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


Last updated August 19, 2023

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

Leveling Up Your Extracurriculars (with examples!)

Key Takeaway

Your extracurriculars can have a huge impact on your college application. Take what you're already doing to the next level by networking, engaging in research, combining your interests, or solving real-world problems.

We’ve written a ton about extracurricular activities and how admission offices review them. One of the main questions we get from families with younger children in 9th or 10th grade is how to bolster their extracurricular activities early so they will have a competitive edge once they are applying to college. Our conversation usually turns to how the student can “level up” what they are already doing outside of the classroom.


Here’s what we tell them.

First things first, it’s important to have some perspective here. The point of engaging in extracurricular activities are generally goals like learning, having fun, helping others, challenging yourself, and staying physically active. High school should be fun (at least some of the time). Doing any activity just to “get into college”, especially in 9th or 10th grade, is generally ill-advised.

The good news, of course, is we have yet to meet a student with zero interests or hobbies. We find that, with some creativity and care, everyone has something they can gain personal value from as well as share in a college application.

We find it helpful to break this concept of “leveling up” into a few different categories of action. You may find that more than one of these speaks to you. Think of these categories as options or prompts to nudge you in the direction of leveling up your extracurriculars.

Note that this advice can apply to anyone, regardless of age, but often feels most relevant for early high school students in 9th, 10th, or the beginning of 11th grade.


The first question we often ask students is “what are you interested in, and who is doing that type of work that you might talk to?”

A couple years ago, I worked with a high school sophomore who was in a psychology class and really enjoyed it. She wanted to learn more about the field, but there wasn’t an obvious opportunity. After all, you can’t just go practicing novel therapeutic methods on your friends! She was envious of her friends interested in computer science who designed websites or art who made and sold original logos.

In a conversation with her and her mother, they remembered that they knew a psychologist from church who was a friend of the family. The student ended up setting up an informational interview with the person and getting some great insight about their college experience and career trajectory. They recommended some online resources for people exploring the field and even offered to be a contact in the future if she majors in psychology and ends up looking for internship opportunities.

Involving your network can be tough. Not every high school student feels comfortable hitting up full-fledged adults for advice. It’s important to remember that people generally love helping out high school and college students.

Networking is a great start for any student with any academic interest. Consider asking for an informational interview, if there are opportunities to help, or if there are organizations you might get involved with locally.


More than ever before, savvy high school students find opportunities to engage with academic research before entering college. Sometimes this looks like summer programs, often on a college campus, that offer high schoolers the chance to experience an academic research environment and gain a better understanding of the scientific method. Other students, usually juniors or seniors with some advanced coursework under their belt, contact professors at colleges near them in the field they are interested in and ask if there are research opportunities they may help with.

Even if you are a student who is gunning for admission to a highly ranked college or university, don’t overlook an opportunity at your local college. Sometimes it is the smaller schools that are the most open to working with younger students. On most college websites, you can find the faculty in each department and their research interests, publications, and ongoing projects.

Remember, too, that research doesn’t always happen in a lab. In fact, professors, especially at smaller schools, might love the help of an enthusiastic student outside of research entirely. You might find an environmental science or biology professor who would love for a few high school students to help set up for a local nature walk or water quality research project. You never know where that might lead.

Another angle on research is to find a creative way to conduct your own project. This likely won’t be up to the strict standards of peer-reviewed academic research, but you may find a way to collect qualitative data in a field of interest and write up what you’ve learned. Check out this post from Alex about one of his students who did just that.

Double up

Sometimes students have multiple interests that can be combined into one project that is distinctive, engaging, and impressive to colleges. We have an entire post on this concept of combining extracurriculars.

The easiest examples often come in the form of something entrepreneurial. We worked with a student who combined her interests in business and art by running an art gallery at her town’s annual festival, successfully selling pieces from students at her school. She started by (surprise, surprise!) working her network, having conversations, understanding the local market, and pitching the idea. This took a ton of work on her end, but she learned a lot, she and the artists made some money, and it will turn into an amazing college supplemental essay.

Think of interests you have and how they might combine into a singular project. You might find an opportunity to combine a more personal or artistic hobby like music, painting, graphic design, or storytelling with a practical application like selling a product, entertaining an audience, or teaching a skill to kids.

Solve a problem in your local community

Whether you live in a major city, suburb, small town, or rural area, every community faces issues that need community members to step up to address. We’ve written elsewhere that colleges value outsized local impact when assessing extracurricular achievement. You know your hometown well and might have more power than you think to make change.

We’ve worked with students who petitioned their city to put in a stop sign at a dangerous intersection that is the scene of many accidents, organize a neighborhood cleanup at a wetlands preserve, and get bike lanes painted on a street that didn’t have them before. We’ve also seen students build a website for their local library, pressure their city to follow their own ordinances to install ramps on public buildings, and organize a plethora of events to fundraise for countless local organizations.

Speaking of local organizations, remember that non-profits are always looking for help from energetic young people! Sure, tons of students log many volunteer hours, and that is fantastic. But, if you’re looking to level up your engagement, see if you can turn volunteering into a more formal internship, complete with a letter of recommendation your senior year. Or, if you’re already connected with an organization, ask them if there are bigger tasks you can tackle.

Wrapping it all up

We hope this guide on leveling up your extracurriculars gives you some ideas. You’ll need to do some digging and thinking on your own–and with your network! We hope these ideas of networking, research, doubling up, and solving problems can nudge you in the right direction.

Liked that? Try this next.