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Last updated March 8, 2023

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

Extracurricular Magnitude and Impact

Key Takeaway

Your extracurriculars factor into what admissions officers sometimes call "personal score." When admissions officers look at your extracurricular resume, they're looking at the impact and magnitude of your accomplishments. The higher those rankings, the better the effect they'll have on your personal score.

We talk to a lot of students and parents who are anxious about the state of college admissions and what it takes to get in. We regularly hear concerns like:

“Does my kid need to do research as a high school student to stand out?”

“Do I need to be the best in my state, country, or the world to be impressive?”

“Do I have to cure cancer to get into XYZ university???”

I know the last one is hyperbole, but I’ve been asked that exact question probably once a month as an admission officer and now a private consultant.

Look, the reality is that most students who are admitted to the most selective colleges and universities do have really impressive extracurricular activities. And yes, sometimes that means national or international-level achievement.

But the most compelling students don’t always have big name titles, awards, or championships on their resume. We’ve successfully worked with a lot of students (and I saw many similar students admitted during admissions committee) who get in through distinctive and outsized local impact in their own community.

The magnitude and impact of your extracurriculars matter. How you write about your experiences really matters. Let’s talk about it.

The personal score

First, it’s important to know how admission offices “score” your application. Each office has somewhat different criteria, but generally schools are looking at academic achievement, fit for major or school, and some blend of engagement and impact beyond the classroom.

Many schools call that blend of engagement a “personal score” or personal rating. For more in-depth analysis, you can read one of my most popular Reddit posts about the personal score here.

An absolutely critical note from that article is that academics drive admission. At many highly-selective schools, you won’t even get a personal score if you are not academically competitive. See some of our other writing on how academics are “scored” here.

In short, the personal score attempts to quantify the magnitude and impact your engagements beyond the classroom have had. This can be thought of as the university measuring your propensity to “make a difference” in their community outside of academics.

The fact is that not every student has the resources or ability to have absurdly high achievement at the national or international level. After all, it isn’t possible for everyone to be the best!

Here’s some good news:

Admission officers understand this and often place a high value on outsized local impact.  Also, schools have gotten way better in the past decade at understanding and awarding value to family responsibilities like caring for siblings or working to support their family.

We have other posts discussing how admission offices might view more distinctive or unusual extracurricular activities and how to “level up” your extracurriculars, but here’s what you need to know about how the magnitude and impact of your extracurriculars may be viewed.


When admission offices assess your achievement and assign a score to it, you can be pretty sure that magnitude comes into play.

There are a couple ways to consider magnitude. It’s fairly easy to gauge magnitude on a state soccer championship, second place in a regional robotics competition, or being first chair in the state orchestra. A student may have recognition in a particular arena in their school, city, state, region, nation, or even internationally. In this way, schools can quantify achievement fairly easily.


But what about when the magnitude of your pursuits is less clear? Say a student who is a musician organized a benefit concert at a local community center with the proceeds supporting a local charity. They might write a supplemental essay about working with vendors, booking the venue, communicating with other musicians, and raising a certain amount of money. We can put a number on some of this, but the impact is a little fuzzy.

These are the kinds of things admission officers are trained to read for and understand. The student in this case did something beyond their high school that took some pretty serious organizational skills, worked with adults, networked, and made a difference. It’s not a state championship, but this kind of impact–even locally–can look great in admissions.

In fact, since this example is totally student-directed, it might be just as if not more impressive as a high level of success in a more common and prescribed activity.

And of course that’s only one example. You might imagine how a student’s entrepreneurial endeavor with a small business, self-directed oral history research, or rock climbing lessons for kids could fall into this category of outsized local impact as well.

Tying it all together

So, do you need to cure cancer to get into your dream school? No. You should, however, understand your strengths and look for interesting projects to take on where you can learn a lot, develop some skills, make a difference and, as an added bonus, have a great answer to college admission essays.

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