Top 5 Benefits of the Best Extracurricular Activities for College

If you’re targeting elite colleges in the USA, you know that engaging in meaningful extracurricular activities is important. But how do you pursue the right activities, in the right way, at the right time? It’s a complicated equation. And it’s precisely the dilemma that is thrown into the spotlight when you’re planning ahead as a freshman, sophomore, or junior in High School.

In this article, we lay out the core benefits of extracurricular activities and the impact they can have on your undergraduate candidacy so that you can make the best decisions about what to do next. It can be challenging to make these decisions on your own. But if you use your extracurriculars to connect your own passions to the qualities that colleges are looking for, you can sort out your priorities and stand out from the crowd. 

How Important are Extracurriculars for College?

In a word: very. 

For top-tier colleges, which are extremely selective, an applicant’s extracurricular profile can make or break their admissions decision.

But understanding just why your activities are important requires some understanding of the challenges that Admissions Committees face. For an elite college—like an Ivy League school, Stanford, or MIT—there are exponentially more academically qualified applicants who apply than can be admitted. Even colleges that are somewhat less selective receive many applications from students who have excelled in school.

The sheer number of 3.9 GPAs and 1500+ SAT scores put Admissions Officers in a predicament. Once they decide who won’t get in, they confront the mammoth task of picking who will. In the final phase of decision-making, they focus on your personal story and the impact you have made in various communities. And in order to tell a story or make an impact, you have to do more than study: you have to take action to influence the world around you. That’s why pursuing the right extracurricular activities is essential to proving that you are a compelling candidate for college admissions.

Choosing which activities are worth pursuing, however, is easier said than done. One way to make smart decisions is to consider the overall benefits of extracurricular activities, and to take on new pursuits that you think will bring you these benefits.

The Benefits of Extracurricular Activities for You and for College

There are countless ways to spend your free time: you may have personal hobbies, commitments to clubs or organizations, family obligations, a job, research initiatives, entrepreneurial ventures, summer programs, and any variety of other projects. But no matter what you’re doing, there are a few key benefits you should aim for when engaging in extracurricular activities. These benefits will help you showcase personal traits and skills that are highly appealing to selective colleges. 

Yet extracurricular activities aren’t just about college admissions: they are also about personal development. Your passions and commitments should help you grow toward the life you want to have and the change you want to make in the future. The best activities are always sparked by your intrinsic motivation or curiosity.

Finding ways to take advantage of all of these benefits should be one of your top goals as you prepare to apply to college. Keep them in mind as you start something new or develop your role in an activity you’ve already been doing so that you can be sure to use them fully in the personal story you will tell in your college applications.

1. Responsibility & Accountability

Important extracurricular activities should give you new obligations. Whether you resolve to practice your instrument for more hours, lead the planning for a new event for your club, get a service job, take an online class, or work on research with a professor, you are going to make a commitment to yourself and to others when you take on a new responsibility.

Responsibility & Accountability

This is important for your personal development because it will put you under a new kind of pressure. Extracurricular activities usually don’t come with grades or report cards. Instead, they tend to be assessed by other people: your teammates, your mentors, and your audiences, among others. Being accountable to these other people for what you promise will push you to stay organized and hard-working. In turn, this will build your efficiency and the way you structure your time. 

Click here to see examples:
  • Taking over a school club that had been steadily declining and had a bad reputation
  • Accepting a time-intensive assistant manager position at a local cafe
  • Managing a small team of junior researchers on behalf of a professor
  • Seeking to be promoted from contributor to editor of a regional youth magazine
  • Going from a public speaking engagement to organizing a TedX conference
  • Committing to publishing two blog articles weekly for an active subscriber base
  • Becoming the team manager for a varsity sports team after playing JV
  • Launching a nonprofit organization that promises fundraising for hundreds of people

2. Long-term Dedication and Follow-through

Following from Benefit #1, extracurricular activities enable you to engage in longer-term projects that push you to evolve your role over time. Unlike classes, which tend to reset each year, extracurricular activities can have years-long scopes. And the best ones usually do. 

Long-term Dedication and Follow-through

Why is that? Because from a personal standpoint, long-term work helps you become more strategic and intentional. Indeed, when you launch into something with an open-ended timeline, you are forced to continually evaluate your own progress. You must regularly pause to process past successes and mistakes, present challenges, and future goals. This self-reflection actually makes you into a better storyteller and a more compelling individual overall. 

College admissions committees appreciate evolution in your activities. They don’t want to see that you have remained static, doing the same things over and over for years. At the same time, they look for continuity over time. You shouldn’t be dropping an old activity and picking up a new one every month. 

If you can showcase your dedication to a single passion by increasing the scope of your impact in the long run, this will be unparalleled proof that you will continue to dream bigger and make things happen in the future. Colleges are looking for key traits of dedication and leaving a legacy behind you.

Click here to see examples
  • Playing in simple instrumental recitals to performing alongside semi-professional dancers
  • Building lego robots to designing 3D-printed science kits for kids
  • Writing a food blog to being featured on a food travel reality TV show
  • Practicing taekwondo to founding an after-school self-defense program
  • Being a competitive swimmer to volunteer coaching with a swimming program for inmates
  • Doing backyard rocketry to interning with NASA’s propulsion and power research team
  • Being a barista at the local cafe to organizing a service trip for a coffee farm partner in Guatemala

3. Initiative & Proactiveness

Admissions officers are highly adept at reading between the lines of extracurricular activity profiles. And often, doing so reveals that far too many students are passive about choosing what to do. Too many high schoolers sign up for every standard club that has long existed at their school, or accept whatever internship their parents set up for them.

Initiative & Proactiveness

Truly meaningful extracurricular activities require you to be proactive in order to make them happen. Even opportunities awarded via nomination aren’t attainable without taking the action needed to qualify. Though it might seem daunting, going out of your way to challenge yourself will pay off in the long run.

From a personal perspective, internalizing a proactive mindset will drive you to identify problems that you care about. Whether in school, on campus, or at the workplace, if you take decisive action to solve problems, you will strengthen your community and become an integral part of it. 

For admissions committees, seeing a candidate who is proactive will give them confidence that you can help solve some of the major problems on their campus, too. These may be problems with representation, social justice, open-mindedness, safety, opportunity, tension, and more. Students who have taken unprompted action to solve these problems in their own High Schools will be far more capable of doing the same for the elite colleges they want to attend. Colleges are looking for self-starters who can create impact on an ambitious scope, even for people beyond their immediate communities.

Click here to see examples
  • Organizing an instrument drive for kids in the community to receive free refurbished hand-me-down instruments
  • Leading a gun safety campaign in their hometown using social media and viral videos Approaching the county’s school superintendent to gain approval for developing a district-wide single-stream recycling program
  • Building a custom water filtration system for the school cafeteria
  • Working with local businesses to place former youth gang members in traineeship jobs
  • Founding and developing a literacy program for refugee children with learning disabilities

4. Social & Leadership Skills

The social aspects of your activities are deceptively important. You will most definitely deal with different types of personalities on your college campus. When you’re doing group projects for class or leading new initiatives for student organizations, chances are that you will encounter clashes in opinions and working styles. Working to resolve these not only demonstrates your ability to take charge, but builds your versatility to play different roles in different contexts.

Social & Leadership Skills

Colleges and universities are keen to admit students who facilitate collaboration. Whether you are a moderator, a communicator, or a delegator, do what you can to figure out your collaborative style, then double down on practicing it. You can take advantage of class presentations or group projects in order to refine your listening skills and grow your ability to share a workload. When working with experts in a certain subject area, you can ask the right questions that drive work forward and help you determine how you can contribute. And when dealing with a frustrating teammate or lack of commitment, you can learn to motivate others toward goals that matter. All of this will show admissions committees that you do not shy away from social risk and you will not limit yourself to narrow groups on campus.

Click here to see examples
  • Being a competitive polo player while working with an animal rights organization to lobby policymakers to protect horses
  • Organizing and helping to moderate a debate between the town’s police chief and the BLM chapter leader
  • Leading a team of remote tutors to work online with neurodiverse children in Central America
  • Gathering student petitions against an unpopular school policy and eventually changing this policy through collaboration with the Vice Principal
  • Moving from core programmer to chief executive in order to grow the user base of a meditation app built with friends

5. Time Management

Social versatility will also connect to your time management skills. Though “time management” might seem like a buzzword, it’s widely considered one of the most important indicators of future college success. At college, the impetus is on you to organize yourself and your priorities. In order to excel in academics while developing both socially and personally, you’ll need to strike a balance of work, fun, and everything in between.

Time Management

That’s why highlighting your time management skills in the stories you tell about your extracurricular activities can be so effective. And in order to do that, you’ll need to challenge yourself to switch effectively between different tasks, and to hold yourself to deadlines and objectives you’ve set out. You can take on challenges that require you to do deep focus work and produce something, others that push you to keep track of many moving parts, or still more that strain your physical or mental capacities. In fact, time management is one of the key reasons why colleges are so often impressed by stellar scholar-athletes. Because of the tremendous time and energy commitment of serious sports, Harvard even used to have a system to give each applicant an athletic rating.

Click here to see examples
  • Captaining a varsity sport while being a part-time assistant manager at a local sports store
  • Doing laboratory research with a university professor while performing in a touring junior orchestra
  • Chairing a model UN conference while managing the media team for a local youth newspaper
  • Founding and leading a Men’s Club at school while caring for a grandmother each weekend
  • Leading an advocacy group for indigenous peoples’ rights while working on a novel diabetes treatment for international science and innovation competitions

Want personalized advice for your own extracurricular activities?

Tell us about your goals with our college admissions calculator, and we’ll get back to you shortly with tips for your profile. Or, skip straight to a free phone consultation to discuss your application strategy with our expert college admissions consulting team.