Think you can get into a top-10 school? Take our chance-me calculator... if you dare. 🔥


Last updated March 22, 2024

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

The Best Extracurricular Activities for Ivy League Admissions

Key Takeaway

Extracurricular activities are crucial in Ivy League admissions because they help differentiate highly competitive applicants. Achieving depth, not just breadth, is vital. Activities should align with an applicant's narrative and intended major, demonstrating magnitude, reach, and impact. A balance between academic, traditional, independent, and unconventional extracurriculars can create a compelling portfolio that showcases passion, initiative, and significant achievement.

When it comes to Ivy League admissions, your extracurriculars can be the fulcrum on which your application’s fate rests. They can set you apart, or they can make you disappear into the sea of sameness.

In this post, we’ll go over the best (and worst) extracurricular pathways if you’re aiming for the Ivy League.

A Caveat About Elite Admissions

For the vast majority of applicants, no extracurricular activity is going to overcome a mediocre academic record. You’ve gotta have both, and that’s the harsh reality.

When rejection rates run above 95%, you’ll need to be on your academic and extracurricular A-game.

It’s simply the numbers: if the University of Pennsylvania got over 55,000 applications last year and admitted less than 6% of them, you know that tens of thousands of those applicants had strong GPAs and co-curricular records.

So extracurriculars are a vital part of your Ivy League applications, but they alone won’t determine your application’s fate.

Why are extracurriculars important in Ivy League admissions?

Ivy League admissions officers are looking for applicants who show academic promise and out-of-the-classroom action. They want to invite students to their communities who will take advantage of all the opportunities on campus and make a lasting impact, before and after they graduate.

Standout extracurriculars (in addition to strong academics) can signal to Ivy League admissions officers that you can walk the walk. If you’re already making a name for yourself in high school, imagine what you’ll do in college and beyond! Your activities should make your admissions officers say, “Hey, our campus would be better off with this student on it.”

That’s a big task for an extracurricular resume.

And it’s why your extracurricular activities should all demonstrate strong magnitude, reach, and impact. A successful extracurricular resume is all about being able to demonstrate the scale of your extracurricular (magnitude), the number of people you affected (reach), and the overall effect you had as a result of your activity (impact).

Extracurricular Mistakes to Avoid

Before we get into what you should be doing, let’s go over three common mistakes to avoid.

  1. Too much breadth. Not enough depth.

    The triple sport athlete who’s also captain of the debate team, founder of Ecology Club, and ASB Vice President? Yeah, we’ve all seen them.

    Breadth can be a good quality in an extracurricular resume. But for too many students, it comes at the cost of depth.

    You don’t want to take on too much that you end up overwhelmed or burnt out. You also don’t want to sacrifice deep engagement and recognition in one or two activities for mediocre participation in seven.

    It’s all about finding the right balance.

  2. Focusing too much on one activity that doesn’t relate to your narrative.

    Okay, so maybe you’re a really accomplished eSports player. You’ve won awards and even some cash.

    You’re proud to put on your college application that you won a national competition and a $5,000 prize, and admissions officers are impressed, too.

    But let’s also say that eSports has taken up your whole life at the expense of all other activities. You want to study mechanical engineering, but you haven’t really done anything related to engineering.

    Admissions officers will be impressed with your activity, but unless you can make a strong case that eSports is part of your narrative, you aren’t really giving them more of a reason to admit you.

  3. Not communicating your extracurriculars well enough.

    If you’ve ever written a resume, then you know that you need to communicate what you’ve done quickly and in an action-oriented way. Often, that means using lots of numbers to quantify your involvement and being clear about why your actions were meaningful.

    With poor descriptions, even the most impressive extracurricular accomplishments can fall flat.

    So no matter what your activities are, you need to own them and shout them from the rooftops (or the Common App). Embrace what you’ve done, quantify what you can, and convey why each activity was important.

The Best Extracurriculars for Ivy League Admissions

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no one-size-fits-all extracurricular resume, and there’s also no golden-ticket activity that will earn you admission to an Ivy.

What matters more than the activity you do is the level of magnitude, reach, and impact you have. You’re aiming to earn regional, national, or international recognition for your activity. The greater your reach and impact, the better.

Whether you win a national debate competition, open for your favorite band, or raise thousands of dollars for charity, your goal is to tangibly demonstrate the effect you’ve had as part of your extracurricular.

So instead of giving you a set extracurricular path to take, I’m going to walk you through some different options. What you choose to do should align with your passions, academic interests, and overall application narrative.


Academic extracurriculars can include activities like academic decathlon, coding camps, writing workshops, business leadership programs, or Model United Nations.

When participating in an academic extracurricular, think about how it aligns with your intended major.

If it’s different from your intended major, think about how you can use the activity to show deep interdisciplinary interests.

If it’s the same as your intended major, think about your activity as an extension of your academic record. It’s proof that you’re not just ready to take your high school academics into the college classroom—you’re ready to take them to the real world.


Traditional extracurriculars are the ones you typically think about when you hear the word “extracurricular”: debate, athletics, theatre, music, school clubs, volunteering, paid work, etc.—you get the idea!

Feel free to engage with this type of extracurricular as much as you want or need to. But know that since these are the activities you typically think about, they’re also the most common.

The best way to stand out is by earning recognition, accolades, or awards. If you play the violin, consider auditioning for your region’s youth orchestra. If you’re an athlete, try joining a club team in addition to your school team. If you’re an actor, audition for the lead.

Remember to think about your impact and your narrative.


In case you don’t already know: you aren’t limited to school-sanctioned or organized activities for your extracurriculars. You can also seek out or even create your own.

Independent extracurriculars usually include research (independently or with a college or university), passion projects, or small businesses.

Independent extracurriculars can show that you’re a self-starter who knows how to take initiative. And because they’re independent and creative, you can craft your activity around your goals, passions, and academic interests. Doing so will help it blend in seamlessly with your application narrative.


And finally, don’t shy away from activities you’re passionate about just because you think they aren’t what college admissions officers want to see.

In fact, quirky extracurriculars can make you more memorable. Ivy League admissions officers see debate and robotics champions all the time, but it’s not every day that they read about someone playing with their band at a JC Penney or running their own flower farm.

Unconventional extracurriculars can be some of the stickiest—they stick in admissions officers’ minds, and they make it easy for them to advocate for your admission: “Hey, remember that applicant from Pennsylvania who played “Mr. Brightside” at a JC Penney? He’s also an academic rockstar.” And just like that, you’ve got them hooked.

The Final Word

Unless you’re an Olympian or star on a popular Netflix show, a single extracurricular accomplishment probably won’t be enough on its own to turn those tumultuous Ivy admission tides in your favor.

But if you want to get into an Ivy, a strong extracurricular resume alongside an outstanding academic record is a must.

So find a balance of activities you’re passionate about and good at. Aim as high as you can to earn awards, join high-level groups, and succeed at competitions to help set yourself apart. Have as big a positive impact as you can on those around you.

Once you have your extracurriculars in place, you can learn how to take them to the next level.




Liked that? Try this next.