Facebook Live Q&A 4/24 at 9:30 pm ET • Your college admissions questions—answered!  JOIN ME LIVE

How Extracurricular Activities Keep Kids out of Trouble and Get Into College

We’ve all been there as parents: Being in the stands while our kids participate in an array of extracurricular activities. While we wait patiently to see our kids play, perform, and improve, we chat amongst ourselves. We often talk about our jobs, our other children, or upcoming vacations. But we rarely talk about whether all these extracurricular activities are worth the time and investment for our children (and us). So, are they really worth it?

The answer is almost always “YES.”

For my entire career, I have been on the receiving end of all these hours and years of extracurricular activities. As an associate dean of admissions at an Ivy League university, dean of admissions of a small liberal arts college, and a director of college counseling at a high school, I have the seen the incredible results that come from engaged and active students who are making as much impact outside the classroom as they are inside the classroom. Students who immerse themselves in other things besides school work gain confidence in themselves and learn lessons for life. The byproduct is that these students experience better results in the college admissions process.


Doing something productive – physical, mental, or creative -- is crucial to finding meaning in our lives. It really doesn’t matter what our kids are doing as long as they have a positive attitude towards it.

For high school students, the impact of an activity is exponentially multiplied. They see it as more than just something to keep them busy; they see it as a way to self-identify and develop into the person they want to be. They typically don’t start the activity with this in mind, but it almost always delivers.

Most colleges consider extracurricular activity as a component in the admissions process – some more than others, especially the more selective colleges. Colleges aren’t just looking for students to fill their classrooms and laboratories; they want active and engaged students who are going to contribute to the college community and beyond. The deeper the commitment, the more respect it will garner from colleges. So, it’s not about joining lots of clubs in high school; it’s about honing in on a few, personally-fulfilling activities and doing them well.

"#Colleges want active and engaged students who make an impact outside the classroom" TWEET THIS

When to Start

Is middle school too early? Is high school too late to develop an interest? The answer to both these questions is “no.”

Whether your child finds their one-true passion early on or has an array of activities they like to do, middle school is not too early to start (and grade school is perfectly acceptable too). Starting early should be less to do with developing a world-class athlete or a published author by the age of 7, and more to do with keeping our kids busy and allowing them to develop a commitment and love for something.

Kids may not be able to articulate that they want to take piano lessons or attend karate class. But by the time they start being able to make their own choices about what to wear and what they want to do, parents can take verbal and non-verbal cues about what their child is interested in doing. As long as it’s self-driven, the activity will add tremendous value to the child’s life. 

BONUS: How to make the most of summer vacation

Contrary to popular belief, high school is not too late to start a new activity. In fact, some of the most influential high school students I have met along the way started pursuing an activity in 9th or 10th grade. It is during this time that their minds and interests are exploding with ideas, and they are also often taken more seriously by school administrators, mentors, and other adults who can help them reach their goals in the process.

Types of Activities

Playing sports is just one of many things kids can do in their free time. Others include:

  • performing or fine arts
  • a part-time job
  • volunteer work
  • writing
  • Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts
  • babysitting
  • cooking
  • watching younger siblings
  • involvement in politics or a religious organization
  • coding

you name it, it’s worth it.

Colleges want contributors

Getting good grades and high test scores is not the only thing selective colleges want to see in a college application. Remember it’s not how many activities a student does; it’s about the quality and depth of their commitment.   

It doesn’t have to be forever

Most of all, students should never feel that they need to find one activity to do for the rest of their lives. Pursuing one thing for a period of time will give students focus and an understanding of what it takes to commit to something. But it need not, and should not, be the only thing they do. Exploration and the application of life skills to new experiences is how they grow. If they only learn one thing, they won’t be ready for an unexpected curveball.

Their personal vision can be for the near future. This will teach them what it takes to succeed and help them adjust as their vision shifts, changes, and develops with more life experiences along the way.