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child carrying soccer ball and trumpet and books
No, you don't need to load up on extracurriculars.
Jamie Grill—Getty Images

Q. How many extracurricular activities do I need on my college applications? Is there such a thing as too many?

A. The extracurricular activity conundrum: If colleges ask about students’ extracurricular activities, then does a student need to have a certain number of them? If a student has to have them, then more must be better than fewer and it’s impossible to have too many, right? And it’s important to have some of “each kind” of activity to show you’re well-rounded, right?

Well, no.

It’s easy to understand why students and parents come to those conclusions. The stress and hype around applying to college has created a damaging arms race of résumé building. There are so many misunderstandings about why colleges ask applicants to list and describe their activities. Why indeed?

Colleges ask about extracurriculars because they want to know about the applicant, not the activity, the number of activities, or the type of activities. They are trying to understand who you are. Colleges seek students with interesting corners and edges that set them apart, not the proverbially well-rounded students with a long list of activities that may not mean much to them. That's why the Common Application and most colleges' applications limit the number they can report.

How well students describe the use of their time outside of the classroom puts grades and test scores in context. But the student needs to explain the context. It’s not the number of activities but what they mean to him or her that’s important. Activities that reflect your authentic self are the most impressive.

For example, Jason (not his real name), a junior, came to my college advising office with a list of six activities. But tells me he feels discouraged, lamenting he’ll never get into a “good” college because he didn’t have time to “do” community service, which his friends told him—incorrectly—is required by selective colleges. He doesn’t think he’s well-rounded enough. He’s been involved with his school newspaper and radio station, the soccer team, and has had what he calls “stupid” jobs he hates in two local restaurants during the school year and summers.

I asked Jason the questions I ask all my students: Why did you participate in these activities? How did you decide how long to stick with them? What did you learn about yourself or the world by participating? What did you contribute? How did your participation make a difference in your school or community?

Jason enthusiastically told me that he couldn’t get enough of working on his school newpaper and radio station, spending so much time expanding their coverage of stories and mentoring incoming freshman that he had to give up basketball and played only soccer. He explained that his belief in the power of building a sense of community through communications and media was so important to him that he couldn’t wait to study more about that in college as well as join a college newspaper and radio station.

What about the jobs washing dishes and delivering pizzas that he hated but kept because his parents insisted he save money for college, although that took time away from joining other clubs? He had worked in the same two restaurants for three years and would soon be the longest serving employee because there was so much turnover. As we talked, Jason began to see those were important learning experiences that reflected personal qualities that colleges look for: perserverance, resilience, strong sense of responsibility, and ability to get along with a wide range of co-workers. He could and did explain all that to colleges.

Jason could connect the dots between what he had done, who he was, and who he was becoming. He had dug deep, rather than wide and shallow. He wasn’t well-rounded, but had very interesting corners. His activities authentically grew out of his interests and needs.

My advice about extracurricular activities to high school students is to spend more time deciding what's important to you or what you're curious about, and what you're learning from these activities—and less time amassing long lists. Colleges don't care about the "whats" or the "how manys" on your activity list. They are more interested in the "whys" and "so-whats." So what does it mean to you that you did X??

Lora Block is a certified educational planner in private practice for over 20 years at College Advisory Services. She’s a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and is a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the National College Advocacy Group (NCAG). She specializes in integrating college affordability into the college search and application process to help families make wise college matches.