Updated: Jun 3, 2021
In the ever-competitive world of college admission, it is almost impossible to have a decent shot at a top college if one does not have an impressive list of extracurriculars (and of course, decent grades, excellent essays, and all that good stuff). In fact, such a notion has become the unwritten rule for all hopeful applicants that the title of this article can easily be seen as an oxymoron.
So why would an article about college admission tell you otherwise?
Well, the short answer is that it will not likely help. The long answer is that you are approaching the process incorrectly.
Now hear me out. I was one of the people that would do extracurriculars just to get into college. At the time, I thought that if extracurriculars were such an important factor, then taking more extracurriculars would be more impressive...right?
So, after being a member of 3 different sport teams, 2 bands, and 6 clubs every year of high school for 3 years, the lesson that I received was that colleges don't care how many activities you do.
Instead, what colleges are looking for is what activity you did and not how many activities you could do. Sounds confusing? Consider the following scenario:
Bill and Johnny are students at a high school, and both wanted to get to College A-a prestigious college known for being picky. Now College A is actively looking for some wicked coders-those that are going to make the next Facebook. Knowing this, both Bill and Johnny learn to code to have a shot at College A. Bill- being fast with idea-believes that more extracurriculars means more chance of getting in. At the same time, Johnny truly loves coding and focuses primarily on coding. In the end, Bill was a member of 10 clubs ranging from coding to being in the band, but since he had too much on his plate, he couldn't focus on one and did not win any prizes or hold any leadership positions. Meanwhile, Johnny's genuine love for coding grants him a leadership position in a coding club, and he went on to win the coding tournament on the regional level.
If you were an Admission Officer at College A looking at these two profiles and you wanted to pick a wicked coder, who would you admit?
And yes, I must admit the simplicity of the scenario, but if there is one thing that you can take away is this: extracurriculars take time (like A LOT of time), and you will likely not excel in everything if you decide to do everything. Almost all students have to juggle not only extracurriculars but at the same time prepping for standardized tests and being socially involved. If one were to do everything at once, mastering a single topic is not likely possible.
Colleges themselves know that they have limited spots for their upcoming class, and they wanted to make their decision count. If a college is looking for a good coder, they would more than likely seek out the person with the best record in coding and not a so-so coder who isn't really good at playing 2 instruments and didn't win any athletic awards despite being in 3 varsity teams. In other words, they don't want to see a lengthy list of extracurriculars; they wanted to see an impressive list of extracurriculars.
Look at successful people admitted to top-tier colleges and the same trend appears: Larry Page, who was admitted to Stanford for his Master's, isn't known for playing the tuba or for his soccer skills, but rather for his excellent entrepreneurial activities and technological-related projects.
So how do you make your list of extracurricular 'impressive' and not 'lengthy'?
The core difference is that impressive extracurricular lists are filled with projects that are done with passion, while lengthy extracurricular lists are completed for the sake of doing it-for-the-resume-to-impress-college.
Going back to my point of extracurriculars taking up time, it gets tiring when you take on multiple projects that you don't really find joy and motivation in completing. Not only does doing these projects drain your mental energy, but you are also likely wasting precious time that could have been spent doing something that you truly care about.
Ever had that experience when you do something and completely lose track of time? Imagine doing that same project for the duration of high school. Not only will you be wicked good at that skill, but you'll also likely be an impressive candidate for that related field when applying to college.
The core point of extracurriculars is not to get into college but rather for each student to experiment and pursue their passion outside of the required school time. While a lengthy list of unexceptional extracurriculars done without passion can certainly get you into a good college, top college is a different story. These schools are not looking for simply well-rounded students who tried everything; they're looking for those who excel at a particular aspect for their small incoming class.
So, when you plan your extracurriculars for college, don't do extracurriculars because you want to go to college. Instead, do extracurriculars because you genuinely want to do them.