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Why Extracurricular Activities Matter in the American University Admissions Process

What You Do Outside of the Classroom Matters More than You Think

Studying at any highly selective college or university in the U.S. requires more than just good test scores and grades. At America’s most selective institutions, there are many more academically qualified applicants with strong tests and grade point averages than there are spots to offer in the incoming freshman class. In the words of a former Associate Dean at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia’s admissions committee spent “less than 10 seconds” on an applicant’s test scores--the rest of the admission decision is based upon holistic factors: personal statements, letters of recommendation, an assessment of the applicant’s character, and, perhaps connecting all of these, how the applicant applied themselves outside of the classroom.

Extracurricular activities tend to be important in the admissions criteria for highly selective universities. While it’s certainly true that each school has its own admission process and team and that students should always consider what universities are a “fit” for their needs and interests, extracurricular activities are almost universally considered among the 5 most important factors in a university’s criteria. And unlike many of the other criteria, students can most directly express themselves through their after school endeavors, unbounded by core curricula or word limits.

Perfect scores or being a valedictorian are not enough to get students into top schools. Not every applicant to Harvard had perfect SAT scores of 2400, Harvard admissions still managed to reject a quarter of students with perfect SAT scores; University of Pennsylvania and Duke University both reject 60% of valedictorians (NYMag). Schools like Harvard value engagement in extracurricular activities and leadership while deemphasizing standardized test scores in the admissions process. Many top universities like the University of Chicago, George Washington University, and many top Liberal Arts colleges like Bowdoin and Colby have joined the Test Optional Movement. While students at these schools can submit test scores, they are not required to. Instead of posting why students should be accepted to their university of choice, they are submitting why they are a good candidate demonstrated by their experience. This ongoing shift towards a “holistic” application process measures the value an individual brings to campus through their involvement and experiences both inside and outside school. In order to compete with other top applicants in the college admissions process, students need to show much more than test scores.

Test scores, rank, and academic grades all lack the ability to measure students’ character. Rather, these forms of assessment do not demonstrate improvement or personal growth, but instead, test scores only measure testing performance on one particular day, GPAs aggregate performance over a few years without accounting for improvements, maintenance or setbacks.

Students who only focus on achieving high grades should take note of the following research:

  1. According to Leonard Baird of the University of Kentucky, there is a low positive relationship between academic aptitude and adult accomplishment--achieving good grades in high school or university does not directly translate to career success (Springer).

  2. Across multiple industries, correlation between grades and career performance is small across multiple industries in the first year after college and of little importance after a few years (American Psychological Association).

  3. According to a study by the University of Southern Mississippi, students that participate in extracurricular activities including sports, music programs, and school clubs have better grades and SAT scores (USM).

Extracurricular activities give students a chance to express themselves and demonstrate valuable social and life skills. Within the context of holistic application process, character assessments are paramount as they offer a specific lens into who students are by how they dedicate their time.

Almost every American high school has extracurricular programs. Private schools and top public schools tend to have more choices. A multitude of companies exist to satiate the demand for extracurricular programs. Parents with resources to expend will attempt to ensure that their child gets to a good school by being an individual--normally perceived to be achieved through an accumulation of diverse experiences and knowledge.

At the top end of the international education spectrum, certain activities have become clichés as university admissions officers recognize them as disingenuous power plays capacitated by wealthy parents designed to get their child into their top school--for example, “volunteer tourism,” where students pay companies substantial sums of money to travel to the global south and volunteer for a short period of time. In the past, these experiences provided the content for unique college application essays; today, they are frequently mocked and regarded as negative within the academic community. Therefore, it is important for students applying to American and international schools to maintain “demonstrated interest” in a subject outside of their normal coursework in something not regarded as solely for the wealthy.

In the admissions process, applicants are expected to be interesting and engaging--robotic personalities will be demerited. Superlative candidates will not only be involved in extracurricular activities, but they will also be able to talk to admissions officers about these activities with passion--they may even posit that their activities have prepared them for success in university life and their future career. Students interested in obtaining a business degree will benefit from engaging in business competitions as they will enter college with a preexisting background knowledge of the topic; winning or achieving a high ranking in a tournament will be subsequently supplemental. Alternatively, students interested in studying law, political science, international relations or are interested in pursuing a career in academia will benefit from activities like debate or Model UN, which teaches research skills and enhances critical thinking ability.

At Sunrise International Education, we started teaching and hosting debate camps and tournaments, our National High School Debate League of China (NHSDLC) has become China’s most prominent league. Regardless of English level and ability, students are trained to do research, make cohesive arguments and think critically and analytically in English. We also host the China Youth Business League (CYBL), a series of competitions and tournaments where students can compete in teams on business projects. For Chinese students, doing an intellectual extracurricular in English doubles as a skill building activity.

Sunrise also offers extracurricular courses, designed to enhance a student’s college application portfolio and teaches them research skills. Our Horizon Academic Research Program is an online program taught by professors from Harvard, Cambridge, and Dartmouth within the subjects of Environmental Engineering, Behavioral Economics, and International Relations. Meanwhile, for students interested in the world’s great works of literature, the Columbia Young Scholars program is a course in Beijing that reflects the sophistication of Columbia University’s freshman seminar. Students in both of these courses complete a university-level paper within their topic. Students in these programs are eligible for a letter of recommendation from their professor and have the opportunity to publish their projects.

We are also thrilled to announce two new programs in two new subjects: the China Organization for Developing Engineers (CODE) and Illumi Portfolio Fair. CODE is a national league for robotics and computer science, perfect for students interested in pursuing STEM majors and careers. For art students, Illumi Portfolio Fair provides a forum for them to display their works and receive feedback from art critics.

In the international university admissions process, grades and test scores are increasingly dismissed and are viewed as irrelevant to a student’s potential contributions on campus and in life. Students that overcame hardships, engaged and succeeded in extracurricular activities, maintain demonstrated interests, and have an overall personality tend to be more successful as they are interesting and unique.

For many students applying to international schools from China, they are faced with the opposing stereotypes of being robotic, introverted and academically focused or focused on their insulated social life within the Chinese community and do not take their studies seriously. International universities are trying to avoid these two types of students--for the former, universities (again, like Harvard) will posit that they do not contribute to the institution or society as they are only interested in their own academics and subsequently miss the point of being social at university. The latter typology of students are criticized as purchasing a degree while contributing nothing to the greater institution other than tuition.

Schools, especially good schools, want interesting applicants that will contribute to the greater society. Students with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, skills and experiences are ultimately valued more than students with perfect grades and test scores albeit without personality or interests beyond academics.

The most important question asked during the admissions process is in regards to why the applicant wants to attend the institution in question. A benign and general response like emphasizing the ranking of the school and quality of its academics are thought of as boring. A meaningful and specific answer demonstrates genuine interest in the school beyond academics. Extracurricular activities give applicants an edge compared to their peers.

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