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The Best Extracurricular Activities for Ivy League Admissions

Extracurricular activities are important factors in the admissions decisions of elite colleges. Competition is intense and many applicants are well qualified with excellent grades and test scores. Yet there are so many extracurriculars from which high school students may choose that it’s natural to question which of them might be the most beneficial for you as an applicant, especially if you plan to apply elite, highly selective colleges or universities. Unfortunately, there is no pat answer. It would be nice and simple if there were a list of what’s hot and what’s not in the Ivy League. Alas, that’s not how it works.

The single most important guideline in your selection of extracurriculars is… more is not better. Colleges look for deep engagement in a small number of activities rather than superficial participation in many. Use the application process as an opportunity to demonstrate your real interests and passions. Don’t view it as an exercise in spin. College admissions officials are experts in distinguishing between the two.

There are a few activities that high school students intuitively assume will weigh more heavily in their favor on a college application, such as varsity sports, student government, or debate team. However, since colleges want to assemble a diverse student body, they seek applicants with many different talents, skills, profiles, and experiences. Colleges are as impressed by a student scriptwriter, actress, videographer, computer club president, or homeless shelter organizer as they are by a senior class president or shortstop. Admissions officers will note your role in all of your extracurricular activities as long as your commitment to them is evident.

It is therefore best to focus on the depth of your interests, not the breadth. If you achieve a leadership role in and contribute substantial time to, say, two activities, you will fare well in comparison to an applicant with superficial engagement in 6 or 7 activities. To foster your admissions prospects, commit wholeheartedly to activities that you truly enjoy and that improve your skills, benefit your school or community, or, ideally, accomplish both at the same time.

Obviously, your preferred extracurricular activities don’t need to be among those offered by your high school, although those are usually the easiest to schedule, nor do they need to be voluntary community-related services. A job demonstrates to admissions officials that you are practical, responsible, and mature. Unlike volunteer activity, you must always show up for a job, work hard, and perform well. Try to obtain a job in your primary area of interest. However, even if you are unable to do so, consider getting a job anyway. Find one that challenges your capabilities and, even better, shows off your potential for leadership. In your college application, state that wages earned will be applied toward expenses so that you can attend their college. Your case for “demonstrated interest” will be that much more credible.

If you can, use your summers to best advantage in a way that shows college admissions officials that you’re serious and passionate about your interests. You may be able to serve as an intern at a relevant organization or enroll in a college class in your intended major. Or, you may be very well served by getting chosen for a highly selective science research program. There are myriad high-end programs that will make you a more competitive candidate to top-tier schools. With IvySelect’s college consulting help, you’ll have a solid picture of what will be most beneficial to you.

Your IvySelect college consultant conducts an assessment of your interests and aptitudes at the beginning of our engagement as your private college admissions counselor. With this information, we guide your selection of those extracurricular activities that will best serve both your educational and career objectives, keeping in mind that, although we will utilize strategic planning to help you ramp up your profile and stand out from the crowd, these activities are not just a way to impress college officials. They’re much more than that. We help you use them to discover your own passions and proclivities and, perhaps, your true vocation. You’ll know you picked a good one if it makes your pulse quicken when you think about it. You’ll know it in your heart.