Choosing the Right Number of Extracurricular Activities for College: How Many is Enough? How Many is Too Many?

Choosing the Right Number of Extracurricular Activities for College: How Many is Enough? How Many is Too Many?

There is a popular myth in college admissions that applicants need to be “well-rounded.” When I was growing up, that meant that you had to:

  1. Do great in school, and be at the top of your class
  2. Participate in a host of student groups – math, physics, robotics club, etc.
  3. Play at least one varsity sport (and ideally be the captain as well)
  4. Play a music instrument, and  
  5. If possible, be the president of your class.

Parents were (and are) convinced that colleges wanted these all-around great applicants.

Sadly, they are completely mistaken.

The reality is that colleges don’t want “well-rounded” applicants – they want unique, and excellent candidates. They don’t want students who are good at many things, they want students who are great at one or two things.

If you were to look at the website of any selective U.S. college, you will see that they are looking for students that are “one-of-a-kind.” There are thousands and thousands of high schools around the world, and each one has at least one student that meets the five requirements above.

Every. Single. One.

Perfect grades, scores, tons of extracurricular activities…Do you think that all of those students are accepted to Harvard? Absolutely not. Chances are, a handful of them are accepted – often times the sons or daughters of Harvard faculty members – and the remainder are rejected.

Why do schools admit students in this fashion?

Diversity.

Diversity doesn’t just mean religion, nationality, gender, etc.

Diversity is anything that makes an applicant different from his or her peers. It could be a passion, interest, hobby, extracurricular activity, sport – anything that might allow a student to contribute a different skill or perspective on a college campus.

In short, these selective schools want students who will stand out in class, on campus, and after graduation. Thus, admitting students who have demonstrated the ability and desire to go beyond the routine accomplishments listed above tends to be the best method of ensuring diversity.

Don’t believe me?

Here is the first sentence of Harvard’s admissions statistics web page:

Harvard welcomes students from across the country and all over the world, with diverse backgrounds and far-ranging talents and interests.”

Similarly, Yale’s admissions webpage states that although more than 75% of applicants to Yale are academically qualified to attend, “the great majority of students who are admitted [are those who] stand out from the rest.”

Still not satisfied? Here’s a few more snippets from schools’ admissions webpage:

Princeton: “It is our mission at Princeton to ensure that our community is as diverse and intellectually stimulating as possible.”

Stanford: “We believe that the best education can develop only in a vibrant, diverse community that actively affirms both the differences among its members and their numerous points of connection.”

Columbia: “Columbia is committed to creating and supporting a community diverse in every way”

University of Pennsylvania: “Understanding and appreciating diversity is fundamental to success in today’s world. It is fundamental to the education we provide at Penn and is one of our University’s most important priorities.”

…the list goes on.

My point is this: trying to improve your chances at being accepted to a selective college by participating in an abundance of activities is foolish – harmful, in fact. The most important factor that you should focus on is standing out, and being excellent at one or two things.

To give you sense of how many extracurricular activities successful applicants typically participate in, I’ve included below a number of graphs. The graphs display the average number of activities that successful applicants participated in at the top 100 universities.

There are a couple of important takeaway points in these graphs.

First, for almost every university on this list, successful applicants averaged approximately four (or just under four) extracurricular activities. Successful applicants averaged more than five activities for only one school – US Military Academy, which rarely admits international students.  

Second, for nearly every school, successful applicants averaged more than two extracurricular activities for college. What we can learn from this is that applicants do not necessarily need to be great at everything they do. Certainly, no applicant is capable of being truly great at three activities – they simply would not have time. However, participating in too few activities may give the admissions office the impression that a student is not hardworking enough, or lacks diverse interests.

extracurricular activities for college

extracurricular activities for college

extracurricular activities for college

 

extracurricular activities for college

extracurricular activities for college

extracurricular activities for college

In conclusion, although applicants should abandon the traditional idea of becoming “well-rounded,” they still must communicate – through their honors and activitiessome amount of diversity in their interests.

This advice can be written thusly:

First, become great at one thing.

Second, enjoy another.

About the Author


Joel Butterly, Co-founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, is an experienced admissions counselor and entrepreneur. Joel comes from a rich educational background—his immediate family alone has 14 Ivy League Degrees—from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth.

Joel attended Dartmouth College, where he studied Government, Geography, and the Philosophy of Ethics. He was inducted early into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated Summa Cum Laude. He graduated with a double major in Government and International Studies, and a minor in Ethical Philosophy.

After Dartmouth, Joel attended Yale Law School, where he served on the executive board of the Journal on Regulation, as well as the Law School’s entrepreneurship society.

Joel currently resides at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. He lives with his fiance – Emily – who teaches and is receiving her PhD in Medieval History from Yale.