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


Last updated May 11, 2023

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

Extracurriculars: Why They're So Important for College Admissions

Key Takeaway

Based on Common Data Set data from the top 60 ranked US schools, 88% of colleges consider extracurriculars "Important" or "Very Important." But it's essential to choose activities you enjoy and can thrive in. In particular, passion projects can be a great way to explore interests, show initiative, and differentiate yourself from other applicants. 

College admissions can seem like a murky black box, but one of the things at Polygence that we’re confident about is the importance of extracurriculars in supporting a college application. While the classroom provides knowledge, it's the extracurricular activities that offer a unique opportunity for students to discover and cultivate their passions, and show colleges what they care about.

Extracurriculars are most commonly thought of as sports teams or school clubs, but we want to emphasize that extracurriculars can include so much more than that. Activities like music, fine arts, theater, and any research or passion project are definitely considered as extracurriculars and can make a big difference in college admissions. It’s important to keep in mind that extracurriculars can span a wide range of activities, and gives you more of an opportunity to 1) try something that you might enjoy in high school, and 2) boost your college application by showcasing your achievements and passion for the activity.

College Data Confirms The Importance of Extracurriculars

So at Polygence we’re advocates for extracurriculars, but what do colleges think about them? One way to find out is to look at Common Data Set responses from colleges. The Common Data Set (CDS) is a standardized set of data points that colleges and universities in the US voluntarily provide. The CDS includes information on enrollment, admissions, financial aid, graduation rates, student demographics, and much more. For the topic of first-year admissions, colleges reveal what matters to them when looking at applicant profiles.

The above table is from Princeton’s Common Data Set, and every top university will have a table just like this in their Common Data Set, where they assess the relative importance of the same academic and non-academic factors from “Very Important” to “Not Considered.” You might be surprised to find out that some schools actually have very different-looking tables. For example, some schools really value Recommendations, while others don’t consider them at all.

However, what’s generally consistent across the board is the importance of extracurriculars. Based on Common Data Set data from the top 60 ranked schools in the US, 88% of schools said that extracurricular activities were “Important” or “Very Important.” This figure is up there with other components of college admissions that are traditionally seen as more important - Academic GPA and Essay were rated as “Important” or “Very Important” at 95% of schools. Further, the figure of 88% for extracurriculars was higher than some other categories in the Common Data Set, including Talent/ability (77%) and Recommendations (79%).

Schools clearly value extracurriculars, but what’s potentially even more important is that extracurriculars are a piece of college admissions that are more within a student’s control. Looking at some of the other criteria in the CDS, there are things like race, residence, and alumni status that are simply out of a student’s control. Even criteria like talent/ability and character/personal qualities are more subjective, and very hard for a student to display fully in a written application.

At Polygence we wrote a white paper about the role of research projects in college admissions, and what Harvard’s admissions data reveals about its selection process. Harvard has an internal rating system which includes 4 categories: Academics, Extracurriculars, Personal, and Athletic. Each of these categories is scored on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being exceptional. Getting a 1 in any of the 4 categories gives an application a very good chance of getting in. However, for the Athletics and Personal categories, getting a 1 is extremely difficult as only 41 applicants were awarded a 1 for Personal over a 5 year period, and 1’s in Athletics are usually reserved for varsity athlete recruits, so if you’re already in high school and haven’t started playing sports, it’s near impossible to get a 1. As a result, Academics and Extracurriculars are areas where there’s realistically a real opportunity to stand out.

So What Extracurricular Should I Do?

That really depends on what gets you excited and what you’re passionate about! You likely already have some activities that you’ve done while growing up, and you can choose which ones you want to continue pursuing.

When I was in high school, I had several extracurriculars. I was playing in the school band and also playing competitive tennis. For me, tennis was something I had played for almost my entire life and I was practicing 4-5 days a week. When it comes to choosing or sticking with extracurriculars, I believe the most important thing is how much you enjoy the activity. I purposefully chose tennis to be my main extracurricular because I loved playing sports, training hard, and the feeling of winning matches. When you dedicate yourself to an extracurricular that you enjoy, you’re going to work harder for it, allowing yourself the best chance of personal achievement that will not only give you great pride but also be impressive to colleges. Doing an extracurricular that you don’t enjoy but simply think is impressive to colleges actually makes it harder to impress colleges because you may not be willing to work as hard to get better and succeed.

As for my other extracurriculars, I decided to leave the school band after my sophomore year when I found that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I wasn’t looking forward to rehearsal or practice, and although it might’ve been cool to show colleges that I stuck with it for four years, it would’ve made me unhappy and given me less time for tennis.

Let’s say however that you haven’t really dedicated too much time to any particular extracurricular leading up to high school - what should you do then? An underrated idea is to pursue a passion project in a topic that really interests you. At Polygence we’ve talked a lot about the importance of passion projects and how they can be a great way to explore your interests. They’re open-ended, meaning that you can decide what you want the final product of your project to be - a website, essay, podcast, story, video, blog, etc. Passion projects can show your initiative to go and explore something on your own, and can also be a unique aspect of your application. In a world where high school students are doing the same traditional extracurriculars and everyone’s resume looks pretty much the same, doing a passion project can really help you stand out.

Liked that? Try this next.