Extracurricular activities can certainly be fun and educational at the same time.

Some people, though, seem to think these activities possess some sort of extraordinarily miraculous powers when it comes to college applications.

Saxophone on music sheetThey do not.

Nevertheless, throughout my years as an admission officer and independent educational consultant, I have heard many people repeat myths about extracurricular activities which are simply not based on facts.

Sadly, those who pass on this inaccurate information can create a lot of confusion for students.

Let me expose some of these fantastic tales for what they truly are.

Myth #1: Really fantastic extracurricular activities can make up for lower grades and test scores that do not match what a particular, selective college is looking for.

Truth: While extracurricular activities are an important part of the college application, they are typically not the most important part.

Your pure academic records, which include your grades, classes, standardized test scores, and the rigor of your high school curriculum always come first. Only after reviewing that objective data, do many admission officers look at subjective information—including extracurricular activities—and judge if it is strong, weak, or neutral.

Myth #2: Colleges want to see certain types of extracurricular activities or favor specific activities over others.

Truth: Obviously, watching TV or eating potato chips will never be looked at favorably by most admission officers. But if you are involved in wholesome extracurricular activities—both interesting and satisfying to you—those are the right choices.

One myth about a “required” extracurricular activity is volunteer work or community service.  Many students have come to me in a panic because they believe they will not get into a college simply because they do not have enough, or any, community service hours. They may ask, “How many hours do I need to have to get into my dream school?”

The truth is, there is no set number of community service hours required or even recommended.

True, service is a valuable pursuit in the eyes of colleges—some (but not all) even value it higher than many other extracurricular activities. And if that is the type of college you are interested in and it is who you are as a student, then you should be doing volunteer work—a lot of it. But, in general, colleges do not judge an extracurricular activity in itself.

What they want to see is you being involved in meaningful, engaging, challenging, and fun pursuits. If that does not include volunteer hours, that is quite alright. It is much more important to be actively doing what you love doing, not what someone told you is supposedly required.

Myth #3: Sticking with an extracurricular activity over time is more important than having the freedom to change your mind or get tired of a certain pursuit.

Truth: The most important thing about extracurricular activities is: whatever you are doing, commit to it for enough time to give yourself a chance to grow and show that you are improving.

Of course, if you can find a pursuit you can stick with, grow, and become better at it, that is certainly great. But do not be afraid of changing to another activity if you want to.

Say, for example, you are a student that, by nature, does not want to do the same thing as an extracurricular activity all the time. You may love joining new clubs, enjoy learning new instruments, or desire to take on a job which will not allow you to be as involved in your extracurricular activities as you had been.

Will you have to worry about dropping an extracurricular activity that you had been involved in for years? Will the college you apply to think you are a quitter or lack commitment? Or will they be judging you negatively for your choice?

Not at all.

It is common and human nature to like trying diverse activities, to get tired of a pursuit, or desire a fresh start doing something different. There is nothing wrong with that.

Of course, it is important to avoid extremes. If you jump and leap from one activity to another without giving anyone pursuit enough time to grow—avoid finding out what is challenging about it or not allowing yourself time to improve—that is not a good pattern.

Myth #4: You have to be a well-rounded, multi-dimensional student in terms of your extracurricular activities—doing sports, playing music, being on the debate team, and taking on leadership roles—who will come to college and engage in a lot of different things.

Truth: While being well-rounded is certainly a healthy way to live as an adult—having different interests and outlets, and exercising different parts of your body and mind—it is not a rule or requirement for college applicants.

Falling for this myth may cause you to pull back from something you absolutely love doing to pursue something that you do not love so much, just because you think that it is required by a college.

And that is far from the truth.

In fact, the opposite of well-rounded may be a much better choice. Why?

More and more, I notice that colleges want to see students that are not multi-dimensional but rather specialists in a very particular area or two. Whatever that may be, these students are really good at it. They stick with their activity, are intensely immersed in it, and show, over time, that they are more skillful or make a larger impact.

If you are drawn to being well-rounded and have many different interests, engage in them. But if you do not have a variety of interests, find a smaller selection of extracurricular activities and spend more time just on them. And do not be afraid of becoming a specialist in just a few key areas.

Remember, above all, instead of putting too much stock into what extracurricular activities might be able to do for you, focus on school first. Concentrate on what makes you the best student you can be. And, then, worry about extracurricular activities.

In a subsequent post, “Debunking Myths About Extracurricular Activities – Part 2,” I will consider misconceptions surrounding summer extracurricular activities in particular.

If you have questions about the role extracurricular activities play in college applications, please contact me. I am an experienced Independent Educational Consultant who would love to help you find the right college for you.