One of the most frequent questions we get asked is “what clubs should I join”? The only person who can answer that question though is our students themselves. What we can do is provide guidance to help them avoid falling into common traps around the activities they select.
The first and most important factor to consider when choosing extracurricular activities is what you’re most passionate about. If you feel strongly about an activity you find listed below, go ahead and ignore the advice included in this post. But if you’re unsure about which clubs to join and could use some help deciding, then this is the post for you.
Colleges receive tens of thousands of applications every year. Standing out is not easy, especially when you’re not sure how you stack up to your competition. But there’s one thing you can be sure of: There are 37,000 high schools in the U.S., and of all their students applying to U.S. universities, there will be thousands of class presidents, editor-in-chiefs, and varsity team captains. When selecting your activities, think about what will set you apart from them. More than that, think about what singular accomplishment you can achieve as a member of a club, and, more importantly, whether you would be better off achieving it outside of that club. This is why we emphasize the Spike in our coaching, which is the best way to stand out among applicants while showcasing a deeply rooted passion. Clubs are just one (conventional) way to demonstrate interest.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to knowing which clubs are common traps students fall into is “how many movies/shows are about them?” If major movies have been made that center around the club (Election for student government, Mean Girls for mathletes, etc.), you may reconsider whether that activity will help you stand out from other students.
There’s a reason student government is a popular choice among high schoolers applying to college – it’s one of the easiest, most accessible ways to demonstrate leadership in your school community. However, simply being elected to student council shows nothing. Your specific accomplishments while in that position are what prove your dedication. Unless you have a particular passion for politics or social reform and plan to undertake significant changes to your school’s status quo (i.e. reforming the school uniform policy to no longer require girls to wear skirts), being involved in student government won’t do much to boost your application.
Print newspaper may be dying, but the tradition of the high school paper won’t go down so easy. Some 2/3rds of American high schools have their own newspapers. However, only 1 in 8 high schools in New York City have one, which is indicative of a wider trend where lower-income, inner city schools tend to lack papers. As such, the image of the average school newspaper editor-in-chief has become one in the same of that of a privileged overachiever. Clubs tell admissions officers a little more about the social class of a school, and while real passion can mitigate this effect, be wary of what your story will look like if you’re on the paper, play polo, and spend summers on a beach in Malibu. The reality is that admissions officers are people, and people often have a bias for the “underdog,” which means there can be a preference for students from more humble backgrounds. We’ll be devoting a post in the future to this, so keep an eye out, but the takeaway here is that if you are not excited about current events and/or writing, you might want to seriously reconsider joining the paper. And keep in mind that writing a scathing, three-part investigation into a local business’s unethical practices will show much more dedication than being elected editor.
We’re normally big fans of Model U.N. It’s a great way to develop your skills in English, debate, public speaking, and foreign affairs. Our founders, Lloyd and Larry were both involved in their schools’ M.U.N. clubs. However, M.U.N. is a common activity, particularly in Asian international schools, and we find it often revolves around talk, as opposed to real action. When U.S. colleges look at applicants, they’re searching for students who will add to the campus climate. We encounter countless students who are passionate about global warming, human trafficking, or income inequality, but when we ask “what have you done to fight these things in your community” we’re met with blank stares. Talk is cheap, as they say. Unless you are going to take what you learn in M.U.N. and apply that to making a tangible difference in the world around you, you should think about whether M.U.N. is the best use of your time.
[Insert Sports Team Here]
Intramural sports are great for building team skills, staying healthy, and having fun. Nonetheless, unless you get recruited as a scholarship athlete, your involvement in sports counts for very little to colleges. Given how much of a time commitment being on a team is, it can be useful to take a step back and look at why you’re involved: is it because you’re amazing at the sport, because you love it, or because you think it will look good to colleges? Hopefully it’s the first two combined. If it’s just the first or the second, you may want to consider whether another sport might be better suited for you. If it’s the third, you definitely should ask yourself if it’s worth the time commitment or if there’s something you could be doing that would be more worth your while. Sports are also obviously a great way to stay in shape, but running on the treadmill, biking, or going the gym is a much less time-intensive way to do that.
Bad news: unless you’re placing in competitions and performing at an impressive level for someone your age, playing an instrument doesn’t matter much to admissions officers. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being in the school band because you have friends in it or because you want to learn to play an instrument. But, as with athletics, you need to be good or you need to be interesting (ideally both) for it to matter. For instance, I played the vibraphone (go ahead, Google it) and became deeply involved in jazz ensembles outside of my high school (in fact, I quit band so I had more time to practice). If band is the perfect conduit for your instrument, then great, but if you just want a place to play your instrument, think seriously about whether the school band is the ideal setting for you, and, if not, find a better one.
If you read this list and thought “oh no, I’m in all of these clubs!” don’t fret. Any and all of these activities can be great as long as you are gaining real personal fulfillment from them. The important thing to colleges is that you are passionate about something, so as long as you can find a way to demonstrate that passion (whether through a club or not), then you’re on the right track to admittance.