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Last updated March 8, 2023

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How to Craft Amazing Extracurriculars by Combining Interests

Key Takeaway

Need to up your extracurricular game? This post explains how to combine two of your interests to create a distinctive, compelling project that will give your application a leg up.

“How do I stand out in admissions? Everyone does a sport. Everyone is in school clubs. Everyone does community service. What am I supposed to do?”

I’ve heard these questions from high school students for years as an admission officer and college consultant.

It’s hard to stand out to admission offices. That’s even more true at the handful of the most selective schools in the country when tens of thousands of applicants have exceptional grades and many of the same extracurriculars. Even outside of this small group of selective schools, it can be challenging to stand out when so many students participate in the same activities.

I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of extracurricular activities at different types of schools and how colleges “score” extracurricular engagement. It’s important to start by understanding how extracurriculars play into admissions.

One of the ways I’ve helped students stand out and have an engaging experience is by combining multiple extracurricular interests into one distinctive project.

Here’s how I would work with a student who wanted to get creative with their extracurriculars:

Get organized

It helps to start by listing out all of your extracurricular activities, about how much time you need to spend on each one, when they take up the most of your time (during the school year? Summer? Fall?), and how important each is to you.

Be sure to list everything here: school clubs, volunteering, work, family responsibilities, creative projects… whatever you do outside of the classroom. A lot of times students pretty quickly see things they want to do more or less of just by listing out their activities and looking at them.

So, let’s say a hypothetical student has an activity list that looks like this:

  • After school math tutoring (3 hours/ week)
  • Soccer team (Spring semester)
  • Business club (1 hour/ week)
  • Science fair (Fall and summer)
  • Coding and some website design (year round, whenever I have time)
  • Painting (year round, whenever I have time)
  • Volunteering with community garden project (year round, whenever they need me)

Okay, so this student is engaged with several activities that are all enjoyable but don’t exactly blow an admissions officer away. You might find that you have more or fewer activities, or that you have some that are already a little more distinctive than our hypothetical friend here.

Look for possible combinations

Now it’s time to look at these activities and find ways to level up engagement by combining interests.

Something that stands out to me about this particular student is their engagement with the Business Club at their school. Any time a student has an interest in business or entrepreneurship, I encourage them to look for ways to apply a business perspective to one of their other activities. Of course you don’t have to already be interested in business to do this!

At a basic level, this student could consider combining their business interest with another to:

  • Join an organization as a paid tutor, or taking on students privately as a paid tutor
  • Referee youth soccer games as a part-time job or look for coaching opportunities
  • Sell their artwork, work or volunteer in an art gallery, or create an opportunity for artists to display or sell their work
  • This one might seem out of reach, but I’ve worked with students who have patented ideas that started with science fair!

Note that any of these could work as paid or volunteer opportunities. Volunteering can be a great way to serve your community or those who need the help. In some cases, if you have a skill and spend your time using it to solve a problem, you shouldn’t feel like you must forgo pay for your labor simply because you are in high school. It depends largely on the circumstance, so use your best judgment. I don’t think you should have to give your art away for free, but you might choose to be a volunteer tutor for needy families, for example.

What if we took some of these a step further?

Perhaps instead of simply tutoring on their own, the student notices a real need for math tutors at the middle school, and gets several friends in AP Calculus to start a free tutoring program for kids after school. That will require developing leadership, time management, math skills, and communication skills. Hey, those are pretty great attributes for a college applicant!

Similarly, perhaps they realize the local youth soccer organizations are too expensive for many interested families. Maybe that’s an opportunity to fundraise to offset some costs or start a free summer soccer clinic with friends. Networking is often key: if a student wanted to address this issue, I’d recommend talking to the high school coach as well as reaching out to the leadership of the local youth organization.

Another activity that stands out to me is website design. Students who are able to build websites or apps, even at a basic level, have a skill that is in demand, and I encourage them to look for ways to apply their knowledge. Does the after school tutoring program need a website? How about your church, library, school club, or Boy Scout troop?

Finally, I’m looking at that volunteer position with the community garden. That’s probably not one to monetize and they might not need something like a website (although you never know!). Instead, I would wonder if the student could recruit more volunteers or level up their engagement.

High school students have huge networks of other kids with time and energy. One motivated student could probably garner a ton of enthusiasm for a volunteer project–and learn a lot about leadership and organization along the way.

Also, sometimes students are able to “level up” their engagement with a service project by turning it into a more formal internship and taking on additional responsibilities. Check out our article on leveling up extracurriculars.

I’d encourage this student to talk to someone who leads the project and see if there are ways they can contribute more and formalize their work. The community garden is just one example–the same could apply to a science museum, political campaign, faith-based organization, or any other service organization.

Lead with learning and fun

Remember, the main point of engaging outside of the classroom is to learn something, grow, and have fun. I don’t recommend doing things simply because you think it’ll “get you in” to a college. Instead, focus on what you can control and what is enjoyable: address problems creatively using your skills and energy.

Use these examples as prompts to guide your own thinking. A little creativity goes a long way when it comes to extracurriculars.

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