The Forum | College Admissions

How Extracurriculars Skew College Admissions

August 1, 2019

Institutions of higher education use the extracurricular activities of applicants to “get a sense of the person you are and what you care about”, yet most applications force these activities to be submitted as little more than bullet points. This places a higher value on leadership positions and the name of a particular organization rather than a true understanding of a student’s experience. In turn, students feel pressured to shove aside their passions in favor of marketing themselves to colleges. Higher education would be better served by finding alternative methods to quantify student life outside the classroom in order to give colleges a more accurate picture of applicants and take unnecessary pressure off of students.

Within the current extracurriculars submission format, there are a number of subtle factors that can pressure students to exaggerate their activities. The Common App has 10 spots to add extracurriculars, and, while applicants are not required to fill them all, failing to do so can feel like a missed opportunity. Very few students have 10 or more significant extracurricular activities, and for good reason: Each high school club is likely to require between one and four hours a week of involvement, with sports and jobs demanding an even greater commitment. In addition to homework, the amount of time that 10 individual activities take puts a great amount of pressure on high school students, leading to high levels of stress and low levels of sleep. Indeed, according to a study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health, a record two-thirds of high school students are below the minimum recommended seven hours of sleep.

“Higher education would be better served by finding alternative methods to quantify student life outside the classroom.” 

There is additional pressure for students to lead clubs. The Common App has a specific box for “Position/Leadership.” Very few students who participate in clubs will get the opportunity to rise to a leadership position. Students may feel that their college acceptance is dependent on club leadership elections, which adds additional stress as they navigate 10 different extracurriculars. When college admissions staff review applications, they may only pay attention to leadership positions, when many club leadership positions require very little responsibility, and members of clubs can be equally or more invested in the activity as club officers. Additionally, without sufficient space to describe a club and its activities, name recognition can be more important than students’ actual contributions. Admissions officers will not gain a complete picture of why applicants are dedicated to particular activities, and thus will fail to accomplish the initial goal of understanding who the student is and what they care about.

“Name recognition can be more important than students’ actual contributions.”

Students who recognize how colleges evaluate extracurricular activities can tailor their resumes to exaggerate leadership roles or inflate the number of activities they participate in. They may also avoid listing activities for which they did not hold a leadership position, yet are nonetheless central to their personal passions. Activities such as the low income, hourly jobs typically available to high school students may be sidelined by applicants because they are not seen as impressive or academic, even though they may be an important part of a student’s growth, skills, and life experience. A false or edited image of an applicant benefits neither the university nor the student.

This process is incredibly flawed and should be reconsidered. A few easy fixes to the format of the Common App could go a long way. Currently, there is an extra area to add additional extracurriculars if an applicant has more than ten. Limiting the extracurricular slots that are immediately visible to three and leaving the extra area for additional activities will take pressure off students to invent or amplify their experiences without harming students who participate in a multitude of extracurriculars. In addition, the position box and short-bulleted list should be eliminated in favor of a format that better reflects students’ experience. Two solutions that have been effectively implemented by various schools are a longer written segment or video segment on what the experience taught the student and how it shaped them. In this way, students who hold leadership roles can still indicate their positions in this segment, while allowing admissions officers to take a more comprehensive view. These simple changes can significantly benefit both students and colleges by allowing applicants to present themselves holistically and giving institutions a more accurate picture of prospective students.

Nathan Hotes is a curricular improvement intern at ACTA and a rising junior at Christopher Newport University. 


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More