How to Choose Extracurricular Activities
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By Susan Packer Davis

How should a student go about finding the right extracurricular activities? My answer is simple: A student should do what s/he loves to do – and then expand that passion into a meaningful and significant activity or project that will be about more than him or her, something for the greater good. Volunteering just to fulfill a community service requirement or participating in a particular activity because someone said it would “look good” on a college application will lead neither to a fulfilling life nor to a remarkable resume. Extracurricular activities should reflect who a student actually is and how s/he relates to the community, rather than superficial endeavors that contribute nothing important to anyone.

A student should resist the temptation to assemble a “laundry list” of activities or clubs in which s/he merely dabbles. A student who becomes a leader and devotes herself or himself to an organization, or a student who devises a long-term project that actually improves the lives of others, demonstrates initiative and commitment, and is always more interesting than a student who just shows up once a week to a meeting. In addition, there is no activity in which a student must participate; everyone is different. A student who writes for a website or who teaches gymnastics or ice skating to younger students is just as important as a student government member or tennis player. As long as a student is deeply and creatively involved in one or two important activities of her or his choice, s/he will grow as a person, and college admission committees will take note. It helps no one for a student to engage in multiple activities in a lightweight fashion only to try to impress; the student gains nothing, and admissions committees can detect such fakery a mile away.

So how does a student discover what s/he loves to do? I have found that most students actually do know what those activities are, but may have been dissuaded from pursuing them, or may not know how to express them or turn them into larger undertakings. That is where I can help. I can draw out a student’s passions by various means: asking questions, exploring a student’s past experiences, and having knowledge of similar students. It is always an exciting process for me to aid a student in identifying what s/he really wants to do – and then figure out how to do it. I have nearly forty years of experience in helping students find their “thing,” create projects, and secure internships in their areas of interest; it is a journey that involves moving from an exploratory stage as a younger student to an advanced level of involvement as an older student.

Summer is the perfect time to expand an activity in which a student is involved. When there are fewer demands on a student’s time, s/he can serve as an intern, do research in his or her chosen field, or take an on-going project to a higher level or a wider audience. Paid employment can also be a worthwhile enterprise, as long as the work is at least tangentially related to the student’s chosen area. Working to raise funds for a student’s own project or a charity in which s/he is involved is also a great idea.

A student’s extracurricular profile should mirror who that student is and who s/he wants to be. There is no “wrong” activity except one that is not genuine. Students should not try to please anyone else with what they do when they are not studying; if they follow that path, their activities will be empty entries on a resume. In order for a student to be successful – do a great job – in whatever s/he does apart from schoolwork, and to be able to translate that activity into making a difference in the world, that activity must come from a student’s heart. The activity must make a student happy and proud. What will follow then are a life well-lived and a truly impressive college application, one that includes both memorable activities and powerful essays written by a student who actually has something to say.