Your Extracurricular Activities Can Make a
Critical Difference in College Admissions

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: April 25, 2019

GPA of 4.5? 1500 on the SAT? Those tell college admissions officers that you’re reasonably bright, perform well in scholastic matters, and can compete for admission with other students who have comparable stats. But that’s all they say about the applicant – they’re data points, devoid, you might say, of personality. In virtually all competitive college admissions situations, those data are simply not enough.

This isn’t just theory: In a December 13, 2017 blog in the, Natasha Warikoo, an Associate Professor of Education at Harvard University wrote, “Harvard rejects 1 in 4 students with perfect SAT scores. The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University reject three out of five high school valedictorians”…

…and here’s why that’s so: According to a February 5, 2019 blog on, there are 43,500 high school senior classes that will produce about that many valedictorians. But the eight Ivy League colleges offered admission to only 23,178 freshmen applicants in 2017. Add to that the total number of freshmen applicants accepted in 2017 at Northwestern, MIT, Stanford, Duke, and the University of Chicago, and you’ve increased the number of admitted students to only 35,806. If, hypothetically, all 43,500 valedictorians applied only to those 13 schools, then about 18% would be denied.

statistics in college admissionIn this purely statistical scenario – but one with “real world” consequences, as you’ll see – the 7,694 rejected valedictorians would then join the about 43,500 salutatorians – students that graduated second in their class – as applicants to a second tier of selective colleges. Those schools would then have a pool of about 51,194 very high-performing applicants from which to choose. And that doesn’t include the 130,500 or so students that graduated third, fourth, or fifth in their classes. Or athletes who may receive admission based upon other criteria.

So even granting that the schools we chose to look at are among the most highly selective in the nation, the “pushdown” effect we’re describing makes it clear that for all selective schools, excelling at high school academics and on an admissions test simply isn’t enough to differentiate one student from the next; all the accepted students at selective colleges are cut from the same GPA/Test Score mold.

So what are the non-academic elements that help admissions officers make the decision about which of two well-qualified applicants to admit? It turns out that they’re the characteristics that best help the admissions officers answer the question, “What are we going to get in the way of a person and contributing member to our college community if we admit this applicant instead of that one?” 

Volunteering to help the homeless to get into collegeAn analysis of the survey data in The National Association of College Admission Counseling’s 2018 State of College Admissions Report shows that, excluding academic-related factors (we’re also excluding teacher and counselor recommendations, because they’re so obviously influenced by academic factors), the admissions criterion garnering the most responses of having considerable or moderate influence in admissions decisions is extracurricular activities. And that’s understandable, because what people do that they don’t have to do opens a window into character: It shows better than anything what they value, what’s important to them – in short, who they are. We want students to be aware that what they do and what they accomplish while doing it can make a very big difference, and that there are some of the things that make admissions officers look particularly favorably on applicants.

Character Counts: What Are Colleges Looking For? on reads, in part,

What are college admission officers looking for when they read your application? They take into account more than your GPA and test scores. Your character and the personal qualities you can bring to a college are important too. That’s why you need to think about your goals, accomplishments and personal values and figure out how you can best express those in your applications.

Colleges look for qualities like leadership and a sense of social responsibility.

The Qualities Colleges Want

“What is it that makes you unique, and how will you contribute to the life of our campus?” That’s what admission officers want to know, according to Earl Johnson, dean of admission at the University of Tulsa. To gauge what students can bring to their campus, they look for these types of qualities:

1. Leadership
2. A willingness to take risks
3. Initiative
4. A sense of social responsibility
5. A commitment to service
6. Special talents or abilities

Two posts, one titled What Are Good Extracurricular Activities for College Applicants? on the National Society of High School Scholars website and the other titled Impressive Extracurriculars on mention these extracurricular activities as offering opportunities to demonstrate those characteristics:

  • Debatesoup kitchen - victoria-kubiaki-1402284-unsplash
  • Student Government
  • Academic Teams and Clubs
  • Creative Pursuits
  • Sports
  • Internships
  • Community Outreach and Volunteerism*
  • Part-Time Jobs
  • Culture Clubs
  • The Student Newspaper

*This is one of our favorites because it can reflect multiples of the qualities admissions officers like to see.

Regardless of which activities students engage in – whether on the above list or not – long-term involvement that shows passion and commitment will impress, as will activities that demonstrate your initiative, leadership, and results. Most important, such commitments will enrich your life many times over.

We’ve given you some essential information to help you stand out in the college admissions process. Want to act on it in the most effective way? We help students by counseling them on these and other admissions matters – it’s a big part of why we exist. Call us today if you need help developing an extracurricular activities strategy that will make you stand out from your competition.

Topics: College Admission Extracurricular Activities

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