Guide to Extracurricular Activities (in the context of college prep)
There are some myths and misconceptions out there about the value of ECAs in the college application and admissions process. These often result in students pursuing excessive numbers of activities, internships and summer schools that may have little, or even a negative impact on their college application. Worse, they may spend countless hours on something they simply don’t enjoy and, in some cases, it can take a toll on their academic studies and grades. This is often, though not always, the result of parental anxiety and, though well-intentioned, parental pressure.
ECAs are always secondary to academic grades in the admissions process.
Colleges and universities differ in the extent to which they value ECAs:
In general, they are given less weight at:
Large public universities that handle huge numbers of applications.
Oxford and Cambridge – who just want clever people (you don’t even have to be nice – just very clever!)
And more weight at:
Smaller, highly selective colleges with large numbers of applicants with top grades that they need to distinguish between. They want to admit the most interesting freshman class, not the 500 with the very highest grades.
Where they are valued, it is because they reveal something about you that grades and test scores can’t.
It is not the number of ECAs you have done but how authenticand sustained they are.
The best way to ensure that you achieve the point above is to engage in ECAs for their intrinsic value and their suitability in relation to you as an individual.
Types of ECAs (ignoring internships and summer schools)
Ranging from sport to music, drama, Model UN, HKAYP and student government.
In Hong Kong, this might include Sports Clubs and Religious Organisations.
Sometimes through a school work experience program or through family connections.
(for fuller work experiences, see ‘Guide to Internships’)
Can be school, church or NGO-based and ranging from fund-raising for charities; working with the disabled or disadvantaged; young or elderly, or with animals.
How to Identify and Find the right ECAs
Firstly, acknowledge that there might be some trial and error here, in that you won’t be 100% sure that some ECAs are really for you.
Start with yourself:
What are your existing interests and talents (particularly those that aren’t satisfied by your school studies alone)?
Is there something you’ve never tried but have often wondered what it is like or whether you’d be suited?
Do you need to earn some extra pocket money?
Talk to your friends, parents and teachers about the groups they know of or belong to.
Look at your school’s website and News Bulletin for what goes on there.
Do some savvy Google searching.
If you belong to a church, temple, mosque or synagogue, find out if it organizes interesting activities.
If you strongly believe in a cause or just an interest that you can’t find an outlet for, consider starting your own club or group.
Once you start:
Am I enjoying this?
Is it challenging me?
(adults will tell you, again and again, that difficulties and failures only make you stronger – they’re right!)
What skills am I developing (personal and/or occupational)?
Does it provide opportunity for ‘leadership’ (now or later)?
Does it have links to a possible major or career in the future?
(not necessary, but a valid question)
Is this a manageable commitment that is in balance with my academic work?
Make sure you:
Keep a journal of some sort to record your experiences and reflections.
Keep a record of hours, days weeks etc. (colleges do ask).
Ask for feedback on your involvement/performance
(to show a willingness to improve and perhaps, gain a shining recommendation).
The Bottom Line
Don’t try to second-guess what colleges want in this respect.
The ‘authenticity’ of your ECA involvement will come through in your college essay, a recommendation or perhaps an interview, and cannot be faked.
Even if you don’t get into your first-choice college, a genuine ECA experience will benefit your college experience and your life as a whole.