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Extracurricular Activities and the Admissions Process

by / Monday, 09 April 2012 / Published in Articles, High School

Do colleges pay attention to life outside of the classroom? Do extracurricular activities really make a difference in the college admissions process? Are they a deciding factor in who gets scholarships and who doesn’t?

Generally speaking, grades and test scores are given more weight in the admissions process. However, when it comes to choosing students when admission is competitive or to awarding scholarship, colleges do give consideration to activities students engage in outside the classroom. Furthermore, quality of activities is considered more favorably than quantity of activates. Here’s why.

Extracurricular Activities Help Develop Student Success Traits

Colleges view students who participate in extracurricular activities or work at a job while maintaining good grades as good candidates since these activities help students develop organizational skills, discipline, and dedication – all of which are qualities successful students and good leaders need.

Based on his experience, J.D. Cummings, Assistant Director of Admissions for Johnson and Wales University, observes that “Students who have extracurricular activities as well as good grades will be able to adapt socially as well as academically to the college experience.”Cummings feels this is important since, “so much of a young adult’s development in college is not just what they learn in the classroom, but also how they learn to interact in social and professional environments.”And he notes, “Students who have begun this process in high school through co-curricular, extracurricular, or sports related activities tend to stay enrolled longer and have higher completion and graduation rates.”

Colleges Need Diverse Students Who Can Contribute to College Programs

“Colleges are interested in bringing diversity to their campus and diversity can be achieved by bringing students with different personal involvements,”says Jeremy Dixon an Undergraduate Admission Counselor for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). “Students are needed who do not limit their contributions to just school work, but who will also commit time to community and organizations.”

In smaller residential colleges, because admission is more competitive, extracurricular involvement often carries much more weight in the admissions process than in larger universities. Kent Barnds, Dean of Admissions and Enrollment Management at Elizabethtown College in south-central Pennsylvania, emphasizes that learning outside the classroom, looks for students who are a good match for the college and “who can make contributions to the community academically, socially, and through extracurricular activities.”Based on Elizabethtown College’s needs, Barnds affirms that extracurricular activities are equally as important as academic achievements in the selection process.

Likewise, J. Carey Thompson, Dean of Admission at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, gives significant thought to students’activities outside the classroom since the college places value on creating an engaging community of serious students who want to pursue lives of learning, leadership, and service. According to Thompson, “Centre College, a private liberal arts college whose freshmen population is about three-hundred, wants, needs, and expects students to be a part of wider community and contribute their talents to others so that all may learn and grow.”As a result, Thompson looks for “different types of leaders, artists, musicians, athletes, poets and thespians,”as well as, “trombonists, goal keepers, newspaper editors, and creative writers. The best way we have of determining whether an academically talented prospective student will make those contributions is to consider what contributions he or she made during high school years,”Thompson says.

Active Involvement Enriches the Educational Experience for Everyone

It seems that colleges depend not just on faculty, but also on the student body’s outside knowledge for a stellar educational experience. According to Ned Willard, Assistant Vice President of Admissions, and his staff of Admissions Counselors, at Maryville College, a private liberal arts school in Tennessee, one of the most important elements discussed at Maryville “is the value of a total and personal learning experience.””Learning happens 24/7,”says Willard, “so what happens outside of the classroom is just as important as what happens inside. Active engagement in volunteering, art, theatre, athletics or internships/work experiences, leads to a whole different level of learning which can be just as important as the academic work that the student completes.”At Maryville, the term “co-curricular”is used rather than “extra-curricular”because states Willard, “whether it’s an academic course or not, the learning opportunities are endless.”

Furthermore, Willard believes that extracurricular activities provide leadership and learning opportunities that can’t be accomplished in the classroom. So he prefers to recruit students who have shown commitment to out of class activities, because it shows that they’re more likely to be involved at Maryville as campus leaders who will be engaged with the local community. Wingood shares Willard’s view and believes, “Students who are active in extracurricular activities in high school are most likely to continue their involvement or engage in new ventures when they arrive on campus.”

Student activity is also used as a calling card for more recruits. According to Harold M. Wingood, Associate Provost and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “An active campus enriches the educational experience for everyone and, not incidentally, makes it easier to attract new students to the entering class.”

Colleges Predict Well-Rounded Students Will Achieve Excellence

While colleges do look for well-rounded students, well-roundedness may not be what you think. Thompson has found that “well-rounded” is often not well understood by students and parents. He warns, “Being involved in a lot of extracurricular activities,”is not necessarily “well-rounded. “Wingood agrees and feels, “The idea of the well rounded student is a myth.”Wingood has observed that, “It is a rare high-school student indeed who is able to have strength and depth in many or all areas of curricular and extracurricular life.”

So what is a well-rounded student? Using Thompson’s definition, “Well-rounded students are excellent in many aspects of their lives. They demonstrate talent and ability academically, intellectually, athletically and socially. They typically demonstrate these qualities along with a commitment to excellence in the arts and service”Thompson points to Thomas Jefferson as an example of a well-rounded person and knows of some high school students who are as well. Wingood, on the other hand, seeks out students, “who have developed a passion for one or perhaps two areas and have excelled in them.”By admitting students with a variety of competences, he hopes to create a “well-rounded class.”

Willard cites the virtues of well-roundedness especially when referring to Liberal Arts students. According to Willard, “In the liberal arts setting, students are encouraged to explore, ask questions, and to identify and appreciate the integration of learning principles among different disciplines. Well-rounded students,”defines Willard, “have the experience and the understanding to apply these learning principles to their college experience, making their education much more valuable and meaningful.”

Dixon adds that well-rounded students who offer their assistance to community and organizations “shows they are interested in contributing to society, which often times impresses faculty members and possible future employers.”

Extracurricular Involvement Translates to Long-Term Success

Colleges want to admit students who will be successful in the long run. “All colleges want to have a high retention rate,”says Dixon. Retention is beneficial to students since it helps students meet education goals, prepares them for the future, and prevents “students from investing or wasting a lot of time and money on something that they were not academically prepared to do.”But retention depends on the ability of students to perform at the expected level. “As a result, more often than not you will find colleges are more concerned with grades than with extracurricular activities,”Dixon notes.

Thompson and Willard also concede that grades and test scores are still the primary consideration for most colleges and universities. “There is no major in ‘Extracurricular Activities,'”says Thompson. “Academic preparation and performance are the best predictors of eventual college success measured in terms of grade point averages and graduation rates.”

Cummings acknowledges that while grades at his college are valued more highly than extracurricular activities in the admissions process, “In the long term success of the student, extracurricular activities are very important”Wingood agrees and further states it is known, “that students who are consistently involved in activities outside of the class throughout their years in high school are more successful when they enroll in college. Success is defined is by Wingood as, “maintaining grades that are at or above the institution’s mean and being actively involved in one of more aspects of campus life beyond the classroom.”

Extra Curricular Activities Result in Scholarships

While grades may carry more weight in the admissions process, especially in larger state schools like UAB who generally have admission requirements plainly written out, extracurricular activities may be a deciding factor in the scholarship selection process. According to Dixon, UAB – whose enrollment rises to over sixteen thousand – requires each student to have a 2.0 GPA and a 20 ACT, or 950 SAT, score. Dixon looks at extra activities when considering applicants for scholarships and the honors program.

At Johnson and Wales, higher scholarships are offered to those students who have been members of specific organizations. And Willard explains that Maryville’s consideration of student engagement is more significant in the scholarship process. Maryville recognizes student involvement and leadership with several scholarships. “Our scholarship programs are investments in students who we feel will be leaders on campus. We, therefore, look at scholarship candidates who we feel will benefit our campus through their leadership involvement and participation in student or service organizations. I believe the same holds on true on many college campuses. Involved students are the most engaged on the campus and in local communities,”says Willard.

Quality Activities verses Quantity of Activities Point to Leadership Qualities

Focus on and excel in a few activities is the advice admissions offices give. At Elizabethtown College, “what’s important are not the number of activities in which a student is involved, but rather the depth of involvement,”says Barnds. “Admissions folks view extracurricular involvement as important because it is often through these involvements that a student learns about leadership, integrity, responsibility and team work, and further develops his or her communication skills.”

Willard agrees that quality is more impressive than quantity. “I don’t think you can easily identify one, two, or even ten activities that colleges look for. What makes the greatest impact for us is to see committed service or participation in a student organization, volunteer role, job, sport, fine arts program, etc.,”notes Willard. “Too often I review resumes of students who list pages of volunteer service and student organization membership, but that doesn’t really tell me what students have learned from their involvement,”Willard recounts. “Many times, it’s the student who’s made long-term commitments to a small number of organizations or obligations who have a greater understanding and appreciation for involvement and leadership development. These students stand out to me as the ‘doers’rather than ‘joiners’,”concludes Willard.

As a result, Willard looks for prospective students whose applications indicate a value system that includes extracurricular involvement. While grades and test scores are consideration first for admission, an important part of Maryville’s admittance system is consideration of the entire student including extracurricular activities, awards, honors, achievements, recommendations and areas of excellence that may not be easily quantified.

Outside Involvement Offers Insight into Who a Student Is

“What a student has done outside the classroom can provide some insight into what he or she is truly passionate about and can affirm a decision to offer a student admission,”acknowledges Barnds, whose goal is to select a group of students from diverse backgrounds who will learn from each other as they share academic interests, talents, accomplishments, and future goals while celebrating their differences.

Thompson concurs with Barnds that colleges are attempting to build a diverse community of talented and interesting people. “The more different talents and interesting people, the better,”he concludes. Therefore, Thompson agrees that colleges want students to find activities that they are passionate about and feels it is the student’s job to articulate on the college application what they have learned from those experiences.

Whether or not you are involved in extra-curricular activities, if your grades are acceptable, you have a good chance of getting accepted by colleges. “Colleges are competing with more zeal than ever for students,”says Michael Ray Smith, Ph.D. and Department Chair of Mass Communication at Campbell University, a coeducational, church-related university located in central North Carolina. And, says Wingood, “The first and most important criterion is each student’s academic preparation. The strength and breadth of their high school curriculum, their grades, recommendations and test scores (where they are required), are the most important aspects of the application.”

But as Smith points out, even though the first part of the evaluation is most always academic, “colleges are looking for students who exhibit leadership.”And, according to Wingood, “Activities are an important factor at universities where the majority of applicants are highly qualified. Smith adds, “Students who demonstrate the ability to organize as in getting a group to clean up a park, or writing a series of letters to the editor, or anything that smacks of enterprise will find college recruiters receptive.”

You Choose

If you had to choose between these two students for college admission or scholarships, whom would you pick?

Student Name Beth Todd
GPA 3.56 3.56
SAT 950 950
Extracurricular Activities
  • Candy World week-end manager,
  • youth group representative for church council, and
  • organizer of a violin trio that performs for area events.
  • Member of the community baseball team,
  • youth choir member,
  • youth group member,
  • beach cleanup volunteer,
  • Grace House volunteer,
  • Electronic World employee, and
  • Hope for the Holidays fundraiser.
  • If Beth was your pick, you would agree with most college admission counselors who value leadership potential more than involvement.

    #2 Get Involved

    Colleges will look to see if a student is actively involved in:

  • school organizations like Key Club or SCA
  • community activities like church, youth groups, or community services volunteer services.
  • It looks even better if one holds an office in a particular organization. Jeremy Dixon,
  • UAB Undergraduate Admissions Counselor
  • #3 Check Out Academic Requirements

    Certain colleges will tell you that they do not have required minimums for GPA or standardized test, but that their admission process is very competitive. To get a good idea if you or your child will be considered by this school…

  • Ask colleges for their average GPA and standardized test score for entering freshman.
  • Compare your child’s test scores to these averages.
  • Usually those students who apply to schools without certain requirements will be compared to the whole pool of
  • applicants wanting to enter for that particular term, and it is best to have competitive scores and GPA.
  • Activities are good, but ultimately schools want to know if a prospective student will be able to do the work that is required of them there at that particular institution. Jeremy Dixon, UAB Undergraduate Admissions Counselor.

    #4 Don’t Forget About Potential Employers

    In the hiring process and one thing examined is where potential employees invest their time. Successful involvement in activities outside academics shows not only book smarts but also demonstrates people skills required by a lot of jobs. Jeremy Dixon, UAB Undergraduate Admissions Counselor

    #5 Why Colleges Care
  • Extracurricular Activities Help Develop Student Success Traits.
  • Colleges Need Diverse Students Who Can Contribute to College Programs.
  • Active Involvement Enriches the Educational Experience for Everyone.
  • Colleges Predict Well-Rounded Students Will Achieve Excellence.
  • Extracurricular Involvement Translates to Long-Term Success.
  • Extra Curricular Activities Result in Scholarships.
  • Quality Activities Point to Leadership Qualities.
  • Outside Involvement Offers Insight into Who a Student Is
  • Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it. - Proverbs 22:6
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