There’s no doubt that extracurricular activities are an essential part of a good college application; long gone are the days where test scores and class grades were enough to guarantee admission into a top college.
Nowadays, college application reviewers want to gain insight into character -- who are you outside of school, and what do you do that shows your strengths? Grades and test scores are still obviously very important, but with so many students showing remarkable academic ability, extracurricular activities are where best-of-breed applicants are made.
A quick note: simply pursuing 10+ extracurricular activities and throwing them onto your college application won’t accomplish much (it might even hurt you). It’s crucial that you follow some basic guidelines when assessing which extracurricular activities are worth getting into, because quality certainly matters more than quantity.
Longevity and Commitment
One key component of a good extracurricular activity is the commitment you show in it (which is usually expressed in how long you’ve been involved, or how many hours you’ve put into it). Why does this matter? Because anybody can join an extracurricular activity for a few months and then drop it! Staying shows that you actually care about that activity, and aren’t just involved to pad up your college application. Try to stay involved for as long as it’s feasible to do so, and when it’s time to document that activity on your college application, do your best to note how many hours/years you committed to give a true sense of your dedication.
That being said, don’t feel obligated to stick to any particular activity if it isn’t plausible to do so anymore. If it’s taking too much time out of your week, is excruciatingly boring, or is too difficult, it’s better to reevaluate your situation and find something else than stay just because you want longevity to show on your college application. Changing your mind and priorities is perfectly normal, and even if there are 2-3 activities on your college application that didn’t last very long, don’t hesitate to list them anyway (the idea is to show that you generally commit to what you pursue).
For example, if you’re doing something like school sports, try to stay in each individual sport for at least two years (of course, the more the merrier, and it’s especially impressive if you stay all four years). Things like summer jobs, on the other hand, don’t have to be pursued every single summer; summer jobs are known to be temporary and nobody will care much if you only worked as a lifeguard one summer and as a cashier the next; if you can show that you gained something out of that experience regardless of its length, you’ll be fine (more on this later).
Colleges don’t just count off how many extracurricular activities you had and assign you a score. In other words, they don’t really care that you did a given activity, they care about what you got from it. If you simply write down “summer camp counselor” and don’t provide an explanation, all those hours as a counselor may be nearly useless if your college application reviewer can’t determine what being a summer camp counselor actually reveals about you. It’s important to come up with some sort of takeaway -- ask yourself what you learned from any given experience. If you don’t feel like you learned anything (and this should be rare), think about what you at least developed or improved in.
Don’t wait until the college application process before you determine the takeaways from your various high school activities. Instead, actively write down everything you do and as you partake in that activity, and take notes on what you’re learning or mastering (it’s a lot easier to remember what you did this way). Once college applications come around, be prepared to phrase your takeaways in a brief 1-2 sentences (which is what most applications give you to talk about any given activity). Doing so will provide some much-needed insight to your character, and you’ll be a much more competitive applicant when you make clear how your activities made you a better person.
For example, let’s say you were the captain of your high school swim team in your senior year. That’s a nice title, but it can be further developed by providing some depth. What were your responsibilities as a captain? How much pressure was on you to make certain decisions? Were you a leader, an organizer, or both? One way to describe your position could be, “Practiced leadership and communication skills to guide the rest of the team into many successful swim meets while providing oversight on strategy and training”. Notice how that sentence, however brief, covers ground on your responsibilities, the new skills you learned/developed, and your prior abilities in action. Adding a sentence like this to each of your extracurricular activities will give colleges a vivid picture of your skills and evidence that you actually have them.
The third and final element of a great extracurricular is progression. It’s important that if you stay in a given activity for a while, you want to show that your commitment and abilities were rewarded via promotions and the like. Showing progression lets colleges know that you actually gave a commendable effort in a given activity, and that you were worthy of moving forward in whatever hierarchy was available to you. For example, being a general member of a volunteering club at your school for 4 years isn’t particularly impressive because anyone can do that; on the other hand, starting as a general member and then becoming vice-president and eventually president shows remarkable dedication and potential. This is the kind of thing colleges want to see in activities in which you were involved for considerable time. Likewise, if you were on a high school sports teams for 3-4 years, starting off at the junior varsity level and working your way up to varsity or even captain/assistant coach shows great ability; on the other hand, being a lower-level player for 4 years shows that all that time didn’t go to good use (unless, of course, you had other commitments, in which case it’s fine to occasionally have a few activities in which you weren't able to progress much).
Overall, we can sum up the pillars to a great extracurricular activity with three qualities: commitment, depth, and progression. Participating in something isn’t enough, and it’s important that you do your best to stay in your activities for considerable time, show some sort of learning/development within that activity, and do your best to rise the ranks to provide evidence of your efforts. Obviously it may be hard to find all three qualities in every single activity/organization that you partake in, but it’s a good rule of thumb to look for at least two of the three in anything you consider. Once you’ve developed a considerable portfolio of extracurriculars with these qualities apparent, you’ll be that much closer to being considered a top-notch college applicant.