs to discover their potential major. Joining extracurriculars that genuinely peaks their interest is a great place to start and an even better way to get a feel for what you may enjoy doing in the future.

Start Your Own Club 

If these extracurricular activities aren’t available at a school, motivated students might also want to consider starting a club. Typically to start a club, a teacher will be needed to sponsor the club, which means the student will build a strong relationship with them throughout their high school career. Not only will the student gain leadership experience, but they will also have a strong person to ask for a Letter of Recommendation.  Another bonus is that students can network with their like-minded peers, helping them to learn and be inspired. 

In-Person Vs. Virtual: Do Admission Officers Care?

With the pandemic, many in-person activities like summer camps, volunteering, or job shadowing have become impossible. Many of the students we work with at Moon Prep wonder how much doing a virtual activity will impact an application vs. an in-person activity. 

The short answer is that admission officers understand that students haven’t had access to the same opportunities, so virtual extracurricular activities can have just as much value as an in-person activity. 

However, if students are unable to participate in in-person activities, admission officers are still expecting students to find ways to supplement their resumes with virtual activities. For example, if a student couldn’t volunteer at a nursing home because it was closed to volunteers, students could become pen pals with the residents instead. If a student was supposed to do an in-person internship but moved to virtual, the student would still have a meaningful experience and learn from mentors. 

Real Examples Of Unique Extracurricular Activities 

For example, here are some memorable extracurricular activities of students we’ve worked with:

  • A student who loved to skateboard and decided to teach local kids how to skateboard. He even took his passion a step further and founded a nonprofit that donates skateboards to kids who couldn’t afford their own board.
  • A high schooler who, after reading an article about the increase of cancer rates that seemed to correlate with the release of the new iPhone, created a phone case that blocked radiation. She won second place for her project in a state-wide science fair.
  • A student who volunteered in hospitals abroad and the United States. He realized that in the US, many unused surgical tools were thrown away that could be used in underdeveloped countries. He created a nonprofit to recycle these tools and donate them to hospitals that need help.
  • A multitude of students who have had their research published in scientific journals.
  • A student who loved to play tennis on his high school team. He gained a leadership position by becoming the captain. He added another layer to his resume by starting a club in his neighborhood where he taught tennis to local kids for free.

All of these activities were unique to each individual student while all were trying to positively impact a small corner of their world. They took the initiative, found a problem, and then solved it. 

Find The “Wow” Factor in your Extracurricular Activities

Students who get accepted to highly competitive schools will pass the “Wow” factor and impress college admission officers. These elite students stand out from others because they didn’t just do 10+ activities— they concentrated their efforts on a few activities, gained leadership skills, and showcased their passions.

It can be overwhelming trying to decide on an extracurricular that will positively impact your college admissions package. If you are in need of admissions and application guidance, look no further.