Episode 15: Activities, Activities, Activities

Happy New Year! This week, we’re starting our third series: Getting Ready to Apply, by focusing on high school activities.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Inventing 21st century activities, like student-created online publications, blogs, and podcasts
Turning a hobby into an activity for college applications
Taking online courses instead of private lessons

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This week, we’re beginning our third series, Getting Ready to Apply, by exploring some of the many activities your child may participate in during their high school career.

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NYCollegeChat Episode 15 Activities Activities Activities from Series 3 Getting Ready to Apply

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by 46 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will likely be a section that asks your child to make an elaborate list of activities that he or she participated in while in high school (though there are some exceptions to this, especially among community colleges and some less-selective colleges). Having something to say in the activities section of the application is important in showing that your child is a well-rounded individual, who is likely to contribute to the college community outside of the classroom.

You will hear advice of all kinds from consultants and from college admissions officers about whether it is better for your child to have a few activities that he or she participated in year after year or for your child to have an array of activities covering all kinds of interests (such as music and sports and debate and theater and student government), even if they do each one for just a year or two. It is doubtful that any ninth grader beginning life in a new high school can really plan to choose one path or the other and then execute that plan. But the more you know about the options available to your child in school, the better you can help your child take advantage of the activities that are offered—and you might decide that you want to supplement what the high school offers with activities outside of school, whether those are community activities or private lessons and whether they are free or expensive.

Let us say that many applications also ask whether students have had any honors or leadership roles in whatever activities are listed—like winning a regional speech contest or being elected president of the student government or serving as editor of the school newspaper or being selected as the captain of a city championship baseball team. So let your child know that trying for a leadership position is always a good idea.

Let’s look at some possible activities in and out of school and consider why each is valuable for your child—both in your child’s life generally and for college applications down the road. Some of them require talent or aptitude, to be sure, but not all of them. While this is not an exhaustive list of every possible activity, it offers broad categories of the more common ones.

1. Music

By the time students get to high school, you might think it is too late to start playing a musical instrument or singing in a chorus. You might think that musical talent has to be developed when a child is young. Undoubtedly, you have seen your share of Suzuki violinists and heard these pint-sized kids playing classical violin pieces. But even Dr. Suzuki himself believed that musical ability could be developed through proper training and that it was not a talent that children are simply born with. So, maybe it is never too late.

If your child has played an instrument in elementary and/or middle school or sung in school choruses, tell your child not to quit now. While that might mean taking music as a subject for a grade in your high school and/or attending early-morning or late-afternoon practices and rehearsals, it is all worth it. Furthermore, it is worth it to continue with music lessons and performance groups through high school even if your child does not want to continue with music in college.

If it is too late for your child to learn to perform well enough to be in the performance ensembles at school—the orchestra, band, show orchestra, jazz ensemble, string ensemble, chorus, choir, or whatever your child’s high school has to offer—you could still consider music lessons after school. While we could go on and on about the value of playing an instrument or singing well—the discipline, the culture, the camaraderie, and more—the fact is that music is a great activity to have for life and a great activity to have for college applications.

2. Student Government

Being a member of the student government of a school is automatically a leadership position because it means that your child was elected by his or her peers to represent a class, a grade, or however your child’s school sets it up. We are the first to admit that student governments in high schools are sometimes ineffective and not useful for the students or the school. Nonetheless, the idea of student government is an important one, and colleges know that. So, if your child can run for the student government—as a class representative or as an officer—that is a good thing and should be encouraged. Starting down that road in ninth grade is also a good idea while most of the students are still new to each other and no cliques have formed yet. Plus, being elected in ninth grade could lead to being elected in later grades.

3. School Newspaper, Yearbook, Literary Magazine, Etc.

Writing for any school publication is the kind of academic-flavored activity that can be impressive to colleges because it shows that a student is both competent in the valuable academic skill of writing and willing to take on extra work outside the classroom. But it is not only about writing. Artwork is also often needed on school publications; so, if your child is a talented artist or photographer, then school publications are also a good choice. Working on a school publication also shows that a student is organized enough to meet deadlines and is able to work reasonably well with others inasmuch as all publications require some teamwork. Rising to a leadership position—like sports editor or editor-in-chief or art editor—also gets students points on the leadership scoreboard.

4. Debate, Speech, Model United Nations, Etc.

This is another set of academic-flavored activities, all of which require public speaking skills, analytical thinking skills, and the ability to think on your feet. Many high schools offer students the opportunity to participate in one or all of these. They typically involve competition within the school and with other schools—locally, statewide, regionally, and even nationally. These competitions give students a chance to earn awards of various kinds, all of which can be detailed on college applications. For students who are relatively smart and have enough confidence to speak in front of others and argue persuasively in front of others, these kinds of activities are a great choice.

5. Theater

Who doesn’t love a school play—whether it is a traditional drama, like 12 Angry Men, or a classic musical, like The King and I, or a more modern, contemporary piece that most of us never heard of? If your child has any acting talent—or dancing talent or musical talent—then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. If your child loves the theater or movies or even television, then you should encourage auditioning for any school play coming up. And remember that there are plenty of behind-the-scenes roles for students, too—stage crew, technical crew (like lighting and sound), set design and construction, costumes, props, even advertising the production.

Putting on a play is all about teamwork, and working on a play demonstrates that your child has those valuable skills. Theater activities can also be great practical experience for students who imagine themselves with college majors in theater, fashion design, architecture, interior design, art, music, dance, and even business. Putting on a play usually requires a substantial time commitment, which can be proudly noted on college applications that ask students, as many do, how many weeks and how many hours per week they engaged in each activity on the list.

6. Service Organizations

Many schools have various clubs and groups that serve others in the school community—peer tutoring, tutoring younger students, working in the library, maintaining school computers, working in the school office, volunteering in summer orientation programs for incoming ninth graders, and more. Doing this kind of volunteer work shows colleges that a student is responsible, dependable, caring, and concerned for others. It shows that a student can work well with classmates, with younger or older students, and/or with adults. It shows that some adult in the school thought a student was reliable enough and perhaps smart enough to do the work being asked of him or her. If these kinds of service assignments are available at your child’s school, they are a good way for your child to demonstrate lots of skills and traits that colleges are looking for, especially if your child does not do volunteer work in the community or have a paid part-time job outside of school time.

7. Specific School Subject or Future Career Clubs

There are many clubs that are focused on a school subject or a future career choice, sometimes sponsored by outside professional and nonprofit organizations—for example, the French Club, the Math Club, the Physics Club, the Robotics Club, the American Society of Civil Engineering Club, Future Farmers of America, and so on. These subject-specific clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know individual teachers better (which is especially helpful in the future when college recommendations are needed), and these career-oriented clubs may give students an opportunity to get to know professionals working in a field they are interested in (which is especially helpful in the future when a summer internship might be sought). As with all clubs, they give students a chance to form friendships outside of the classroom and, in some cases, such as a Robotics Club, give students a chance to learn how to work as a team.

8. Athletics

Some college applications have a separate question about athletics, and it is a shame not to have anything to say in that spot. Athletics includes club sports, intramural teams, junior varsity teams, and varsity teams; and, of course, athletics includes both individual sports and team sports. Students who are good athletes—or even great athletes—will, not surprisingly, have a lot to say at this point on a college application. They will often play more than one sport a year and may even be the captain of a team. As always, showing that your child played on a team throughout his or her high school years is the best case scenario, but that requires talent as well as commitment that your child might not maintain for four years. Participating on an athletic team indicates a lot of positive things to a college—even if your child is not pursuing an athletic scholarship and even if your child will not continue with the sport in college.

But what if your child is not a great athlete—or even a good one? What if he or she likes sports, but is not very talented? Then, encourage your child to play on intramural teams or on noncompetitive club teams.

Or consider getting your child lessons so that he or she is engaged in athletics, but not necessarily on school teams—for example, fencing, boxing, or karate, which are all individual sports likely requiring lessons outside of school and could all be started as late as high school. Summer athletic programs can also serve as an alternative to school athletic teams in some sports, like fencing.

9. Private Lessons

We have just talked about private lessons in various sports. And, of course, there are private lessons in instrumental music, vocal music, visual arts, dance, gymnastics, and more. If your child is taking any private lessons outside of school, they should be included in his or her list of activities. A commitment to some of these takes up hours and hours of a child’s time every week. For example, a student who is not serious about dance, but enjoys hip-hop, might spend an hour and a half in a hip-hop class once or twice a week; a student who is serious about dance is more likely to spend 10 to 15 hours a week in ballet, modern, and tap classes. Colleges want to know what students are doing with their time outside of school and whether that time is being used productively. Clearly, taking private lessons is one productive use of that time.

10. Community Activities

There are many kinds of community activities that students might engage in—from playing on competitive travel sports teams to taking classes at community centers to playing in community musical ensembles to participating in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to working with community theater productions on stage or backstage to going on service trips with church groups. All of these are interesting and valuable ways for your child to use free time, and all of these should be included in his or her list of activities on college applications. These community activities can be especially important for your child to seek out if your high school does not have an array of after-school activities or if your child’s commute to school or responsibilities at home, such as picking up a younger sibling from school, make it difficult to stay late enough to participate in many after-school activities.


Internships, volunteer work in the community, and paid employment will be discussed in our next episode.

One Final Note: Some college applications ask whether the student plans to continue each activity while in college. When filling out the application, your child should think hard about that. If there is an activity—and, hopefully, there is more than one—that your child has a continuing interest in, make sure that he or she checks that box. Colleges want to see that students are bringing more to the campus than what they bring to the academic classroom. That is part of what makes a college campus a great place to live and learn.

Remember that activities during the high school years are more important to have when applying to selective colleges. But because a child does not know in ninth grade what kinds of colleges he or she might want to attend or might be eligible for, engaging in activities can prove beneficial in the short run and in the long run. Besides, extracurricular activities make high school life a whole lot more interesting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Inventing 21st century activities, like student-created online publications, blogs, and podcasts
  • Turning a hobby into an activity for college applications
  • Taking online courses instead of private lessons

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