Avoid doing just to do.

Too many high school students believe their demonstrated involvement in a dozen clubs and their do-good volunteering will suffice to get them into college. Not true (even the Wall Street Journal says so)! Remember: everyone is involved in activities. And, more often than not, everyone is involved in many activities.

But, not all of these “everyones” are striving to be experts, virtuosos, or leaders. Not all of these “everyones” are truly passionate about what they do. Don’t fall into the trap of doing things simply to do them. Don’t approach extracurricular activities with a robotic, “must-get-into-college” mindset. Instead, approach extracurriculars as opportunities to discover what’s out there and what you love.

Be sincere.

As you plant the seeds for future passions, you also need to start weeding. You need to focus on a couple of extracurriculars rather than ten. Unless you have unlimited energy (and time), ten extracurriculars suggests you’re trying too hard to prove something. Two or three significant leadership positions over time, however, demonstrate sincerity as much as they demonstrate individuality. There is nothing wrong with rampant, varied exploration, but don’t sacrifice real engagement—real enthusiasm, real involvement—in order to “appear involved.”

This being said, it is also important to remember that extracurriculars will be assessed in the context of your school. If your school doesn’t have a Biomechanical Engineering Team, you are not going to be penalized for not being on the Biomechanical Engineering Team. A former Ivy League admissions officer elaborates on this idea in our book (much more eloquently): “These activities must be evaluated in terms of your personal context. If you go to a high school of 200 students, there won’t be 50 clubs for you to choose from. If you are the oldest of six kids and have to help out around the house, you will not have time to be president of six clubs. But, all successful applicants will have proven themselves in some extracurricular arena. How you define that arena is up to you.”

Passion leads to vocation.

Finally, some extracurriculars do look stronger than others on paper. Use your common sense. For example, “Founder and President of Dave’s Video Game Club” is never going to impress an admissions officer as much as “Treasurer of the Debate Team.” There’s a significant difference between pursuing a challenging activity with all your heart and pursuing something simply because it’s an easy path that requires little of you. Don’t forget that passion leads to vocation—often in surprising and fascinating ways—so don’t sell yourself short. A love of playing football can turn into sports reporting; an interest in helping the disadvantaged can turn into founding a nonprofit to fight starvation; a knack for drawing funny, witty doodles can turn into comic blogging. Why not see where your passions lead?

So, to make this a little more concrete, here is the timeline we suggest for the pursuit of extracurriculars:

7th–9th grade: 

Begin looking for extracurricular activities that you might enjoy. Try ones you’ve always been curious about.

10th grade: 

Start to narrow down your activities. Pick the ones you’re most passionate about and stick with ‘em!

11th–12th grade: 

Pursue leadership and expertise in the activities you’ve chosen.

Long story short, the key to choosing strong extracurriculars is to to view them less as “extracurriculars,” and more as opportunities to pursue a real passion. Be true to yourself about where your interests lie, instead of worrying about how a given activity will look on your college application. Admissions officers care deeply about sincerity, so follow your passions, however quirky they may be.