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Extracurricular Activities: Well-Rounded or Well-Lopsided?

A prospective client wrote to ask a question. He is a 10th grader at a large public high school. He wanted to know how colleges look at and evaluate extracurricular activities. He is involved in a lot of different activities, but he’s not sure how to best focus his efforts.

Here’s his question (with a bit of editing):

“Hey, Mark. I really need to prioritize what I’m doing. I’m taking a total of 8 classes this year, even though I’m only allowed to take 7 (my school INSISTS that I have a lunch period). My band director is letting me take Jazz B class during my lunch, however, even though I’m not getting credit for it. So, now I have Symphonic Band, in addition to jazz.

I’m very into the arts and music. I’m also in the marching band; this was my 2nd year. I’m also interested in studying architecture in college, so I’m taking drawing and drafting.  I did swim team for my school last year as well, and this year I’m going to go out for rugby. Do you think I should try and get into some OTHER clubs the sports I do? Should I do community service, like Habitat for Humanity, for example? I’m not quite sure what colleges look for specifically. Do they look at ALL the activities/clubs you do?”

Here is how I responded to this student’s excellent question:

Howdy. The basic strategy these days is to choose a few extracurricular activities and do them very well. You want to demonstrate some leadership and/or some exceptional talent and passion.

Since you’re interested in architecture, you need to keep working on the drawing and drafting. Enter your work in contests, if you can. Arrange to have a show of your work at a church or other public building.

You love music, it seems, so keep going with that. Practice, perform, and move up in the ranks as far as possible. If you can try out for All-State, make sure you do.

As for sports, it’s better to have one that you do really well than to dabble in dozens. The same principle is true for community service. It would be great if you did Habitat for Humanity, as long as you do it relatively regularly and continuously over the next 2.5 years.

Colleges are looking for talent, passion, persistence, and accomplishment. They are not looking for particular activities. They want to see that you do what you love and that you excel in those things.”

The fact is that in these competitive times, students must strive for excellence. They need to develop a passion and pursue it as far as they can. They need to become “well-lopsided” in their activities and involvements, so that they can demonstrate excellence, mastery, commitment, and consistency.

Admissions officers want to select students whom they think will contribute to the social and intellectual community they are constructing. The universities want a “well-rounded” community. In order to build that community, they want to admit talented, “well-lopsided” individuals.

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting

Reader Interactions


  1. Hi. I’m in middle school and I am dreaming of receiving a degree in architectural design. I already have a few colleges in sight but I have no idea what extracurricular activities I should take in college. I would like your help please (and yes i got my parents’ yes on asking you this).

  2. Hi, Mikayla,
    There are no magic answers to this question. What do you like to do? What are your interests? How do you enjoy spending your time? What problems or puzzles intrigue you? There is no “cook book” for getting into college, including competitive programs in architecture. My only guideline would be this: if you have a passion for architectural design, don’t just talk about it: find ways to get involved in that field, even at your tender age. Be ready to start at the bottom, learn a ton, and know that you can’t know where the road leads until you reach your destination. If you’d like to chat about this more, we do work with younger students like you to map out some ideas. We’d love to hear from you.
    Best of luck!

  3. Hey! I am right now about to finish middle school, and well I have always dreamed of getting a scholarship for a good university in the states. Yet, I know it’s very important to be part of extracurricular activities when you want to get a scholarship. I like guitar&piano, as well as writting. I am writting two books, I have not yet published any of them (they’re not official yet) but that is my plan. I hope I publish them before I end school. I wanted to know two things, first, if writting is considered an extracurricular activity, and second, if there are any extracurricular activities in particular that colleges like the best.
    Please reply.
    Thank you for your time:)

  4. Luz,
    Colleges like what you like–and what you accomplish. Don’t pick activities because you think someone else will approve. Do them because you enjoy it and are good at it. Writing is definitely a great activity, and one that can help get you into college (publish a book, start a blog, publish articles in respected news outlets, etc.). Same with guitar and piano. Delve into the things you enjoy and find worthwhile, and achieve at the highest level, and you will be rewarded. But don’t try to second guess some unknown admissions officer at some unnamed college five years hence. Do it for yourself. For the enjoyment. The rest will follow suit in due time. Good luck!

  5. Hello, I just started 9th grade, and i am extremely worried about college and my future. My grades had dropped last year because i started a new school in a different state(talk about culture shock), but this year i know they will be better. I am very interested in business and entrepreneurship, i have studied it for hours on end. I do not participate in any extra curricular activities, yet. What extra curriculars would you recommend for someone striving for a great education and a bright future? Are there any specifics for what i want to study?….Help…

  6. Hi, Danny.
    If you want to be an entrepreneur, then the best thing to do while in HS is to start your own business. No kidding. Whether its mowing lawns, pet sitting, or baking cookies, every college likes an entrepreneur. Since you’ve studied it so much, isn’t it about time you actually started doing it? Give it a whirl. You don’t have to make tons of money, but you do have to be consistent, attentive to detail, and serve your customers well.
    Beyond that, take a look at FBLA, DECA, various stock market games/investment clubs, and you’ll find some fun stuff to keep you busy. Oh, and don’t forget the fun stuff, too!
    Good luck!

  7. hi,
    i am an indian student and would be applying to the the ivy leagues. my GPA is 4 (in indian education system i scored 97 % in 10th standard and 86 % in 12th standard) ,my psat scores are 2100+(with a perfect score in maths section) and subjects tests are 650+ (Maths and physics). i am taking the sat in the coming month. i am involved in a number of extra curricular activities like i was the president of Eco-club and the mentor of cray club. i have qualified various olympiads in maths and science. i also run a home school for the not so-well off students , providing guidance on preparation. my father and i work together in collecting funds for the poor and helping them as much as we could by a small gathering that takes place in our own house regularly where people come up with their problems..
    the only thing is that i do not have any centers for AP courses and classes in the vicinity of my home. But i have taken IIT coaching whose course is tougher than the AP courses. Without the AP scores will my applicancy get affected.? suggest any ways by which i can subsitute it as well as improve my application further…..

  8. Dear Mark,
    I am in my Junior year of High school and I just woke up from the party life. I need to do better in school and raise my grades as best I can. I want to go to Michigan State University for a masters degree in Accoutning however, I feel that a 2.0 GPA will not get me in there. I am taking the ACT and SAT’s this year and have been studying like crazy (even though there in March). My grades this year have been improving since now I am actually doing my work and trying. I am in the Key club, Im taking AP Pyschology, and Macro/Micro economics, Also im the captain for the school baseball and Swim and Dive team. I understand that colleges also look at extracurricular activities that is why I listed those. However, I feel like I am starting too late to try hard. Friends tell me that colleges mainly look at your GPA and grades from Junior year and Senior year. Is this true? Is there anything I can do to better my grades besides doing the homework and doing extra credit? How can I raise my GPA fast in two years? Please Help?????

  9. Hi, Keith,
    Your friends are more or less correct: it’s all about the grades. Especially now–you need to kick some patootie for that AP course, and your test scores will matter, too. Leadership is also important. But in the final analysis, being captain of the team and being mediocre in the classroom will not get you all that far–because, as you know–college is about school. Tests, papers, reading, writing, labs…you know, that school stuff. So I’m glad that you “woke up” while you still have a chance to put yourself back on the college path. Many colleges will overlook youthful indiscretions…as long as you really prove that you can handle the work. Good luck, Keith. Just keep your nose to the grindstone. Your future is in your hands.

  10. Hello,

    Thank you for your questions. With regards to AP classes, colleges know that not all students have AP courses available to them. They look for students to take the most challenging courses that are available to them, so you would need to do well in the courses in your educational system. You can take the AP exams without taking the official AP course, but you would have to prepare on your own.

    Hope that helps!

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate
    Montgomery Educational Consulting

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