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High school extracurricular activities: factors to consider
This page goes over some factors you should consider in when deciding what extracurricular activities to pursue in high school. After reading this, you might wish to look at the page high school extracurricular activities: suggestions for concrete suggestions.
Human capital: acquisition of long-term knowledge and skills
KEEP IN MIND: Before committing to an extracurricular activity, think hard about the question of whether you will acquire lasting skills from it. If you won't, then you should engage in it only if you really enjoy doing it.
Extracurriculars can be used to acquire valuable skills. These include:
- The specific skills being practiced in the extracurricular: For instance, playing the violin for your school orchestra makes you better at playing the violin, and that might be a skill that you can put to use for later orchestras, or it might help you appreciate music better, or you might be able to tutor others in the violin later in life.
- General skills related to hardwork, perseverance, concentration, and acquisition of mastery
- Skills related to dealing with people: Many extracurriculars involve activities that rely on teamwork. Some extracurriculars involve dealing with customers or potential customers. Some extracurriculars involve understanding what other people are thinking.
Signaling quality to colleges
Further information: high school extracurricular activities: signaling quality to colleges
KEEP IN MIND: If there's an extracurricular activity you are engaging in only for the sake of college admissions, you should probably not be engaging in it.
We say you engage in an activity for signaling purposes if one of the goals of your engaging in the activity is to convince other people about some attributes of yours. One of the goals that high school students have in mind when picking extracurriculars is to signal their own quality to colleges they will apply to.
Some students are under the impression that outside of their school work, they should participate in as many activities as possible. A common reason for this is that students believe that colleges are looking for students who participate in as many activities as possible. We did research and found that this is not the case.
What extracurricular involvement do colleges look for?
We spoke with admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Williams, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore, Brown, Northwestern and Caltech, about how they evaluate student participation in extracurricular activities, for 15 colleges total.
- Colleges generally don't prefer some extracurricular activities over others: Seven of the colleges indicated that the nature of the extracurriculars doesn't matter, as long as the student shows passion. Two of the colleges indicated that they have a preference for students who are involved in at least some activities with other people. Beyond this, no colleges indicated a preference for some extracurricular activities over others. In general, the colleges indicated that they define "extracurricular activities" very broadly, as anything outside of coursework, which could include work, sports, participation in online communities, etc.
- Colleges generally prefer depth of involvement over breadth: Six of the colleges indicated that they have no preference for whether students engage in lots of activities or a few activities, as long as they show serious involvement in their activities. Seven of the colleges said that depth matters more than breadth. None expressed a preference for many activities.
- Commitment can be important: Six of the colleges indicated that continuity of involvement and commitment matters. None said that these things don't matter.
- Achievement level can make a difference, but appears to be less important: Five of the colleges indicated that achievement level doesn't matter as much as depth of involvement. Two of the colleges indicated that higher achievement helps.
We give some relevant quotations from college admissions department websites at college statements about extracurricular activities.
Improved peer groups
Extracurriculars can be a way to hang out with people in your school or neighborhood or around the world who are more fun and enriching to be around. For instance, if you are at a school where the typical student has little interest in having serious discussions, joining the Debate Club might help you interact more with the few people in your school who are interested in serious discussions. This improved peer group might be helpful in many ways:
- Friends and perhaps romantic partners of higher quality
- A more inspiring peer environment can push you to achieve more
- The peer group might provide you with high-quality information that can help you with your goals
KEEP IN MIND: With online activities, you have the opportunity to interact with the best people around the world, rather than being restricted to the best people in your school or neighborhood.
One major draw of extracurricular activities is that they can be fun and engaging, and provide variety.
If you are engaging in a particular extracurricular activity with the goal of personal enjoyment, there is nothing wrong with that, but you should not fool yourself into believe that this is building human capital (long-term skills) or helping signal quality to colleges just because you enjoy it and feel good about it.
Value to society
KEEP IN MIND: At your age and stage in life, improving your skills for the long term is more likely to create value for society than activities that are typically classed as being socially useful.
Some activities create value for society directly, whereas others do not. In some cases, the value is lasting, whereas in other cases, it is not.
Generating useful information for a broad audience
KEEP IN MIND: Activities that generate useful information can produce vastly different levels of value to society depending on how many people are exposed to the information.
Consider the following comparisons:
- Writing the Wikipedia page about a topic versus writing an equally good summary of the topic for a local discussion or debate club.
- Writing a Quora answer detailing your experience in a topic versus writing up the same experience in an article for your school's print magazine.
- Asking and answering questions about programming difficulties on Stack Exchange versus asking and answering questions in a mailing list for your school's computer club.
In all examples, the former activity reaches a much larger potential audience than the latter activity, even though the quality of the output may be the same.
Of course, audience size is not the only consideration -- it may be much easier and more personally valuable to you to help people in your school or neighboorhood or friend circle than to help strangers. But the value to society consideration argues in favor of trying to reach larger audiences.
Social value and profit
KEEP IN MIND: Interning at a for-profit company (perhaps for free) may be a way of generating social value.
For-profit companies often create social value. In fact, if the company is making a profit through customers who voluntarily and without regret buy its goods, this is strong evidence in favor of the claim that the company is creating value. Interning at for-profits should be considered a potential alternative to doing volunteer work at non-profits in terms of social value generated (more later).
Another possible way of generating social value is earning to give. If you work for pay, either at a for-profit or doing odd jobs for others, and save money, you can use the saved money to donate to charity. There is strong reason to believe that such donations could generate more social value than volunteer work for a non-profit or community organization, unless you have special skills that are valued by that organization.