How to make extracurriculars stand out on a college app

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Student wearing a football costume plays a violin
    You don’t have to be involved in everything to get accepted to the right college, says Willamette University’s director of recruitment.

Do you volunteer at the local food shelter, play soccer or practice an instrument? Or do you take care of relatives and hold a part time job? 

All of these count as extracurricular activities that can distinguish you during the college admission process and demonstrate who you are outside of the classroom. 

“There are so many activities and we want students to be doing the things they’re passionate about, not just join things because they think it checks a box,” Sue Corner, Willamette’s director of recruitment. 

In general, students who demonstrate three or four balanced interests — say a sport, service and music — over a sustained period of time are the most well-received at liberal arts colleges, she said. 

Not everyone fits that mold, and that’s fine. Students who have singular passions are still impressive, as long as they can show they’ve pursued it in a variety of ways — like a baseball player who played for a club team, volunteered to coach Little League and ran a summer clinic for neighborhood children, said Corner. 

“Some colleges even view a singular focus as more appealing because the passion really comes through,” she said. 

If you feel you don’t have any activities or they’re not traditional enough, check again. Church involvement, part-time employment, mentoring other students or caring for family members is relevant. If you attend a high school that doesn’t offer many activities — or you’re not president of a club — that’s OK, too. The most important thing to do is note your involvement, said Corner. 

Failing to recognize your extracurricular work on an application can give the wrong impression to admission officers — at worst, that students are lazy — and also misrepresents crucial aspects of your life. 

“Demonstrating leadership and passion in other ways gives us tremendously important context to understanding who they are,” she said. 

Once you’ve figured out your extracurricular activities, the best place to highlight it is on a high school resume. Not only is it a convenient place to list relevant work, the resume sends a message to admission officers that you’re organized, take initiative and are self-reflective, said Corner. Attaching additional work samples like art projects or YouTube videos — if it’s an application option — adds dimension to your profile, too. If attaching it is not an option, she advises emailing it directly to your admission counselor, which demonstrates your excitement. 

Willamette University

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