How Extra-Curriculars Can Boost (or Hurt) Your Chances of College Admissions

Too often, students are given bad advice when it comes to participating in high school extra-curricular activities. A lot of that advice sounds like this:

            “Join every club that you can!”

            “Work your way into every leadership position that you can!”

            “You need to make sure that you are well-rounded!”

But students who take this advice generally receive a lot more rejections than they do acceptances.


Two reasons:

  • Most students join as many clubs and activities as they can. They try for as many leadership positions as they can. If you do the same, you’re going to look like everybody else.
  • If you, like most students, do a little of this and a little of that, you’re not going to have time to develop a consistent interest in one area, and that’s what colleges are looking for.

Students who develop passionate interests in high school make the most attractive college applicants.

To illustrate my point, compare these two students’ extra-curricular activities:


Bassoon player, 8 years

Composer for school winds ensemble, 4 years

Organizer of after-school music enrichment program for neighborhood elementary school, 3 years

Volunteer tutor at local music academy, 3 years


Flute player, 10 years

Secretary of Chinese Club, 2 years

Volunteer stacker at local library, 2 years

Ran in annual 5k run to raise money for breast cancer research

Spectacle Theatre tech crew, 2 years

Who looks like the more appealing college student to you? In fact, Jason was admitted to all the top colleges to which he applied, but Tiffany was not admitted to any of her dream schools.

The difference? Jason shows commitment and an ability to use his commitment to benefit himself and others. Tiffany does not.

  1. Colleges are looking for students who are more than good test takers, and they know that students with passionate interests tend to be disciplined, motivated, concerned, ambitious, and committed. Students with passionate interests are able to set goals and learn independently. Passionate students tend to be good problem solvers. And these are the students colleges are looking for.I’m not the only one who thinks this way. According to “Turning the Tide,” a report published by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, college admissions officers at schools all over the country including those at Yale, Cornell, Brown, and MIT are assessing applicants for evidence of
    • Authentic, meaningful, and consistent participation in one interest
    • A demonstrated ability to use that interest for the good of others

    Recognizing this, I’ve helped hundreds of students get admitted to their top-choice colleges, all while participating in activities that the students actually care about, and not just for the sake of admissions.

    How You Can Help Your Child?

    At the beginning of ninth grade, ask your student two questions. “What bugs you? What problem would you like to solve?”

    The problem doesn’t have to be a “big” problem such as finding a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  It could be something “small” such as encouraging an interest in gardening and helping her work during high school to figure out ways to restore and maintain a community garden. The important thing is to help your child find one area of interest that will engage her, develop her learning, and that will allow her to make a meaningful contribution during the course of her four years in high school.

    Ready to get started? Call me.


Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.