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 performances and to activities that begin when the last class of the school day ends. Here's a laundry list of benefits that accrue to students because of extracurricular activities, according to the College Board.

Encouraging our children to pursue a passion or two is one thing.  But 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. Here are great tips about extracurricular activities from admission officers of several selective colleges. 

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 and could well mean the difference between getting in or not. 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 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.

Breaking down Extracurricular Activities

Colleges look for four components in a student's EC activity, no matter what it is.
  1. Commitment to an activity resulting in improving skills. If you are committed to an activity and keep doing it, you are naturally going to get better at it.

  2. Team dynamics. When you are in an activity that promotes team dynamics, you learn to share, give, and take. You become better at helping your team leader organize. These skills are extremely important not only in college, but in work, and life. A bonus is when your team participates in competitions across schools in the same district, and moves up to regionals, state, national, or even the international level. The University Interscholastic League (UIL), a creation of the University of Texas, Austin (since 1910) is the platinum standard to challenge teams to compete and recognize achievement. UIL hosts contests in just about every EC interest area, so students can always find an activity that they like.

  3. Leadership. If you are good in #1 and #2 above, you could be promoted to a leadership role within your EC activity. Colleges love examples of leadership. Many essay prompts specifically ask you for leadership anecdotes and what better way to demonstrate your skills than in an EC activity?

  4. Service to community. The impact of your EC activity is important. Are you dedicating part of your week to helping others who are less fortunate than you are? If your current EC does not involve a service to community component, you need to invest time in developing a new activity that devotes time to volunteering.

    Students whose native language is not Spanish but who are taking advanced Spanish classes in school have additional opportunities to demonstrate your interest in serving underprivileged communities and simultaneously improve your Spanish. You can engage in areas as varied as Rights & Criminal Justice, Education, Health, Immigration, Voting, Youth, and the Economy by working with Hispanic organizations such as Unidosus or the AAMA.

    The gold standard in community service is recognized by the White House and Americorps. The President's Volunteer Service Award (PVSA) Program recognizes selfless service by students as young as 5 years old. High school students can earn the prestigious Gold award by committing 250+ hours of service during the year. Lower service levels are also available.

One of the best EC activities: Become an Eagle Scout (Boys) or win the Gold Award (Girls)

Is there one activity that combines all four of the above components? Yes! Boy or Girl Scouts!! Eagle Scouts (fewer than 5% of all scouts earn this distinction) are highly valued by college admission teams.

A typical Eagle Scout needs to prove competencies to win at least 21 merit badges, many representing life skills such as CPR, search and rescue, or swimming, and the entire journey commits the scout to 4-5 years of regular participation. All Eagle Scouts must design, engineer, and implement some community service project - leading other scouts. Similar requirements are in place for Girl Scouts Gold Awards.

Before enrolling into a Boy Scouts troupe, we advise families to verify that their children would be safe. The Boy Scouts organization in July 2021 agreed to an $850 Million settlement over abuse claims dating back decades.

We conducted a webinar on Dec 17, 2020 - attended by over 500 parents and students - at which five outstanding high school students shared their extracurricular journeys. Featured are Rohan (Golf), Sarika (Debate), Ankitha (Band Director), Sahaj (Eagle Scouts) and Anish (Computer Science/Robotics Club). This program is one hour long.


Our takeaway

Regardless of the relative value in college admissions, there is little doubt that extracurricular activities help grow a high school student than just core academics. They provide opportunities for students to pursue a passion and demonstrate commitment. Most students begin experiencing what true leadership is all about. High school students also end up making friendships that help them socialize better in college. 
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, if applying to schools ranked between 50 and 100, extracurricular pursuits are not quite so important. Regardless of college admissions, extracurricular activities help shape a student's profile like nothing else, so one or two strong activities should form a student's profile.

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

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