Students nowadays don’t have it easy.

They must maintain near-perfect GPAs while juggling AP-heavy school schedules; they have to maximize their test scores while developing an extracurricular profile that distinguishes them from all the other students with near-perfect GPAs and impeccable test scores.

As William Damon, Professor of Education at Stanford, once said,

“Everyone on every admissions committee I know says, ‘Thank God I’m not applying to school these days.’ How do these kids do so much?”

Although Professor Damon’s question was rhetorical, we can actually answer it. Those students who do manage to achieve “so much” have planned well…and they’ve planned well ahead. We’ve all heard the saying. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” In the same way, students must lay the foundation for extracurricular activities from the moment they start high school—if not sooner.

Planning extracurricular activities can be hard.

To get an overview of how students should approach this multi-year project, it’ll help to understand how extracurricular activities are reported to colleges.

Here’s the Activities section of the Common Application (or Common App, for short). This is the primary private college application used nationwide, available at

Students are instructed to indicate how many hours per week and how many weeks per year they engage in an activity and to specify whether the activity is a school-year or summer activity.

And students are invited to order this list, from most to least important. Obviously, a student with lots of random activities and no overriding passions or clear interests will find this hard to do!

Note that the Common App has a separate section called Honors, falling under the Academics part of the application, which asks students to list academic prizes and awards. Now many students pursue extracurricular activities related to their academic interests. This is a great way to explore potential careers and majors; it also demonstrates a love of learning. However, these academically-related activities should be listed in the Honors section rather than the Activities section.

For example, membership in the National Honor Society or the California Scholarship Federation should be noted under Honors. The same goes for participation in academic competitions, such as the AMC or AIME.

The Activities section of the Common App should be treated as a place for students to showcase non-academic interests. This is where colleges get answers to critical questions such as, Where will this student fit in our school community? and What will this student contribute to the school community?

Start extracurricular activities early!

For students reading this early enough—students who still have some time to develop their extracurricular profiles—adopting a focused application strategy now is crucial.

Starting early enough will ensure that students end up with a coherent, well-ordered list of projects and passions by the time applications are due. The timetable below summarizes what students should aim for at various stages of the process:


9th-10th grade:

Sign up for lots of activities to explore as many options as possible.

10th-11th grade:

Start narrowing down and focusing activities. Keep a lookout for leadership opportunities.

11th-12th grade:

Draw connections between activities and undertake leadership roles. Plan and execute a defining project the summer before senior year.


Freshmen should explore lots of different activities. They should gain exposure to as many things as possible: sports, music, art, various kinds of community service, academic enrichment activities, etc. The goal is to discover talents and interests. If students leave 9th grade with just one or two activities that have really captured their imagination, they’ll have had a successful freshman year.

In the summer after freshman year, students still have time to try new pursuits. But they should start thinking about trimming down their commitments and focusing their energies. I also recommend that students find some summer activity that can carry over into the school year and be pursued within the school environment.


Sophomores should start focusing more intensely on select projects and activities. And as they approach the end of 10th grade, sophomores must start becoming strategic. Most leadership opportunities become available to juniors, so students who want to earn such positions must be in position by the end of sophomore year.

The summer before junior year should also be put to good use.

Some of the most impressive summer activities span two summers. A first summer is used to establish a project, get informed and explore options; the second responds to the limitations and failures of the first year’s project.

For example, lots of students go on a mission trip the summer before junior year. Often this trip is organized by their church and students just kind of go along with things. However, some students—those with initiative—come back with fresh ideas.

Maybe one student will be motivated to raise money throughout the school year to refurbish the playground at the school he or she volunteered at. Perhaps another might start a letter-exchange program between kids in Mexico and kids at church. These projects can be “grown” over the school year and organically give rise to a much more significant and highly personal summer activity the next year.

Rising Juniors and Seniors

Rising juniors and seniors should already have identified defining passions. They need to position themselves to develop these interests in meaningful ways and to exercise leadership. This takes foresight and groundwork.

Juniors should be thinking about some capstone project that can serve as the defining moment in their extracurricular record. Ideally, as we saw above, this project will naturally emerge of previous summer activities and projects.

Upperclassmen should also find ways to demonstrate perseverance, character and initiative in their activities.

The summer before senior year is the most critical summer for students’ college admissions.

It really defines a student’s extracurricular profile. This means that students must choose how to spend their time wisely and they must be aggressive in pursuing opportunities made available to them. All their efforts should climax in a project that stretches their leadership and organizational skills and pushes them out of their safety zones.

In the sections to come, I offer some further concrete advice on how to develop extracurricular records. A lot depends on what year the student is in. Obviously, the earlier the student is in his or her high school career, the more options remain open.

The next post focuses on selecting suitable summer projects. Then I’ll address freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors separately, using case studies to illustrate my advice.


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