Niche Resources

How to Make Your Extracurricular Activities Stand Out When Applying to College


Are you having trouble deciding what extracurricular activities to join in high school? Read this guide for an overview of how colleges evaluate your extracurricular involvement, plus a list of five great extracurriculars to consider joining.

The Lowdown

If you’re a high school student, you’ve probably heard that “colleges look at extracurriculars,” but you might be wondering what that really means for you.

What are colleges evaluating when they look at your extracurricular participation, and how can you ensure that your activities make a good impression?

First, it’s important not to spread yourself too thin. Colleges aren’t looking for sheer quantity; they want to see passion and commitment to activities that you find meaningful. Choose a few activities that genuinely interest you and strive to take on leadership roles or otherwise contribute to the team, club, or group. Deepen and develop these interests over time.

Don’t choose activities solely because you think they will impress admissions officers. They want to know what you enjoy so they can envision how you might get involved and contribute on their campuses. The bottom line is this: Participate in the extracurricular activities that you want to participate in, then think about how you can best lead and contribute in these areas.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider signing up for one or more of the extracurricular activities listed below. Decide which activities fit your interests, then read our tips on how to maximize your participation and make your college applications more competitive.

1. National Honor Society (NHS)

National Honor Society is an organization for high-achieving students that focuses on scholarship, leadership, and service. To join, you must have at least a 3.0 GPA, and teacher recommendation forms are typically required. NHS prefers candidates who have demonstrated good character, as well as a commitment to service and leadership.

NHS members are considered leaders and role models in their schools. They plan and participate in a variety of activities that benefit the school and community. If you enjoy giving back to the community, value academic excellence, and want to be a leader at your school, National Honor Society is a great fit.

If you decide to participate in NHS, consider going for a leadership position, such as president, vice president, or treasurer of the club. Being an NHS officer demonstrates that you’re a top leader among some of the best students in your school, which is certainly attractive to colleges.

What if you don’t want to be an NHS officer, or you don’t get elected? No problem — think of other ways you can contribute and add value to your National Honor Society. Present an idea for a volunteer activity, take the lead on organizing an event, or use your art skills to design posters advertising it. Whatever you do, keep a record of your involvement so you can accurately describe it on your college applications.

2. Student Government Association

Another great activity for passionate leaders is the Student Government Association (SGA). SGA members represent the student body to the faculty and administration. They also sponsor and organize service projects, school dances, and spirit activities, and they oversee or work with many other student organizations.

The SGA is headed by the student body president and other class officers. To get one of these positions, you’ll need to campaign for votes and give persuasive speeches to your fellow students.

Being elected to a student government position shows that you’re responsible and capable, and other students look up to you. If you decide to participate in SGA or run for a student government position, you should be passionate about making a positive difference at your school. Colleges love to hear about your problem-solving skills and ability to make an impact, so document any important information or anecdotes for later use.

Once you’ve discovered activities you enjoy, increase your involvement and focus on adding value.

3. STEM Clubs

If you’re interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, it’s a great idea to join a STEM-related club at your school. This is especially true if you’re applying to a college like CalTech or MIT, where the admissions team wants a class of students who are deeply curious and passionate about STEM fields.

Clubs will vary by high school, but see if your school has any of the following:

  • Robotics Club
  • STEM Club
  • Mathematics Team
  • Science or Math “Olympiads”
  • Girls Who Code
  • Astronomy Club
  • Chemistry Club
  • Engineering Club
  • Biology Club
  • Math Club
  • Physics Club
  • Science National Honor Society
  • Science Bowl
  • Web Design/Coding Club

And if your school doesn’t have any of these clubs, it’s even more impressive (and exciting) to start one! You’ll most likely need paperwork from your school and a teacher who’s willing to sponsor the club. If these clubs already exist, join one or two of your favorites and eventually increase your impact and involvement.

If you want to enroll at a top tech school like MIT or CalTech, it’s also a good idea to attend STEM camps or find STEM internships, design and conduct research/experiments, and enter competitions if possible.

4. Athletics

High school sports require serious time and dedication. If sports are your passion, competing at the high school level can make a positive impression on admissions officers.

Ideally, you should participate in the sport(s) of your choosing for all four years of high school (or as much time as possible). This shows that you are committed to your sport and your team. Even better, try to become a captain of a sports team at your school to demonstrate leadership.

If you’re a sports team captain, try to think beyond the title. What can you do to help your team improve? How do you positively contribute to your team’s dynamic and performance? This is the information that colleges are especially interested in. And remember: Even if you aren’t a team captain, you can still strive to make an impact on your team (and discuss it on your college applications).

5. Arts

Most high schools also offer a wide variety of clubs and organizations related to the arts, including:

  • Drama Club
  • Chorus/Choir
  • Marching Band
  • Concert Band
  • Jazz Band
  • Ensembles
  • Orchestra
  • Art Club
  • Literary Magazine Club
  • Poetry/Slam Poetry Club
  • Photography Club
  • Dance Club

Join one or two of the activities that best fit your interests, then pursue leadership roles or make other significant contributions. And if you don’t see something you like, start it yourself! If you’re applying to an art or performing arts school that requires auditions or portfolios, participating in these activities is a great way to begin developing your portfolio and sharpening your skills.

The Bottom Line

If your interests aren’t represented here, check your school’s website or front office for a complete list of clubs and activities. Find a few activities that you’re passionate about and sign up. Remember that if you don’t see something you like, you can always start your own club.

Once you’ve discovered activities you enjoy, increase your involvement and focus on adding value. Campaign for a leadership position, present an awesome idea, organize an event, or help solve problems. Keep track of how much time you spend on each activity, as well as how you contribute to the organizations you’re involved in.

By pursuing your passions and achieving a high level of impact and involvement, you’re sure to make a positive impact on college admissions officers. Plus, you’ll enjoy yourself along the way!

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.