How to Stand Out on Your College Applications

college applications

You’ve got your college applications just about perfect:  transcripts ordered, SATs nailed, essays polished.  The one factor that’s got you worried is the spot on your resume for extracurricular activities.  You know they’re important and that they can tell an applications officer lots about you, but how do you know what kinds of activities you should list?  Is there a sure-fire sort of pastime colleges are looking for?  How can you help make yourself look good and, most importantly, not look just like everyone else?

More than Academics


Admissions officers want to see that there’s more to you than academics and school-related activities. After all, college life will offer you so much outside of coursework; there’s a rich, vibrant campus community that they hope you’ll be a great addition to.  A successful college student isn’t just taking classes–she’s participating in so much more that her school environment offers.  The person who evaluates your application is looking for a multi-faceted person, someone who isn’t just interesting, but interested.  The extracurriculars you list on your application can help show what you’re up to when you’re not in class and will help the officer see that you’re ready to embrace everything that the college has to applications

One vs Many Activities

One age-old question in particular plagues college applicants:  is it better to have a lot of hours in one activity or to have those hours spread out over lots of widely varying activities?  The good thing is that there’s no single answer to that.  It all depends on your passion, and how that passion becomes evident in what you spend your time doing outside of school.  If you love working with kids, that will be obvious whether you volunteer twenty hours a month at the children’s hospital or whether those twenty hours are spread out between the children’s hospital, the local day care center, and arts-and-crafts day at your neighborhood craft supply store.  And there’s no single “recipe” for a successful set of extracurricular activities:  one sport, one charity, and one religious group.  No, don’t worry about that–it’s all about what you feel excited about, not a “pick one activity from List A and one from List B.”

Be specific!

Be sure to specify exactly what you do during your volunteer time, using strong verbs that illustrate precisely what the activities are.  For example, rather that simply stating “worked with local elementary school’s softball team,” describe what you did with the team.  “Provided one-on-one pitching lessons with novice players” or “conducted first-aid training for on-the-field injuries” or “quizzed young players on sliding, bunting, and stealing rules” will add vibrancy to your application and give your activities that unique quality that you’re striving for.

How to Find Your Niche. What if you haven’t found your thing yet?

What if you haven’t found your thing yet?  Don’t panic; there’s time.  Your school has a resource person (start with the counseling office for recommendations) who can give you a list of clubs, and your favorite teachers will have some ideas, too.  Many cities have intramural sports for teens, as well as community centers and gyms.  Churches, veterinary offices, elementary schools, city parks, even shops and malls can have plenty of opportunities that you may not have even thought of.  Just put on some nice clothes (something cute, age-appropriate, and modest) and head in with a friendly smile and a hearty handshake.  You’ll be surprised how much people like talking about  what they enjoy, and how many ideas they may have for you.

DON’T Fake It

And of course, the golden rule of extracurriculars . . . if we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times:  don’t fake it.  You don’t want any element of your application to ring false, because it just takes one quick phone call or Google search to verify (or reveal) the truth about your activities and one little fudging of information could sink your whole ship.  Don’t do it.  If you’re fearful that you don’t have very many activities, refer to the advice above:  it’s about quality, not quantity.  Your interests and passions will be evident.  In fact, the student who desperately joins every club she can find just so she can build a multi-page resume can look just that:  desperate.  She looks like she’s trying to build a resume, not build a life.  You don’t have to change the world . . . just change your world.