How Many Extracurricular Activities Are Good For a High School Student?

By Rajkamal Rao  

In a piece recently, we discussed how important extracurricular activities are for high school students.
In this companion post, we will discuss how many extracurricular activities are good for a high school student.

As we have said before, 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.

How Many Extracurricular Activities?

There's obviously no right or wrong answer here but any number greater than four becomes automatically suspicious.

A meaningful extracurricular activity for the purpose of college admissions is a pursuit where the student is so passionate about the activity that it draws the student to it, much like a magnet draws a piece of wrought iron.  It's something that the student thoroughly enjoys, loses all sense of time in doing and does not mind any associated heavy lifting if such effort is required.  It's what the student is most comfortable talking about, the most comfortable reading and knowing more about.  It's what defines the student.

Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale says it best:   "My usual advice in this area is simply do things that you truly enjoy in high school, rather than trying to outguess an admissions committee. Why? Because what you truly enjoy, you're probably going to be good at, and you're probably going to get better at—whether it's one activity, two activities, three activities—don't obsess on whether it's an activity that everyone else in the world is doing, and therefore, one that's not going to distinguish you; or an activity that no one's doing and colleges are going to think is bizarre." 

By this standard, it is hard to envision children with more than a few passionate pursuits.   This is why the Coalition for Access & Affordability app – a platform used by over 80 elite colleges for college admissions and a new competitor to the Common App - includes slots for only two extracurricular activities. MIT which uses its own application platform called myMIT has reduced the number of slots for extracurricular to four, down from ten a few years ago.  It specifically advises applicants not to list activities from the ninth grade, which MIT says should be “a time for exploration."

Richard Weissbourd, a renowned Harvard psychologist, takes issue with the amount of emphasis on organized clubs, sports, far-flung charity trips, and other costly endeavors, the so-called "community-service Olympics with.  He says, “Many high-schoolers do volunteer, but it seems the public service doesn’t always come with pure intentions.   It doesn't advantage you to go to Belize – it’s just as good to work in a local soup kitchen.” His report on college admissions has been endorsed by more than 120 colleges and universities.

Our takeaway

Do just a few things but do them well.  How well you do is not as important as how committed you are to the cause, and how the experience helped you become who you are.  It is this that you will describe in your supplemental essay. And it is this which will bring out the human in you.

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