What Extracurricular Activities Do Ivy League Colleges Look For?

04/13/2017 02:41 pm ET Updated May 18, 2017
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Or Part Three of “Who Gets Into Harvard?”

In the most recent entry in our multi-blog series on how to best evaluate your chances of getting into an Ivy League college, we reviewed expectations for standardized testing. This week we’re focusing on what you do outside the classroom.

More specifically, are you involved in the right extracurricular activities?

This is a bit of a trick question, because I’m going to tell you a secret right up front: there are no right and wrong activities. High school students often ask me, “What if I don’t play sports or do community service?” The truth is that it doesn’t matter if you do—or do not—take part in either of those activities. That means there isn’t any pressure to play lacrosse or star in the school play or run for class president. All of these might be great ways to get involved, but none are required or prized over the other. In fact, there is no extracurricular activity that is valued above all else beyond excellence at whatever it is you choose to do.

So what do you do? As noted above, this could be playing soccer, waiting tables, writing for the school newspaper, dancing competitively, volunteering at a senior center, working with disabled kids, participating in temple youth group, doing science research, soloing in the choir—really, truly any positive endeavor done outside the classroom.

The one caveat is that whatever you pursue must be quantifiable. No matter how much you love to read, sitting home alone poring over novels will not have real impact as an activity on your applications. But if you’ve taken that love and used it to create a high school book club with other like-minded students, you now have an endeavor that is much easier for admissions officers to measure and discuss in selection committee.

Do you excel at what you’re doing outside the classroom? You may have guessed by now that from the perspective of highly selective college admissions officers, it’s not enough to just show up. They’re looking for evidence of strength in your areas of interest. As part of your application, you’ll be required to tally up your participation by hours per week, weeks per year, and years of involvement. Admissions officers are looking for evidence of deep commitment to your extracurricular activities. At the risk of repeating something you’ve heard a few hundred times already, joining a bunch of clubs in your junior and senior years won’t fool anyone at this level.

Are you a leader? The most selective colleges are looking for significant leadership roles, but as with activities, there is no one position that will guarantee acceptance. Student body president, editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, varsity field hockey captain, Gold Award in Girl Scouts, concertmaster of the orchestra, Model UN head, and supermarket night manager are all examples of important and impactful leadership roles. On the flip side, less critical positions such as class representative, copy editor of the yearbook, and French Club treasurer will not be seen in the same light by Ivy League admissions officers.

What about summers? Your time during breaks from school is part of your extracurricular record as well. In our next blog, we’ll provide context around the expectations for how you spent your summer vacations.

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