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High school extracurricular activities: signaling quality to colleges

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One of the reasons high school students engage in extracurricular activities is that they believe these activities will improve their college admissions prospects. This is a form of signaling -- participation and accomplishment in extracurricular activities signals information about the applicant to the college admissions officer.

If this information distinguishes the applicant in a positive manner from other applicants in the pool, it improves the applicant's college admissions prospects. The flip side is that if the information fails to distinguish the applicant positively, or even worse, distinguishes the applicant negatively, this hurts the applicant's college admissions prospects.

KEEP IN MIND: This page specifically looks at high school extracurricular activities in the context of signaling quality to colleges. There are many other motivations for and benefits of engaging in extracurricular activities. For a bird's eye view, please see our summary of factors to consider.

Sources of evidence

We relied on the following sources:

  • Publicly available college statements about extracurricular activities
  • Extensive off-the-record phone discussions with admissions officers at numerous colleges to understand what they are looking for.
  • Discussions with high school students to understand their current environment.
  • Cal Newport's How to Be a High School Superstar that advocates a specific strategy related to high school extracurriculars.
  • Discussions on College Confidential forums (not initiated by us).

Depth versus breadth tradeoff

Here:

  • Depth is used for the extent to which one engages in a particular activity, and it is related to the level of accomplishment, skill, and passion that one attains. Depth is closely related to the buzzword passion.
  • Breadth is used for the number or diversity of extracurricular activities that one participates in. Breadth is closely related to the buzzword well-rounded.

The depth versus breadth tradeoff considers the relative value of depth (going into one activity deeply) and breadth (participating in a large number of activities).

College statements

Official college statements about extracurricular activities, as well as statements made in off-the-record discussions, suggest the following:

  • A majority of colleges claim to value depth over breadth. Some colleges claim that diverse extracurriculars are fine as long as they fit together in a story.
  • Some colleges claim to value depth as well as breadth, not giving preference to either.

Cal Newport

In his book How to Be a High School Superstar (see here), Cal Newport claims that depth matters much more than breadth. He offers a variety of reasons.

  • Superstar effect: Newport argues that great accomplishment in one area yields a lot more rewards than mediocre accomplishment in many areas.
  • Matthew effect: Newport argues that significant accomplishment in one area begets complementary accomplishments in related areas.
  • Laundry list hypothesis and countersignaling: Newport argues that a laundry list of mediocre accomplishments is a signal that mediocre students send to distinguish themselves from low-quality students. High-quality students, by refraining from listing a large number of mediocre accomplishments, countersignal that they are of sufficiently high quality to not need to signal. Such countersignaling works because the few accomplishments they do list are genuinely impressive.

Newport also offers the following overview of the switch that colleges made from favoring "well-rounded" applicants (a marker of breadth) to favoring "passionate" applicants (a marker of depth).

Twenty years ago, this term wasn't even in the admissions vocabulary. Back then, the rules were much simpler. Colleges made it clear that they were looking for “well-rounded” students. If you had top grades, played a varsity sport, and were president of the student body, you could go to an Ivy League school. But then the population boom dubbed Gen Y started to graduate from high school, and a knowledge-worker economy began to place more importance on the name gracing your diploma. Schools were soon deluged with “well-rounded” students and began having to turn away the type of applicant who used to be an automatic accept. At this point, the process plunged into mystery. The emphasis on “well-rounded”faded, and in its place rose the shadowy concept of the “passionate” applicant. This hopelessly ambiguous concept has since evolved into a catchall explanation for any student who gets into college for doing something that does not obviously require a great amount of hard work or natural ability. -- How to Be a High School Superstar (p. 19)