This article appears in College Prep 2018.

Grades are not the only thing that matters when it comes to getting into the college of your choice. Schools also look at the extracurricular activities you are involved with.

“At the most selective universities, more than two-thirds of the applicants have grades and test scores that are good enough that it is clear that they can do the work. So the college admissions office looks for other factors to distinguish the students,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and

“Active engagement with clubs, organizations, sports, etc., are a great way that students can begin to build a variety of character skill sets that shape who they become as individuals,” said Michelle Curtis-Bailey, senior admissions advisor and educational opportunity advisor coordinator at Stony Brook University, Long Island, New York. “When admissions officers view these activities and the roles students have in these extracurriculars, it can help to provide more context to who a student is and the contributions they bring to a group. It’s another perspective outside of academics.”

Show off

The Common App includes 10 slots for activities, and students should fill as many as possible, said Allen Koh, chief executive officer of Cardinal Education, which offers services such as tutoring and college admissions counseling.

“Beyond that, admissions officers look for a T-shaped profile: some participation in a number of activities, but deep, long-term participation with leadership and real accomplishment in a chosen few,” Koh said.

Be passionate

The substance of extracurricular activities doesn’t matter.

“There is no magical activity; student passion matters the most,” Koh said. “For example, debate club will not help students if they hate public speaking, no matter how much they might improve if forced to participate. Instead, activities should be consistent with a student’s expressed interests and passions, demonstrating experience and achievement.”

Be a leader

Colleges are looking for leadership and impact.

“Leadership cannot simply be holding a position; it must be active and result-driven, and the more concrete, quantitative measures of achievement that can be given, the better the activity for a student’s college application,” Koh said.

Colleges want depth more than breadth.

“They don’t want yet another piano player. They want a virtuoso who has been playing the piano for a decade or more, who has won major awards for her piano playing, who composes her own music. … They don’t want good at STEM, they want great. Are you a genius who has published papers in peer-reviewed science journals?” Kantrowitz said.

Tell a good story

“How a student describes their involvement is often more important than the activity itself,” said Crystal Olivarria, a career coach for kids at Career Conversationalist, Clovis, California. “The more active a student is and the better they can describe their involvement, the more impressive the extracurricular activity will be on their college application.”

Extracurricular activities become more attractive when they show how the student was changed by or learned from the experience. Share in a college essay.

“If the extracurriculars are related to your intended major, talk about that. What have you learned? How has it shaped your career decision? If the activities are not, communicate your passion for those interests or causes. That can be equally compelling,” said Christopher Lee, founder and career consultant at

Word of caution

“While extracurriculars are a great addition to an application, it is unlikely to save a marginal application,” Curtis-Bailey said. “Many students choose to pursue a myriad of activities simply for the reason of, ‘It will look good on my college application.’ That motivation alone should never drive students to actively participate. ‘Actively’ being the key word. Active involvement is the most beneficial involvement.”