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Extracurricular activities — Your secret weapon in college application

As the pandemic continues, it is hard to predict when we could completely walk out of the negative impacts of COVID-19, but the number of college applicants does not seem to have been affected at all.

In the Fall 2021 application season, the number of applicants continued to grow. Many schools adopted the Test-Optional policy, which contributed to their growing popularity. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easier to get into your dream school. For students today, simply having good grades is not enough because extracurriculars play an increasingly more important role in college applications.

But how do universities evaluate extracurriculars? What activities are considered high-quality? What are the different categories and what do they say about you as an applicant? And most importantly - how should you go about planning your extracurricular activities?

Evaluation Criteria

1. Diversity

The Common Application divides extracurricular activities into the following categories, and up to 10 activities are allowed in your application. For each of your activities, you will be able to find the corresponding category from the list below.

  • Academic

  • Art

  • Athletics: JV/Varsity

  • Athletics: club

  • Career Oriented

  • Community Service (Volunteer)

  • Computer/Technology

  • Cultural

  • Dance

  • Debate/Speech

  • Environmental

  • Family Responsibility

  • Foreign Exchange

  • Foreign Language

  • Internship

  • Journalism/Publication

  • Junior R.O.T.C.

  • LGBT

  • Musical: Instrumental

  • Musical: Vocal

  • Religious

  • Research

  • Robotics

  • School Spirit

  • Science/Math

  • Social Justice

  • Student Government/Politics

  • Theater/Drama

  • Work (paid)

  • Other Club/Activity

Based on the different types of extracurriculars and the amount of time you spent on each activity, admissions officers would be able to tell what you have accomplished in various academic and non-academic fields, getting a holistic understanding of your background.

2. Consistency

Admission officers will evaluate the applicants’ commitment in every activity from 9th to 12th grade by looking at the timeframe and frequency of their participation. They will be able to tell true enthusiasm and persistence through this kind of evaluation.

3. Multi-role

Participant, founder, leader are all essential roles to enrich a student’s extracurricular life. The applicants’ capabilities and contributions are displayed through the various roles they’ve held in different activities.

4. Impact

Through the activities, students positively impact their own life and studies, or bring about a larger impact on others, or a greater group of people. Pushing for greater influence on social issues or even larger advancement of society or mankind is also an example of impact.

What we call “good” extracurricular activities

Not surprisingly, what admission officers and educational consultants consider as “good” extracurriculars exhibit similar qualities to those mentioned in the evaluation criteria.

1. Uniqueness

If students, through their own observations in daily life, discovered tangible problems to solve and came up with unique solutions, the process of finding that solution is considered a unique activity. These highly personalized activities usually complement the student’s story overall and can be even more valuable than some highly regarded programs.

2. Diversity

It’s not easy to balance between good grades and enriching extracurricular life, so if students show that they’ve engaged in a diversity of activities (whether short-form or long-form), they can demonstrate both well-roundedness and time management skills, both of which are essential for successful college life.

3. Consistency

There are many examples of someone doing an activity just to make it count in the application. But engaging in a specific activity for a long time, such as all four years of high school, shows enthusiasm and consistency. It tells the admission officers what you truly care about.

4. Leadership

Leadership is a very important factor in the admission process. Simply being in a position of power does not equal leadership skills, but being able to coordinate a team, accomplish tasks together and remain calm in front of obstacles shows true leadership.

5. Participation

There is a huge difference between actually devoting your time and effort in participating in an activity and simply dipping your toe in the water. Your level of participation determines your learning and growth. Your commitment would lead to some new inspiration in your life or studies.

Categories of Extracurriculars

There are many ways to categorize extracurricular activities. They can be broadly divided into Academics, Clubs and Organizations, Community and Charity, Arts and Sports, Cultural and Religious, and Others.

Summer schools

Summer programs feature a wide variety: research, course-based, and ability improvement. Research summer schools allow students to have hands-on experiences with academic research projects, but they usually have a very competitive admission process. Course-based programs usually include classroom experiences - some of them might even grant you credits or transcripts. Ability improvement programs are focused on improving your ability in certain aspects, such as research, leadership, or public speaking.

Whether or not to do a summer school program is completely up to the student’s own planning. It is highly encouraged to participate in a top-notch summer school program if admitted. It’s not only a great opportunity to learn and improve oneself, but also a great way to win the hearts of professors and obtain a recommendation letter.

Academic competitions

As one of the best ways to showcase a student’s academic ability, competitions are great extracurricular activities.


AMC (American Mathematics Contest)

Thinktown’s AMC Tutoring Classes are currently open for registration. Contact us for details.

IMO (International Mathematical Olympiad)

HMMT (The Harvard-MIT Math Tournament)

Natural Sciences:

PUPC (Princeton University Physics Competition)

IPhO (International Physics Olympiad)

Physics Bowl


DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America)

FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America)

KWHS (Knowledge@ Wharton High School)

NEC (National Economic Challenge)

Thinktown’s NEC team is currently recruiting new members. Contact us for details.

Scientific Research

From literature reviews to topic design, from theory to practice, scientific research projects take a long time and are very difficult to complete. At the same time, they are also highly rewarding, as the professors usually can offer a lot of personalized feedback and guidance from a professional perspective.

Community Service & Charity

Community service and charity activities require time and commitment to improve social issues and push for social progress. Volunteering in remote areas, visiting funeral homes, fundraising or volunteering for various causes all fall under this category. Admissions officers value students with a strong sense of social responsibility, and if a student is able to commit long-term to a social cause, this would help a lot with their personal growth.

On-campus events

Student union, clubs, art festivals, school competitions…it shows character to be engaged fully in your own campus community. Not to mention all the friends you can make!

Individualized activities

Of course, you can design a unique activity based on your personal interests or hobbies. This gives you a lot of flexibility to shape the process and the outcome, which could later be used for application essays.

To sum up, students should not participate in extracurricular activities solely for the sake of college applications. They should be focused on the personal growth and academic or non-academic learnings they could gain from doing these activities. These activities are part of the process of understanding their future life and goals.

Let’s hear it from the universities

Compared to your standardized test scores and GPA, the importance of extracurriculars is highly dependent on the school you are applying to. The size of the school, the number of spots for new students and admission preferences would all mean different levels of emphasis on extracurriculars.

Public Universities

For larger public schools, extracurriculars have little impact on your application. Since these schools receive tens of thousands of applications every year, and the time they have to evaluate these applications is very limited, they would not be able to carefully look at each applicant’s activity list. However, it does have a large impact on scholarships granted by large public schools.

But highly competitive public schools are an exception. Institutions like the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Virginia, or the University of Florida receive large numbers of applications from excellent students around the world. With 80,000 applicants every year and a 15% acceptance rate, schools like UC Berkeley would pay closer attention to applicants’ extracurriculars in addition to their standardized test scores and GPA.

Private Universities

For less competitive private schools, even though extracurriculars are not as important as standardized test scores and GPA, they are still taken into consideration. Compared to public schools, private schools have more time and money invested in reviewing applications, and the applicant pool is usually also much smaller. This means that admission officers could look at each applicant’s materials more carefully.

For highly competitive private schools, most of the applicants already have really good standardized test scores and GPA, and they are all qualified in this regard. To find the most qualified candidates, these private institutions would spend a lot of time and effort on reviewing the applications they receive, meaning that they pay closer attention to applicants’ “soft skills”. By analyzing the various backgrounds of the applicants, they would be able to select the candidates who are the most talented, most likely to succeed, or match the school spirit the best.

Lastly, it also depends on the applicants themselves. If you are applying to a less competitive school, extracurriculars might not matter that much if you have outstanding grades. However, if you do not have the best scores - for example, your 10th grade GPA dropped a little bit - extracurriculars and other supplemental materials (such as reference letters and essays) could potentially make up for that. Of course, your scores still need to be within the range of your target school.

Extracurricular planning tips

Plan in advance

Start planning early and adjust every six months to one year according to your situation. The earlier you start planning, the more you could gain.

Combine your interest and practicality

Take your personality and interests into consideration and design a practical activity plan that you could actually enjoy and stick to.


If you have a clear intended major in mind, don’t be afraid to go for major-oriented activities to strengthen your background in that area.

Make a tracking sheet

Use a tracking sheet to follow your plan and record all the details and achievements. This will come in handy when you feel unmotivated.

Persistence & exploration

To showcase your personality, you need to be persistent and explore in-depth over a long period of time. Getting help from a professional counseling team is very helpful in that regard.

Your college application process is not meant to be easy, and extracurriculars are not simply just a combination of different sorts of materials. Through extracurriculars, you can better know yourself, plan your future and discover new possibilities for your life. This is the true fortune that these activities can bring us.

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