As we all know, in the application process for American universities, academic performance, standardized test scores, and school rankings are the key indicators of a student’s academic strength. However, “extracurricular activities” play a crucial role in reflecting a student’s soft skills and are a focal point for admissions officers. You might be outstanding—student council president, sports team captain, model United Nations participant, involved in volunteer work, etc.—engaging in popular activities on campus, but the admissions officers may not necessarily be impressed.
Admissions officers at American universities are not seeking well-rounded students; instead, they aim to build a diverse class. This means they won’t admit similar applicants and homogenized application materials will be rejected.
If you have achieved certain results in a niche field, and the school lacks talent like yours, congratulations! You have the qualifications to enter a prestigious American university.
So, what we need to consider is how to use extracurricular activities to shape our image, stand out among the crowd, and increase our chances of admission. This time, let’s share six important qualities of high-quality extracurricular activities(quotes from usms.ac.ma
When admissions officers review your extracurricular activities, the first thing they notice is the position you hold. Whether you are the president or a member of a club, the captain or a team member of a sports team, the position you hold in the activity list is immediately apparent.
Importance of Position
Why do admissions officers care about your position? There are three reasons:
First, the position can demonstrate your level of commitment to the activity. If a club has 20-30 members, and everyone casually participates without much dedication, attending one or two meetings a year, simply listing yourself as a member won’t impress the admissions officers. In other words, being a member won’t show how much time and effort you invested in the activity. Only by holding a key position like president or vice president, being at the core of the club, and handling important matters can you prove your significant commitment.
Second, the position can showcase your leadership. If you have an important role in a club, responsible for tasks such as communication, coordination, event organization, member management, and task allocation, these daily responsibilities can develop your leadership skills. Admissions officers highly value leadership because they aim to admit future leaders who will be successful, influential, financially successful, and contribute as alumni to the school’s improvement. Therefore, if your extracurricular activities can demonstrate your leadership, it is equivalent to showing admissions officers that you have the potential for future success.
Third, the position can indicate your popularity. Whether in American high schools or mainland China, leadership positions like club president and student council president are elected through student votes. Becoming the student council president means you are popular among your peers during that academic year. It signifies that you can make contributions to student groups, and many students are willing to vote for you. Admissions officers consider student government positions as a popularity test for American high school students. They hope to admit students who are charming and have strong personalities because such students are more likely to integrate into campus culture, make use of school resources, and rapidly grow.
The second focus of admissions officers is whether your involvement in activities is deep, as depth can showcase your enthusiasm for the activity, allowing you to stand out from a crowd of superficial participants.
If you claim to love linguistics and only attend a linguistic summer school, you won’t be able to showcase your individuality. However, if you participate in linguistic competitions, establish a linguistics club at school, and make contributions to promoting language diversity, admissions officers will see your great passion for linguistics, and your sincerity will attract their attention.
Social Impact/Outcome Orientation
The third focus of admissions officers is whether you can make activities have a certain social impact because social impact reflects your abilities, and contributions to the community, and makes your application materials appear more authentic.
Firstly, in terms of personal abilities, not everyone can make an activity significant. If you can, it indicates that you have no problem in terms of abilities.
Secondly, social impact indirectly reflects your contribution to the community. For instance, if you establish a bridge club in high school and organize a Shanghai high school bridge competition, admissions officers may think that you might do similar things in college. They acknowledge your ability to organize clubs, inject vitality into the community, and may want to admit you.
Thirdly, social impact not only makes your materials impressive but also makes them appear more authentic. For example, a student writes in their activity materials that they founded a math club and led discussions, which may seem boring to admissions officers. However, if your math club has achieved significant results, such as participating in HIMCM and other math competitions, winning awards, expanding the club from 50 to 200 members, and organizing friendly matches with other schools, these activity outcomes not only prove your ability but also enrich the content on the activity list.
This point is quite obvious because admissions officers see too many application materials, and over time, they may find that applicants submit lists of activities that are just combinations of different activities: A does some volunteering, B does some teaching, C does some charity work… The content and format are similar, and admissions officers may gradually develop aesthetic fatigue and not want to continue reading.
If you can engage in some unique extracurricular activities, such as performing magic tricks and creating tutorial videos on social platforms to teach simple tricks, attracting followers; or if you are excellent at coffee art, obtaining a barista certificate, and participating in coffee art master competitions; or if you are interested in astronomy, organizing an astronomy club at school, managing a social media account about astrophotography, and so on, these distinctive activities may capture the hearts of admissions officers and make them believe that admitting you will make the student community in college more diverse and interesting.
The activities in your activity list should relate to the major you want to apply for, allowing admissions officers to identify a clear storyline. For example, if you enjoy bird-watching, having a keen interest in birds alone may be a bit limited in scope.
If you can elevate this interest to the biological level, connecting your passion with an academic field, your application materials will leave more room for imagination. For instance, taking AP Biology courses, winning awards in the United States Biology Olympiad (USABO), interning at the local bird-watching association, and conducting a series of biology outreach lectures in elementary schools. This way, admissions officers may think that you are likely to become a biologist in the future(sources from usms.
It’s best to arrange extracurricular activities in a T-shaped development because T-shaped individuals are the versatile talents that American universities want to admit—these individuals possess both in-depth professional knowledge and broad knowledge. They have extensive interdisciplinary knowledge horizontally and a deep understanding, unique insights, and outstanding innovation abilities vertically in their professional knowledge.
So, how should T-shaped development be understood in extracurricular activities? On one hand, your activities should have a clear mainline, leveraging your strengths to allow admissions officers to summarize your characteristics in a single sentence. On the other hand, your activities can develop in various directions, engaging in unique activities that complement your personality.
The significance of extracurricular activities in the application is multiplication, not addition. Many students have the misconception that the more time they spend on an extracurricular activity, the more dedicated they appear, and admissions officers will be more inclined to admit them. However, this is not the case. Only when extracurricular activities reflect your traits and help shape a charismatic personal image will admissions officers take notice. Therefore, approaching extracurricular activities strategically and holistically is crucial.