Colleges aren't terribly picky about how you spend your down time, as long as you're doing something meaningful. They won't know if you spend hours upon hours playing video games; they will certainly notice a lack of notable activities on your college application. But you don't have to have a long list of stellar accomplishments to receive a college acceptance. As long as you can demonstrate to the admission committee some level of accomplishment, initiative, commitment, and leadership, then you're on the right track.
How involved do you need to be for college acceptance?
You don't have to play varsity football or be elected vice-president — there are many ways to showcase your talents and achievements. But with so many programs and organizations, teams, clubs, and causes, it can be hard to predict what will make a splash to the people you most need to impress. Realistically, there are some activities that do tend to stand out more than others. If your accomplishments are a little more on the unusual side, putting together a proper presentation can help admission officers see those debate awards or rock-climbing activities more clearly.
What colleges look for when making the admission decision
When admission professionals evaluate your extracurricular activities, there are a few things they are likely to take into consideration during their committee meetings:
The significance of your contribution is often a factor in the admissions decision. Admission professionals often favor depth over breadth. For example, while Bill may attend almost every weekly chess club meeting, Sue organized a chess clinic and tournament at a nearby junior high, creating such a success that she ran a second one at a homeless shelter and persuaded local merchants to donate prizes.
"Evidence of leadership" is a phrase that comes up often at admission decision committee meetings, and it can be what separates you from someone who ends up on the waitlist. There's a world of difference between the student who joined the Geography Club and the one who founded it. The more selective a college is, the more carefully your leadership role is examined.
While there may not be as much talk of "well-roundedness" as there used to be, diverse ventures appeal to admission officers who are offering college acceptance. If you participate in the science club, drama club, and tennis team, you'll usually stand out more than someone who only chooses athletics. If you're a good, but not exceptional athlete, put other things on your activity roster. Similarly, balancing school-related activities (clubs, teams, choirs, etc.) with those taking place elsewhere (volunteering, scouting, church groups, community theater, etc.) suggests that your horizons extend beyond the schoolyard.
Volunteerism is very important, and the key here is real, hands-on involvement. Admission people are usually able to differentiate between the candidate who spends every Saturday tutoring at a storefront literacy center and the classmate who spent an hour on the Students Against Styrofoam Dance Decoration Committee. The person with real involvement is much more likely to get that college admission letter.
You may be able to up your stock in admission officers' eyes by being extraordinarily talented in some area or with a truly off-the-wall interest or experience. Perhaps you're a prima ballerina who dances 6 hours a day, pirouetting all the way to Prague with a national company, or you're a downhill skier just one run away from a gold medal.
Stories abound about students who received college admission letters because of entrepreneurship by starting home-baked cookie companies or computer software services, and of prodigies who published their own novels or built fighter jets in the garage.
If that's a little far-fetched for you, remember that colleges also appreciate uncommon undertakings: hand-bell ringers and Morris Dancers, magicians, skydivers, or dog trainers. According to one admission official, "It's exciting to see unusual activities on an application — not always the student council, the newspaper, or the yearbook."
A final note about the admissions decision
You recognize how much effort went into planning the pep rally, how tough it was to sacrifice a season of soccer for a semester in Sweden, or how many lines you had to learn for "King Lear." But admission officers have heard it all before. Be sure that you present your extracurricular activities and accomplishments well, and differentiate between meaningful and minimal contributions.