You hear it from your friends, your relatives, and even from the media: what you do now (whether you're five or 15 years old) can affect your chances of getting into college. There's some truth to this—colleges do look at your academic record from ninth grade on.
But this philosophy can steer you in the wrong direction when it comes to choosing extracurricular activities. Ambitious students may be tempted to choose their activities based on what might look good on a college application. Okay, oboe players may be more rare than pianists, but learning the oboe when you'd rather be throwing the football makes your extracurricular activities seem like the hardest, most boring homework ever.
What Doesn't Matter
Here's the secret: colleges don't care what activities you choose. A well-rounded college class (which is the goal of all admissions offices) includes both accomplished musicians and talented athletes-along with yearbook editors, chess players, student-body leaders, artists, volunteers, computer enthusiasts, and a host of other interesting people.
High school is a good time to figure out your interests and abilities, and then get involved with activities that use those talents. You'll naturally want to spend more time on things that interest you. And that's what colleges look for: students who demonstrate long-term involvement and commitment to a few activities.
"College admission people are looking for kids with a passionate involvement in something," says Josie Collier, a counselor at Frank W. Cox High School (VA). "The 'what' doesn't seem to matter."
Depth vs. Breadth
Don't look to fill up that activities space on a college application with the names of 15 different clubs and activities. Here's a good rule of thumb: as you get farther along in your high school years, your number of activities should go down, not up.
Why? Younger students (high school freshman and sophomores) need to try different activities to figure out what they're interested in. By junior year, many students know what they most enjoy. Then, they can concentrate on contributing more of their time to their favorite activities and less time (or none at all) to activities they don't particularly enjoy.
But just spending more time hanging out in the band room or locker room isn't the goal.
"Colleges want students who have shown long-term, in-depth interest and true talent in extracurricular activities," says Scott White, guidance counselor at Montclair High School (NJ).
That means taking on more responsibility and leadership roles in your area of interest. If you're a musician, for example, you may want to try out for county or state band, volunteer for section leader, or help give music lessons for beginners. If community service is your passion, you might start as a weekly volunteer at the food bank, then help plan a fund-raising event, and end up as a member of the organization's planning committee. You don't have to be president of your high school class to demonstrate leadership ability (although that's good, too!). Colleges—and the "real world"—need leaders in every field of interest, from astrophysics to zoology.
The Balancing Act
Of course, extracurricular activities should never get in the way of your schoolwork. (Yes, sometimes your mom actually does have a point.) College admission officers look at your grades and courses first. Activities often come in a distant second or third in admission decisions (unless you're the number-one high school running back in the country or the first teenage author recommended by Oprah).
So take a look at your schedule. Where are you spending your time and energy? If you're stressed out, or feel like you have too much to do, you may need to cut out an activity that no longer means that much to you. Or you may need to improve your time management skills (which will come in handy in college, too).
Real balance is spending the most time on the things that are most important to you and your future.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. © 2008 National Association for College Admission Counseling.