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How To Create an Strong, Authentic Extracurricular List

 A line of drummers in white marching band uniforms.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Undoubtedly, a key part of high school – and, inevitably, college applications – is having a strong set of extracurricular activities.

These activities, whether they be a sports team you play on, a non-profit organization you volunteer for, or a job you work part-time at, not only will be a fun way for you to explore other interests outside of the classroom, but also meet new people, learn about various career fields, and show colleges a more holistic view of you that extends beyond grades.

When it comes to extracurricular activities, there’s no set rule concerning how many you should be involved in or how involved you must be. But, there are some general rules to take into consideration to maximize the time you’re dedicating in addition to making yourself the most competitive candidate possible. 

It’s Never Too Early

The earlier you begin researching and getting involved in extracurricular activities, the better. If any clubs or activities you were involved with in middle school have high school branches, too, consider staying involved.

If you’re an incoming freshman, the summer before freshman year is the optimal time to do research on the clubs and organizations at your school/in your community, so that, come the first semester, you can quickly get involved and start the year off stress-free.

The longer you’re part of an activity, the more your commitment to the work shows, and more importantly, the stronger your bonds with both the topic and the people part of the organization will grow.

Joining a sports team as a freshman, for instance, means that by the time you’re a junior or senior, you’ll have not only improved immensely in your skill, but have also displayed a thorough commitment to your coaches and teammates – more impressive in many regards than the sport skill itself.

Try not to be intimidated by the fact that much of the group may be older and more experienced in the activity than you – soon enough, that will be you.

It’s Never Too Late

While the earlier you start an activity the better, don’t let your age stop you from joining an activity – no matter how long others have been part of it. Whether it be starting your own club senior year or getting a job the summer after sophomore year, don’t let being a novice stop you from trying out something new.

It’s never too late to learn a new skill or become passionate about a new topic, and continuing to expand your knowledge and experience, even later on in high school, will set you up to continually meet new friends and expand your horizons.

If nothing else, starting an activity “late” in your high school journey can set the stage for early involvement in the activity come college. 

Show Leadership Growth

Perhaps the two most important questions to keep in mind when you’re figuring out which extracurriculars you want to commit to are these: is there the opportunity to show leadership growth? And, how can I show this leadership growth?

If you’re involved with an activity for numerous years, you don’t want to be in the same role from start to finish; that shows a disappointing lack of initiative or interest in the enterprise. That doesn’t mean you have to go from club member to president of the club.

But, it does mean you should consider gradually becoming more involved in the activity as you become more veteran. In a club, this may mean running for office or leading an event after being a member for a year.

For a sport, perhaps you speak to your coach about becoming a captain or co-captain when you’re a senior. If part of a publication, like a school newspaper or a literary magazine, consider taking on an editing position after you’ve proved yourself as a content creator.

This shows not only commitment but also drive and genuine interest in the activity you’re part of; it takes much more to be a club vice president than to simply be a member for four years.

Unique Extracurricular Activities To Do

Try Everything Once

While it’s great to go into high school with a solid sense of who you are and what your interests are, don’t let that stifle you from trying things that don’t perfectly align with your solidified interests and goals.

Most clubs, sports, and organizations are expecting people to try them out before formally committing – take advantage of that! Go to the club rush booths or first meetings of clubs that sound interesting; go to the open practice or even tryouts of a new sport you’ve always been interested in; go to the informational meeting that a non-profit organization you recently learned about is holding.

There’s no shame in being curious, and as long as you’re not making a commitment to something that you don’t intend to keep, there’s no harm in trying something new.

Should you find yourself committed to something you realize too late isn’t for you, it’s okay to finish out the season or year and then part ways with the activity knowing you won’t be back; it’s all part of the trial and error that’s so crucial to discovering who you are and what you want to do!

If nothing else, keeping an open mind and trying everything once will introduce you to some amazing people you may have otherwise never met.

Create an Authentic Story

When it comes to being a competitive applicant for college, the number one thing to keep in mind is that you must be authentic. It’s easy enough to join a handful of clubs, a few sports teams, and take on an internship in the summer.

What’s considerably harder is finding extracurricular activities that mean something to you – that you genuinely want to commit time to. Colleges can tell if you care about something or are just doing it to rack up community service hours.

Not only will colleges and other programs not be impressed by a list of extracurriculars that lack substance, but you won’t gain anything from these activities either. If your heart isn’t in an activity, it’s a lose-lose: nobody stands to gain anything.

Keeping this in mind, when you’re researching activities to get involved with, identify what genuinely interests you. If you’ve always been interested in medicine, seek out clubs related to medicine or an internship at a hospital. If you love watching movies, consider writing for the entertainment section of your school paper or getting a part-time job at the movie theater.

If you love doing makeup and painting your nails, see if you can do social media for a local salon or raise makeup donations for a women’s shelter. Don’t cage yourself in, but don’t be inauthentic, either.

Find a happy medium, where you are getting out of your comfort zone, but never doing something just to do it – if your extracurricular list lacks genuine interest, so too will it lack the ability to impress anyone. 

Passion Over “Perfection”

Undoubtedly, being good at something is, well, great. If you’re a fantastic soccer player who loves soccer, for instance, it makes sense for you to join the soccer team. If you’re a strong writer who wants to create stories, it makes sense for you to join the literary magazine.

But, what happens when you love something you aren’t necessarily good at? Nothing – and that’s a good thing. There is nothing wrong with not being great at something you enjoy, and a lack of skill shouldn’t stop you from still pursuing your passion.

Dedication and interest in a topic are much more important than skill in a topic. Because, while hard work and practice can build skill, it can’t build genuine passion. Don’t let a lack of experience or a lack of fixed skill stop you from trying out a new sport or a new job: interest supersedes talent.

If Nothing Else, Start Your Own

Ideally, you’ll show up to high school and there will be opportunities presented to you that you love and can seamlessly join. In some cases, though, that won’t be the case.

Should you find yourself in the latter of situations, consider filling that void yourself. If you and a handful of other people feel as if your school is missing an affinity club for a group of underrepresented students, consider starting that club.

If you feel as if there’s no volunteer or internship program in place at a certain institution, consider reaching out to establish that program. Start a school newspaper, tutoring service, or new sporting team – the void has to be filled, and it may as well be filled by you.

You’ll not only get to be involved with that project, but also demonstrate fantastic leadership capabilities and initiative, eradicating that same dilemma for future students.

Author: Maya Henry

Maya Henry (she/her) is a happy crier and cherry tomato enthusiast attending high school in California. She aims to be a political journalist or policy analyst when she's done with school, and when not taking pictures of her dog, you'll find her reading a historical fiction novel, baking pumpkin bread, or debating the merits of communism with her brother.