The number of factors to think about when considering college are enough to give high school students (and their parents!) serious headaches. Extracurricular activities are no exception.

Extracurriculars, as they are often called, are activities outside of normal academic programs students participate in. Traditionally, they have been pastimes geared towards recreation – things like sports, music, or the arts. However, in recent decades universities have begun to take a hard look at what students spend their time with outside of the classroom.

Because extracurriculars have an impact on college applications, students need to know what activities they can engage in that will assist them in getting into a college or university.

Upper-echelon schools are bombarded with applications from students with perfect grades and test scores, so their extracurriculars are one of the best gauges of who these students are. Especially at top tier schools like the Ivy League universities, application officers are looking for students who “stand out” and have something to contribute.

This means high school students need to take up activities that make them stand apart from other candidates and show them to be thoughtful, engaged, passionate, and bright. In other words, students need to excel in their extracurriculars as much as in other areas.

A popular way of ensuring you stand out is to plan a “spike”, or an extracurricular that is highly unique, independent, and impactful.

This article will take a look at extracurriculars that fit the “spike” profile, give examples of outstanding students and what they participated in, and also discuss some activities that seem to be worthwhile, but probably won’t help so much with the application process.

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5 great extracurricular activities for college

Perhaps the best use of your time outside of school, at least in the eyes of university admissions officers, is to participate in activities that take place outside of what your school may offer. These should be activities you can excel in, have a real passion for, but, most importantly, should be a pursuit that allows you to “make an impact”. Here are five that will help your application stand apart. 

1. Compete in a national level competition

A surefire way to get the attention of admission officers is participation in – or winning – a national-level competition. 

Doing so is very hard for obvious reasons: you need to be one of the best in your country. To be the best you will need an abundance of experience, practice, in-born skill, support from your parents and community, and a driving passion to keep you going. But this is exactly why universities look so kindly on applicants who have competed in national events.

Our favorite example is the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Most winners of this prestigious event often go on to equally prestigious universities when they do finally reach college. However, there are any number of national-level competitions in everything from sports to debate to chess.

Spelling Bee

2. Choose a cause and make a difference

Admissions officers at universities appreciate conscientious applicants, which is why volunteering has become so popular amongst college-minded high schoolers.

However, volunteering for points on an application are not enough; to get into the top schools students need to not just have taken part in a cause, but have also made real impact in that area.

Therefore, it isn’t enough to do some fundraising or volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Instead, ask yourself how you can raise large amounts of money for a cause you care about, or how you could spend an entire summer working with a non-profit overseas and contribute meaningfully to their cause.

One student who made a commitment to a cause was Athena Kan, who in high school she founded a health fair to raise awareness about childhood obesity. The fair raised over $80,000 dollars for the cause, and she went on to Harvard, from which she has recently graduated and now runs a non-profit helping bring technical talent to government.


3. Get an internship

Internships are usually something reserved for college students, but high school kids who have some initiative and make the effort can greatly enhance their college applications by getting real professional experience.

This internship should be applicable and unique however – “interning” at a fast-food restaurant for free isn’t as much an internship as it is unpaid child labor. As such you should look for opportunities to intern with folks in professional fields. Working alongside lawyers, doctors, teachers, corporate managers, accountants, or finance professionals would all be useful.

Shree Bose, a Harvard graduate and current Duke Medical School student, watched her grandfather die of cancer when she was a teenager. Motivatedby her loss, she found an internship at the North Texas Science Health Center and worked with a team of doctors and researchers to better understand drug-resistant cancers.

4. Be really good at a hobby

Hobbies are important if you want to be a well-rounded person. More than this, however, hobbies can help you get into college.

Okay, maybe not all hobbies, and certainly not casual ones. However, if you have a hobby you are beyond great at and it has made an impact, generated a following, or somehow helps you stand apart from other applicants, it is worth pursuing.

Universities are now even giving scholarships for activities like esports, so maybe even your hours and hours of playing Fortnite could actually pay off.

In high school, Mark Gurman had two hobbies – Apple products and journalism. He combined these to cover Apple’s product releases and other news, first as a blogger, then as a writer for online publication 9to5mac. He was a prolific writer for the site and his experience helped him get into the University of Michigan. Now that he has graduated, he has moved on to Bloomberg to continue reporting on tech firms for the media giant.


5. Write for Taipei Teen Tribune

Some of the most advanced Englist students go on to write for Taipei Teen Tribune, Taipei’s only student-written, English-only news site and blog. Doing so has helped dozens of students move on to overseas study, both at the high school and university level.

Taipei Teen Tribune (TTT) exists to teach students analytical skills in English, enhance writing ability, and to expose students, especially international kids, to Western culture and ways of thinking. The skills learned in this program are essential for earning admission to top-tier universities, and writers for TTT develop a portfolio of quality written work they can offer as a showcase on their applications.

Previous TTT writers have gone on to study overseas, including in Britain, the U.S., and Canada, along with top high schools and universities in Taiwan.

Taipei Teen Tribune

Honorable mention

The activities described above are just a few of the available options for useful extracurriculars. There are plenty more, but the main thing to keep in mind is that what you do with your time outside of class should make an impact and help you stand above other applicants. Some examples of other activities that will bolster your college apps:

  • Hardship – The vast majority of students applying to top tier schools come from supportive families with the kind of resources to help kids develop into unique and impactful people. This means that students who haven’t had easy upbringings, those who have struggled and fought to be on equal footing with students with more opportunity, are going to look stronger. Consider highlighting difficulty you have faced and how it has made you into the person you are. Samantha Garvey is a great example of a high school student who came from real difficulty and made the best of it.
  • A YouTube channel with a huge following – Everyone wants to be a YouTuber these days, but for students who have developed a channel with tens of thousands of subscribers, they have actually achieved something. If you have a topic or idea that can get the attention of lots of people, consider making your own. This is a project in and of itself, but if media and tech are subjects you care about, this is a great way to not only improve your application, but also expand your understanding of these fields. Sierra Isley is a filmmaker and YouTuber with a large following and huge potential.
  • Start a business – Entrepreneurship, and the grit, smarts, and effort that underpin it, are tremendous benefits when applying to university. If you have an idea for a company, consider developing it. It may even help you pay for school. Mihir Garimella is a student who started a tech business that could help thousands of people.
  • Develop an app – Tech skills and initiative are required to build your own app. Coincidentally, universities are also looking for applicants with these capacities. If you like coding, look into developing your own high quality app that users will find useful, fun, or compelling.
  • Invent something that helps people – Kid inventors are some of the most successful college applicants because they have built something from nothing, and done so with their own intellect and initiative. If you have an idea for an invention, figure out how you can start to tinker and come up with something of your own. Ann Makosinski developed the Hollow Flashlight that absorbs energy from the hands of users, meaning the devices never run out of battery.

5 overrated extracurriculars for college

As you can see, what students need is be excellent and different.

This paradigm runs counter to the commonly accepted maxim that well-roundedness, at least in the eyes of applications officers, is beneficial.

The following activities can be a lot of fun and do have their uses. If you do plan on participating in these extracurriculars with an eye for college, remember, you need to be the best or really stand out. 

Otherwise, participate in these activities because you enjoy them or they give you a sense of personal satisfaction, because they aren’t very useful on a college application. Certainly don’t expect them to be the reason you get into a great university.

1. Model United Nations (MUN)

Model United Nations (MUN) programs have exploded in recent years. They are very popular and can be a lot of fun. However, their popularity is their first problem – it seems like every college-bound kid is joining it these days.

Furthermore, MUN events are pricey – travel, hotel rooms, etc., can add up, meaning it can tend toward being a program more about networking than policy, especially for students from well-off families. College application officers are aware of this, and while they are not going to dismiss anyone because of their socioeconomic background, they are aware that MUN can be more “pay-to-play” rather than an activity where achievement is determined exclusively by merit.

Again, these issues alone are not enough to disqualify an activity from being worthwhile, but MUN certainly won’t help students “stand out” – unless, of course, you happen to play a unique role or hold a leadership position in your program.

2. Sports

Sports are a ton of fun and can be hugely rewarding. This does not mean, unfortunately, that they will be a useful pursuit for getting into a great university.

First, like the other extracurriculars on this list, tons of students play sports which, again, means it does the opposite of helping applicants differentiate themselves from everyone else. 

The only way to transcend this is to be recruited by a university sports program, which means the applicant in question needs to be an extraordinary athlete. This is doubly true for large, nationally competitive schools as top tier universities mostly look for top tier athletes. 


And while some of the best schools (e.g., the Ivy League schools) don’t pay much attention to their athletic programs, that should also indicate that athletic participation in high school isn’t really what they are looking for.

Another thing to consider is that sports take up a huge amount of student time. Athletes practice daily in season (and even sometimes out of season), and travelling for competition often means student-athletes miss class and valuable study time.

If sports are something you are interested in and want the experience, then you absolutely should participate. However, if you are considering athletics as a way to bolster your college applications, playing sports probably shouldn’t be a priority.

3. Marching Band

Band is a lot like sports – it’s a hugely popular and time-honored extra-curricular activity, it takes a ton of time and practice, and unless an applicant is a stand-out musician or being recruited to join a university band, probably doesn’t help much with getting into a good school.

Marching Band is highly competitive considering how many students participate and the quality of performance Division 1 universities demand from their bands. This, in turn, is what makes them so time consuming – in order for band to be “worth it”, students need to be highly skilled.

Still, for students who are elite musicians or have a leadership role in competitive marching bands, band can be a tremendous activity, but only if it’s something you want to spend an extreme amount of time doing and hope to continue on during your college years. Otherwise, your time and effort are better spent on your studies and other activities.

Marching Band

4. Student Government

Student government is another popular extra-curricular amongst college-minded students, especially because leadership is implied in governance. Unfortunately, that’s often not how it works, and college admission officers know it.

Student gov is often a glorified social club with very little actual power. Elections have a tendency to be popularity contests and tangible, useful leadership is rare. Most work done is either ceremonial or simply busywork; it can include painting and hanging banners, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or national anthem during morning announcements, and organizing events.

While there are some student government roles that do look good on a college application, like student body president, even these don’t do much to help applicants shine in the eyes of admissions officers.

5. “Leadership” organizations and seminars

A growing trend among college applicants is to include leadership seminars or membership in leadership organizations. These include groups like the National Youth Leadership Forum and the National Student Leadership Conference. While these can be rewarding travel and networking opportunities for students, that tends to be all they amount to being worth.

These organizations and their events come with a hefty price tag, meaning many potential students are precluded from joining based on their family’s income. Furthermore, these groups mostly have a lot of meetings that are gratifying to attendees, but not much actually gets done.

Again, if the topics and projects undertaken by these groups are something you find exciting or potentially rewarding for personal reasons, you absolutely should participate. However, the idea that they will help any applicant seem unique and better prepared for university is incorrect.

Hopefully these lists of extracurricular activities help you or your student decide how focus your efforts when considering college. Standing out, thinking outside the box, and making a real impact are key, so ensure time spent in extracurriculars hits these criteria.

Thanks for reading and be sure to check out other things to consider when thinking about college, like the importance of social skills and why the SAT is such a big deal.

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