Extracurricular Activities: Authentically Extraordinary

What is an extracurricular activity? Is it something extraordinary that students do or is it something students do to be extraordinary? This is not just word jugglery. We must seriously explore the defining features of what an extraordinary extracurricular activity is. My answer is to simply say, “whatever it is, just do it.”

The scope of extracurricular activities (ECAs) is far and wide. This may be something done within the school or done outside of school walls, including hobbies. Through ECAs, admissions officers can tease out an applicant’s character, achievements, leadership qualities, academic aptitude, entrepreneurial spirit, and authenticity. Therefore, ECAs are a necessity. Though the actual requirements are an SAT or ACT score, a strong GPA, and so on, an ECA is a fundamental part of any college application—especially if a student is aiming for a top school. Although schools not ranked within the top 50 have historically taken a more passive look at ECAs when making their decision, within the past few years, they have also begun to look more closely at this section of the application. ECAs capture so much of everything beyond quantitative and objective measures that they have become a key deciding factor for top colleges in their decision-making processes. At this point, many parents ask the following question: then does this mean that ECAs are more important than the essay? This is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. An ECA serves the basis of a major part of a student’s life experiences, and these experiences adds depth to her interests, character, and philosophies. And these experiences are naturally relayed to the admissions officer through the essay. In other words, it is impossible to write a moving and persuasive essay without meaningful ECAs. No matter how strong the horse is, he cannot effectively push a cart as well as he can pull it. Rather, the importance of ECAs stem from the foundational position of the essay.

Now that we’ve established the important of the ECA, what constitutes a truly extraordinary activity? Is the student creating a club in junior year to demonstrate leadership, competing to win awards, joining research groups and internship programs, participating in athletic and music clubs, or filling up her volunteer hours? Is the activity something special to the individual student? Or is the student weighing the personal benefits of the activity? Is she still meandering to find something that would be the best addition to her college application? If a student is choosing her activities as a means to better her chances at entering college, I can almost assure you that she is going about it the wrong way. If she is wasting her time collecting titles and medals far removed from her core interests, just because they “look good” in an application like notches on the application belt, then I would like to ask a simple question about this student: wherein lies her passion? An authentically extraordinary activity is never garish or just garnish. Even the humblest activities can reveal how a student is growing and add to her beliefs and opinions; beliefs lead to passion and that which incites passion is an extraordinary activity. If these feelings and experiences are made real by the student in his application, then success in college admissions is not far behind.

So how do you find an ECA that becomes a passion? Something like this does not just fall into your lap. Activities need to be selected and sorted through many failures starting from freshman year. In ninth grade, it makes sense to try as many substantive ECAs as possible. There is no need to limit the number of activities—I believe freshmen should just do as many different and varied activities as they are allowed. After all, there is only so much they can be responsible for as a starting member. As members of different clubs, a freshman can begin whittling down her options to those she best enjoys, those she wants to continue. In sophomore year, she should naturally have fewer activities she is involved in and even fewer in junior year.

However, in junior year, she should think of deepening her involvement in the select few ECAs she has chosen. Now is the time for her to consider how important her role is at her ECAs. Through these roles, she may find a new academic pursuit, or find herself enjoying a new hobby or in a position of responsibility in a related ECA. In this framework, repeating and long-term internships, research positions, or volunteer work consequently are bestowed a deeper meaning through her conscious choice of a worthwhile ECA. The same principles apply for participating in competitions. As the student continues to pursue an ECA from freshman year onward, her role will expand within the ECA. Her academic ambitions in her chosen field will also lead to participating in contests, and eventually awards—two birds with one stone. But take the following to heart: the purpose of participating in a competition should not be to receive an award. Of course, awards feel good to get, but they are not the be-all and end-all. If a student participated out of passion and competition was the natural outlet to showcase that, winning awards are just cherries on a cake, and it is impossible to know what effect a single award will have on admissions. If her passion is genuine, then she will find value in participating alone.

In the grand scheme of college admissions, we might even say that getting into a “good college” is a secondary goal of ECAs. The fruit of the toil and labor of high school students over the course of four years is not admission to a good college. It is the irreplaceable experience that they built upon their character, leadership qualities, academic abilities, entrepreneurial spirit, and passion. It’s these experiences that the admissions officers want to peer into. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this is the fact that no college requires material proof of an applicant’s involvement in an ECA. They do not need it. This is because the authenticity of an experience is directly and indirectly communicated through the totality of the qualitative materials: list of ECAs, essays, recommendations, and the like.

An authentically extraordinary ECA experience cannot be replaced by a good test score or even an admission into a good college. Stop weighing costs and benefits—just move. Go where your heart and mind lead. That’s where the treasure is.

Whatever it is, just do it!

2018 Mom & I 8/10 Vol. 10

Written By Jason Lee