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Identifying the Best Extracurriculars for Your College Applications

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Examples of Top Extracurriculars for High School Students

Extracurricular activities play a pivotal role in the college admissions process, especially for selective institutions. While academic performance remains a top consideration, admissions committees scrutinize applicants’ extracurricular engagement to gauge their interests, passions, and potential contributions to campus life.

This blog delves into how selective colleges evaluate extracurriculars, shedding light on what truly matters beyond GPA and test scores. The best extracurricular activities for college align with your interests, passions, and goals while allowing you to develop valuable skills and experiences.

Selective colleges adopt a holistic approach to admissions, aiming to assess candidates comprehensively rather than relying solely on academic metrics. Extracurricular activities offer a window into an applicant’s character, values, leadership skills, and ability to balance diverse responsibilities.

Quality Over Quantity

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about padding your resume with a laundry list of activities. Selective colleges value depth over breadth, emphasizing sustained commitment and meaningful involvement in a few key pursuits. They seek applicants who have delved deeply into their passions, demonstrating leadership, initiative, and impact within their chosen spheres.

Tiered Evaluation Framework

To streamline the evaluation process, admissions committees often categorize extracurricular activities into tiers based on their rarity, significance, and level of involvement. Here’s a breakdown of this tiered framework:

Tier 1 – Extracurriculars

These are the rarest and most prestigious activities that signify exceptional talent, achievement, or leadership.

Examples include:

  • winning national awards
  • holding prominent positions in renowned organizations
  • spearheading initiatives with significant societal impact

Other examples:

  • Social Impact Startup: Develop a social enterprise or nonprofit organization that addresses a pressing social or environmental issue. Whether it’s providing access to clean water in underserved communities, promoting sustainability through innovative technologies, or tackling educational inequality, your startup should demonstrate a clear mission, sustainable business model, and measurable impact.
  • Research Initiative: Undertake an ambitious research project in a field of interest, such as STEM, social sciences, humanities, or the arts. Partner with professors, experts, or organizations to tackle complex questions, generate new knowledge, or develop innovative solutions to real-world problems. Your research should be rigorous and impactful and contribute to advancing your chosen field.
  • Community Empowerment Program: Launch a community empowerment program that provides resources, support, and opportunities for underserved populations. Whether it’s mentoring at-risk youth, offering vocational training to unemployed individuals, or providing legal aid to marginalized communities, your program should empower individuals to overcome barriers and achieve their full potential.
  • Global Initiative: Initiate a global initiative that addresses a pressing global challenge or fosters cross-cultural understanding and collaboration. Whether it’s organizing a summit on climate change, launching an international exchange program for students, or leading a humanitarian mission to provide aid in conflict-affected regions, your initiative should demonstrate global awareness, cultural competence, and a commitment to positive change on a global scale.
  • Tech Innovation Project: Develop a cutting-edge technology innovation that addresses a specific problem or enhances people’s lives. Whether it’s designing a sustainable energy solution, creating a healthcare app to improve access to medical care, or developing AI-powered tools for social impact, your tech innovation should be innovative, scalable, and ethically sound.
  • Educational Initiative: Establish an educational initiative that promotes access to quality education and fosters lifelong learning. Whether it’s creating an online platform for free educational resources, organizing workshops to teach essential skills to underserved communities, or launching a mentorship program for aspiring students, your educational initiative should empower individuals to unlock their potential and pursue their dreams.
  • Policy Advocacy Campaign: Lead a policy advocacy campaign to address systemic injustices, promote human rights, or advance social progress. Whether it’s advocating for criminal justice reform, campaigning for gender equality, or lobbying for environmental protection legislation, your campaign should be well-researched, strategically executed, and clearly impact policy outcomes.

Tier 2 – Extracurricular Activities

While slightly more common than Tier 1 activities, these still demonstrate remarkable achievement and commitment. Examples include competing at the state or regional level, serving in leadership roles within school or community organizations, or excelling in creative endeavors.


  • Academic Competitions: Participating in academic competitions, such as science fairs, math competitions, debate tournaments, or Model United Nations, demonstrates your intellectual prowess, critical thinking skills, and ability to perform under pressure.
  • Global Engagement: Engaging in international experiences, such as studying abroad, participating in cultural exchange programs, or volunteering on international projects, demonstrates your global perspective, adaptability, and intercultural competence.
  • Special Talents or Achievements: If you have any unique talents or achievements outside of traditional extracurricular activities, such as winning national awards, publishing a book, or performing at a high level in a particular skill or hobby, be sure to highlight them in your application.
  • Start a project in your own school and recruit members and other schools to join: To raise awareness about mental health issues, reduce stigma, and provide support resources within the school community. Collaborate with other schools. Reach out to neighboring schools or districts to share resources, ideas.

Tier 3 – Extracurricular Activities

These activities showcase interests and involvement outside the classroom. Examples include holding leadership positions in school clubs, participating in varsity sports or artistic performances, or engaging in community service projects.


  • Internships and Research: Getting involved in internships or research projects related to your field of study can offer hands-on experience and valuable insights into your future career.
  • Arts and Creative Endeavors: Whether it’s music, theater, writing, or visual arts, pursuing creative outlets can help you express yourself and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Entrepreneurship and Innovation: Starting a business or participating in entrepreneurship competitions can cultivate your creativity, resilience, and business acumen.
  • Debate and Public Speaking: Engaging in debate clubs or public speaking competitions can improve your communication skills and boost your confidence in expressing and defending your ideas.
  • Leadership Positions: Holding Leadership positions in well respected school clubs and or varsity sports. Student Body President, mentoring younger students.

Tier 4 – Extracurricular Activities: Most Students Engage in These Activities

These encompass more commonplace pursuits that still demonstrate commitment and initiative.


  • Clubs and Organizations: Whether it’s a cultural club, academic society, or hobby-based group, joining clubs allows you to meet like-minded individuals and engage in activities you enjoy.
  • Sports and Athletics: Participating in sports teams not only promotes physical fitness but also fosters teamwork, discipline, and time management skills.
  • Volunteering and Community Service: Giving back to your community through volunteering demonstrates your commitment to social responsibility and can provide meaningful experiences.

Key Evaluation Criteria

When assessing extracurricular activities, selective colleges consider several key criteria:

  • Passion and Commitment: Admissions officers seek evidence of genuine interest and sustained dedication to activities over time.
  • Leadership and Initiative: Colleges look for instances where applicants have taken initiative, assumed leadership roles, and made meaningful contributions to their communities.
  • Impact and Achievements: They assess the significance of applicants’ contributions, whether it’s winning awards, effecting positive change, or inspiring others through their actions.
  • Balance and Diversity: While depth in one or two areas is crucial, colleges also value applicants who demonstrate a well-rounded profile with diverse interests and experiences.

Demonstrating Your Story

Ultimately, selective colleges strive to assemble a diverse cohort of students with unique backgrounds, perspectives, and talents. Your extracurricular profile should align with your personal narrative, showcasing who you are, what you’re passionate about, and how you’ve made a difference in your community. Colleges seek authenticity in their applications so choosing activities that resonate with your interests and talents.

Ultimately, the best extracurricular activities are those that you genuinely enjoy and that allow you to grow personally and professionally. It’s important to strike a balance between exploring new interests and committing to activities that align with your long-term goals.


In the competitive landscape of college admissions, extracurricular activities serve as a  differentiator, offering insight into applicants’ character, capabilities, and potential for future success. By understanding how selective colleges evaluate extracurriculars and strategically showcasing your passions, commitments, and achievements, you can present a compelling narrative that sets you apart in the admissions process. Whether it’s conducting groundbreaking research, competing at the national level in a sport, or mastering a musical instrument, demonstrate your dedication and achievements in your chosen endeavors. Remember, it’s not just about what you do, but why and how you do it that truly matters.The best extracurricular activities for college are those that align with your interests, passions, and goals while also allowing you to develop valuable skills and experiences.

While participating in a variety of extracurriculars can be enriching, focusing on a few high-level activities where you can make a significant difference will help you stand out from the crowd.

Also read: Why Hire an Independent College Counselor?