Making Extracurricular Activities Stand Out in College Applications

by Gen & Kelly Tanabe

At first glance, college applications seem easy enough. You give the basic facts about your background, education, and achievements. However, one section that stumps many students is the section for extracurricular activities.

Most students simply create chronological lists of their extracurricular accomplishments. Big mistake! This is a section where you can really set yourself apart from other applicants by employing a little strategy. Anyone can be a member of the Key Club, but not anyone can start an adult literacy program or become the assistant manager at Wayne’s Weenie World.

The key to making your extracurricular activities stand out within the limited space of the application form is to focus on leadership.

But before you can do this, you first need to make a list of all your extracurricular activities, summer activities, and jobs. List everything big and small. Significant and insignificant. Don’t forget that extracurricular activities include experiences like teaching all those hyper kids at Sunday School, whacking the ball around on the ping pong team, playing the triangle in band, leading a sit-in against animal fur, or volunteering as a candy striper at the hospital.

For every activity, job, and sport you should try to list as much of the following as possible:

  • Name of the organization, program, or business.
  • A short one to two sentence description of the group, program, or business.
  • Any leadership positions you held and your responsibilities.
  • Any special projects that you initiated or oversaw. These could be either long-term or one-time projects.
  • Dates you participated or worked.
  • Number of hours per week you spent on the activity or job.

If you’re having trouble remembering everything, make use of other people’s memories. Although you are far from senility, you will still find that it is surprising what other people remember that you have overlooked. Show your list to your parents, teachers, siblings, friends, advisors, or anyone else who may recall something you did.

Once you have your list, you need to prioritize since you won’t be able to fit everything on the application form. The single most important criteria in prioritizing is to find activities in which you’ve demonstrated leadership.

Why Leadership is Better Than Membership

Let’s have some fun and put on the shoes of an admissions officer for the next few paragraphs. Imagine that you are looking at your 551st and 552nd application for today. Whew, time to call it a day! But, before you go home, you need to make a decision about these last two. Here are some things that each mentioned in their list of activities.

Applicant A
Reporter for school newspaper
Speech team member
Teen Voter Club Member

Applicant B
Editor-in-chief of school newspaper
Organizer of citywide speech contest for 1,000 children
Director of Teen Voter Registration Day for Democrat Club

Who would you admit? Of course Applicant B! The activities in which you have leadership roles or responsibility are the most memorable and impressive. Applicant B demonstrates her leadership and dedication through her accomplishments while Applicant A only catalogs his participation.

When describing your roles, do not be afraid to brag a little. You need to highlight the importance of your contributions and responsibilities. Admissions officers like to see students who are not only members but are also leaders. They want students who are initiators both inside and outside of the classroom.

If you organize and prioritize your activities by the degree of leadership you demonstrated you will create a strong impression on the admissions officers and be well on your way to creating a winning application.

Gen & Kelly Tanabe are the authors of Get Into Any College: Secrets Of Harvard Students and Get Free Cash For College: Scholarship Secrets Of Harvard Students, and founders of… where you’ll find more tips, secrets, and strategies.

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