When applying to a university in the United States, it’s important to know what admissions officers are looking for. Unlike the UK, US admissions officers are looking for more well-rounded students who take part in extra-curricular activities. In fact, what you do outside of the classroom can be just as important as what you do in it.
Why are extracurricular activities so important?
The United States is known for having what is called a liberal arts approach to education. Universities tend to focus on helping you develop a wide range of academic and professional skills. This is pretty different from other systems, like the United Kingdom, where offers are based on predicted A-level or IB grades. In the US, admission officers want to see how you will contribute to campus life. Getting involved with societies and hobbies beyond the classroom is a great way to show what this could look like.
In very competitive applicant pools, like the Ivy League, most of the other students will also have really high scores. Extracurricular achievements may be one of the most important ways you can stand out from the crowd. Try and pursue activities you genuinely care about, as it’s likely you will have to write an admissions essay where you discuss them. This is a lot easier to do if you have a real interest in your chosen activities!
To help you find extracurricular activities that you are passionate about, and also demonstrate important skills, we’ll go through five things that colleges want to see in your application.
For admissions officers, showing leadership skills makes them more confident that you will go on to leave a positive mark on the university campus - and the world!
Leadership can be shown in a variety of ways. Did you found a club, advance from junior member to leader of a group, or convince a group of students to participate in a certain activity? If so, you have shown leadership skills, and you should mention these experiences in your applications.
It’s one thing to have a hobby or skill, but it’s quite another to be impactful. For example, many people could join a soccer team, but not everyone can score a lot of winning goals.
You can also connect your extracurricular activities to your ambitions. If you have an interest in macroeconomics, you might not have had your extracurricular research published, but you could show how your research led you to you making different choices in your own life. A good strategy for writing well about activities is to consider what goal you had when you initially started doing an activity, if you are still doing it for the same reason, and how you feel the activity has contributed to that goal.
Colleges want to see that you can spend a serious amount of time on meaningful activities. If you describe your dancing class as life-changing but have only been four times, admissions officers will have a hard time believing you!
Try to focus on a few core activities, rather than doing twenty irrelevant things to look more impressive. The Common App will only allow you to enter ten extracurricular activities, and in supplemental essays, many colleges ask you to describe a single activity that had a profound impact on you.
4. Social Good
Top US universities tend to look for students who will use their education to make a positive impact on the world. It’s great if one of your extracurricular activities is focused on improving the lives of other people. For example, if you’re passionate about fighting homelessness, you might volunteer at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter in order to put that passion into action.
Or maybe you really care about anti-racism, and started a community group dedicated to educating people about how they can tackle racism together. You can choose just about any issue that inspires you - what really matters is your ability to find a practical way to do some good in society.
5. Summer breaks
In the United States, the summer before your college applications are due, are rarely a time to kick your feet up and relax! It’s common to use the extra free time to start an impressive new project or get further involved in an activity you were already pursuing throughout the year.
If you play soccer during term time, you might use the summer to teach soccer camps in poorer neighbourhoods. Holding a summer job is valuable too, not just for the college admissions process, but to boost your CV. It’ll really help your application, and give you something meaningful to do during a time when you have less pressure from school.