When it comes to applying to college, it's no longer just about the 4.0. Now it's about what you've done outside the classroom as well, which can be daunting for many otherwise promising students. While it may seem like there aren't many opportunities for you to make a demonstrable impact where you live, there are a lot of national organizations that can give high school students the chance to do fantastic things. Many of them may already exist in your high school or town, but if not, founding a chapter is always an option -- and doubly impressive. Just keep in mind (and I know you've heard it a million times, but it's true) that you shouldn't join organizations just to join. Finding something you're passionate about is ultimately going to give you both a much more fulfilling college essay and experience.
Here's a sampler of some popular, nationwide organizations that give high school students the chance to follow their passions in a big way.
Junior State of America:
A national organization devoted to civic engagement in high school students. Currently the largest student organization in the nation, it is run mainly on the high school and regional levels. High school chapters practice debate, engage in political activism, and hold "thought talks" about current issues. Regional operatives hold conferences where hundreds of high school chapters meet, discuss and engage in formal debates, and elect their peers as JSA state and national representatives.
Positions for students include: Regional Governor*, Regional Lieutenant*, State Senators* and Cabinet positions that differ from region to region (ex: Chief of Staff, Publicity Director, Director of Technology, Reporter, Photographer, Videographers)
JSA also provides summer programs.
*Denotes elected positions. All other positions are selected by elected representatives by application.
A national competitive speech and debate program, it features interpretive, public address and debate competitions. Interpretive and public address typically function together as IE, or individual events, while debate is run separately. Forensics gives students the chance to show off their public speaking skills whether it's through acting (interpretive), traditional speech giving (public address), or debate.
Individual events include, for example, prose interpretation: memorizing a five-to-eight minute prose piece, and then performing it, complete with blocking, or extemporaneous speaking -- receiving a random topic the competitor has never seen before and having 30 minutes to research and come up with a seven minute speech on the topic.* Debate includes, for example, Congressional debate, in which students write bills beforehand and then argue them in a mock Congressional simulation.
Students can compete on both a statewide (AK, AR, CA, FL, GA, HI, IN, IA, LA, NY, KY, MA, ME, MI, NJ, NC, OH, PA, SC, TX, UT all have state leagues for forensics) and nationwide circuit.
*Different states will have slightly different rules/time limits -- these specific ones apply only to IE and Debate in Michigan.
FIRST Robotics FRC:
A robotics competition that challenges student teams to design, build and program their own robot to perform specific objectives. Objectives range from putting a ball in a hoop, to climbing up pyramids. Student teams typically have full control over the design, the fundraising and the programming. At the national and global level, along with the competition, there's also scholarship money at stake. The program also features volunteer expert mentors with professional engineering experience who collaborate with student teams.
Community/Family/Corporate Foundation Youth Council:
A community foundation is typically a grant-making institution in the community which community members invest in. Then, it grants out their investment to fund programs that sustain the community. Family and corporate foundations are a similar grant-making institution, except their funds are typically derived from a family or corporation and are generally run by that family or corporation.
Some of these foundations will have youth advisory councils -- groups of youth who grant out money for local youth programs from a youth directed fund.
If a program doesn't exist in your area, a foundation probably does -- ask them about it, and if they'd be interested! While many youth committees are supported by money from a parent foundation, a lot also fundraise their grant money themselves.
Scholastic Art and Writing Awards:
A competition, presented by Scholastic, that gives high school students the chance to be recognized for their artistic and authorial work. This recognition comes in the form of awards, presentation in arenas such as Carnegie Hall and publication in various Scholastic magazines. It is currently the oldest arts and writing recognition program for U.S. teens.
A business organization for high school students run on both a regional and high school level. High school chapters learn about business and prepare for competitive events that assess their knowledge of various business principles, as well as their ability to function in a business situation. The organization is youth-run, and members can run for President, Regional Vice President, State President, State Secretary, or specific positions that differ from state to state (ex: VP of Business Partnerships).