How Important Are Extracurricular Activities For High School Students?




By Rajkamal Rao  



Music class on Mondays and Thursdays.  Dance on Tuesday.  Swimming on Wednesday.  Band practice and debate team on Saturday.  Volunteering at a community organization on Sunday.  Oh, did we forget Fridays?

If you can relate to this schedule for your teenager at home, you're not alone.

Extracurricular activities have come to define what college admissions officials say they look for in a high school student when they conduct a "Holistic Profile" evaluation.  Holistic in this sense refers to both academic performance and to activities which begin when the last class of the school day ends. Here's a laundry list of benefits which accrue to students because of extracurricular activities, according to the College Board.

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Encouraging our children to pursue a passion or two is one thing.  But going completely bananas and forcing our children to fill out their brag sheets with dozens of activities - simply for the sake of listing them out, is another.  How did we come to this?

Note:  For our companion post about how many extracurricular activities are meaningful for a high school student, please click here.

For one thing, American capitalism doesn't help.   There's an entire cottage industry dedicated to serving the anxieties of parents so that children can be one up on their competition in a diverse set of extracurricular activities.  Typical examples include:  Drawing and Painting; Music – Violin, Piano, Drums, School Band; Dance; Team Sports – Soccer, Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey,  Lacrosse; Individual Sports – Tennis, Golf, Swimming, Track and Field, e-games; Debates; Computer classes; Robotics; Photography; Editing and writing, including school newsletters and yearbooks; Debates.  Non-profit activities such as community service and scouts are additional.




The Basics: How Important?

During the last three decades, extracurricular activities have become an essential component of a child's overall brand especially for admission to the most selective schools in the United States.   These include the Ivy League institutions and such venerable schools as MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley - in general, schools with acceptance rates of 20% or less.

But in a NACAC survey of 230 selective colleges, those with acceptance rates from 20% to 60% reported that extracurricular activities were not quite as important as academic ability, such as overall grades in high school, SAT/ACT scores, teacher recommendations, college essays, AP scores or class rank.   Student demonstrated interest - how well you rate a college and how likely you are to attend it if offered admission - is a lot more appealing to these colleges than a student's extracurricular activities.  After all, a college is a lot more interested to lock you in and fill a seat than scrutinize how committed you were in high school band.

This said, at least for the top schools, extracurricular activities can make a crucial difference for children whose academic performance is not quite that strong.  By expanding a child's readiness for college to include actions unrelated to high school academics, the nation's top colleges are indulging in an indirect form of affirmative action.

Harvard is famously fighting a federal lawsuit which charges that it unlawfully discriminates against Asian Americans by artificially capping the number of students admitted - and opening up seats to students of other races whose academic accomplishments are much less stellar.  Harvard says it looks "for promise" in all of its applicants rather than academic performance alone - a vague term that gives it full license to grant admission to anyone it wants.

This summer, the University of Chicago became the first elite school to go 100% holistic in its applicant evaluation.  It dropped a requirement that students submit SAT/ACT test scores - and by so doing, it leveled the playing field for tens of thousands of students who habitually under-performed in these tests.  When you no longer consider an important scholastic measure, admission decisions become even more opaque than they already are.  Just a few powerful people in the admissions office now wield tremendous power to pick winners and losers.

In many ways, this expanded definition of merit is unique only to the higher education sector - and is something that a student is unlikely to experience throughout his or her career unless he or she wants to become a politician.  When you apply for a job at IBM, IBM couldn't care less what you did with your free time.




Our takeaway

The landscape is changing rapidly.  If your child is considering a highly selective school, extracurricular activities are critical to your child's chances of getting in.  Otherwise, extracurricular pursuits are not quite so important.

As to how many extracurricular activities are important, we will address this question in a separate post.



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