Extracurricular activities

Extracurricular activities-Why do they matter?

Extracurricular activities matter a lot! The average university application assessor deals with literally hundreds of extremely similar requests for a place every year. Applicants all have good grades, have passed their exams with distinction. They invariably note that they are “passionate” about the subject they want to study in their Personal Statements. And yet – and yet, as we all know, people are not the same, do not show the same promise and energy and have quite different motives, personalities and ambitions.

And this is where extracurricular activities come in, fleshing out the school marks and the formulaic letter of motivation. This will allow assessors to get a glimpse of the candidate behind the numbers. US universities, who take a holistic approach to admissions applications, allocate sections of the Common App and their own Supplementary Questions to extracurricular activities, and make it clear that they view extracurriculars as a window into the applicant’s character and what they offer.

Remember, too, that US campuses rely on new applicants to play in their varsity teams, run their newspapers, join their choirs, comedy and theatre groups and engage in community service. So that, if you offer the talents and skills they are looking for, your chances of being admitted improve. Of course, they have absolutely no way of knowing that you play in a national orchestra, represent your local track and field team in regional trials or are a chess champion. Unless you tell them.

Do not make the mistake of blurring the line between hobbies and extracurricular activities. You may have amassed an amazing number of Paddington Bear toys, and really enjoy stamp collecting or watching action movies. Nevertheless, these are signs that you are a collector and use movies to relax, rather than an activity. Similarly, it is quality and not quantity which counts. Therefore, do not reduce your extracurricular interests to a long and essentially boring list. You need to demonstrate commitment, pro-active engagement and enthusiasm, in areas where you excel.

Extracurricular activities-Deciding what to mention

Researchers have found that excellence is a key factor in extracurricular activities, and some universities informally grade what you have done on a scale, starting with the exceptional (International, national) to standard (local, intermittent). In practical terms, this means that organising an end of year school dance ranks far below designing, organising and promoting an inter-school annual knock-out sporting tournament. Similarly, setting up a newspaper to be the voice of the community and using it as a tool for lobbying on local issues, is far more impressive than submitting the odd article or poem to the school newspaper.

Is travel an extracurricular activity?

And then there is the vexed question of travelling. When is going on holiday an extracurricular activity – if ever? “I love travelling” is a phrase which is in virtually every motivational letter and PS. This statement is usually followed by something along the lines of “to learn the local culture”. Do not do this. If you want to cite travel as an extracurricular activity, then it must have an objective and make sense in the context of your interests. For example, if you want to study fashion, you have a brilliant reason to travel attending the major European fashion shows. Similarly, you may travel to book fairs and festivals if you are fond of literature. Or attend Japanese anime exhibitions and tech presentations if you want to work in AR and illustration. Three weeks swimming in the Mediterranean and eating Greek food does not count.

Academic Extracurricular activities-Do they matter?


Extracurricular academic activities demonstrate that you are happy to give up your time for a subject you love. Also, that you are excited to expand your knowledge outside the classroom. These could include university summer schools, taking part in the Model UN or mock trials, signing up for competitions and projects, or online courses relating to the subject you want to study. Explain why you chose specific topics and what you learned from them. If you set up and ran a club dedicated to your particular interests as an out of school activity, make sure you mention this. All this shows dedication and leadership, two important qualities.

Extracurricular activities-Volunteering

You need to aim for consistency here and to link your volunteering to your academic aims and objectives. Doing two weeks counting monkey colonies in Puerto Rico, when you are applying to take a degree in physics, smacks of an exotic, expensive holiday. Particularly since these types of volunteering experiences tend to be of extremely short duration. If, however, you want to study veterinary medicine and have volunteered at an animal shelter for a significant period of time, this makes sense. Volunteering in a food bank or shelter shows compassion and engagement with the broader community, and indicates your willingness to take part in outreach initiatives at the university.

Try and reflect on what your volunteering has taught you. Think back on how pro-active you were allowed to be and the teaching and support you received. Were you viewed as cheap labour or as an essential helper? Did you acquire new skills and how did you apply them?

Extracurricular activities-Teamwork and leadership

Both these qualities make you an attractive applicant in the eyes of assessors. Teamwork is part of every type of sport and project. This ranges from playing in a hockey team to working backstage on a theatrical production. These type of extracurricular activities demand good time-management skills, strong communication, and the ability to rise to any and every challenge and find a solution to any kind of problem. It is important not to over-emphasise the leadership aspect over the team member role, because you run the risk of sounding domineering and unwilling to listen to others. Be specific when you describe how you have led and followed.  You may have been part of an orchestra and then a soloist. Perhaps you worked your way through the scouting movement and eventually became a leader and chief organiser?

Working with friends to create a new computer game or app is an example of teamwork. As is repainting a community centre which has fallen into disrepair or organising a fund-raising drive for a good cause. Try not to limit yourself to talking about sports!

Extracurricular activities-Part-time jobs

Part-time work is a valuable extracurricular activity, since it demonstrates flexibility, adaptability and interaction with the real-world. Of course, relevance is important here, too. If you wish to study law and worked as an administrator in a solicitor’s office, or took on paid roles as an extra on a local film, in order to learn more about movie-making, you must include this information when discussing your extracurriculars. Try not to disguise what you did by pretending that your barista or waitress job taught you accounting or dispute-resolution – it will not fool the assessor! Think carefully about what your part-time job involved: did you attend meetings and make presentations, do any outreach or produce social media or promotional material? Be succinct and clearly state what you learned and what you can do with the knowledge.

Extracurricular activities-Finally...

Extracurricular activities are important. If you are not sure what to amplify, include or exclude, or how to make it relevant to your application, then talk to your Elab consultant, or drop them a draft for their comments.

Don’t hide your light under a bushel or assume that your love of breeding exotic plants or digging tunnels under motorways for hedgehogs to cross safely is irrelevant. It is precisely these details which illuminate who you are and why you deserve admission to the university of your dreams.

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