How Many Extracurricular Activities Does Your Student Need for College?

From sports to the arts, schedules can fill up quickly
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No matter the size of a house — 700 or 7,000 square feet — many people instinctually fill every nook and cranny to the brim. We gain a sense of satisfaction from finishing our plates during meals even though the portions are arbitrary and unrelated to our degree of hunger. So, what does this have to do with the number of extracurricular activities your student might need for college? It comes down to one simple fact — there are 10 blank spaces for extracurricular activities on the Common Application.

Does your child need 10 extracurricular activities? No. Just because there are 10 blank spaces, your student shouldn’t participate in more activities just to fill them all out. Colleges are looking for applicants who are deeply engaged in somewhere between one and a few activities. Often, commitment to these passions drives students to serve in leadership roles, win awards or accomplish other notable achievements.

But, I thought my child needed to be “well-rounded.” The pervasive well-roundedness myth does as much damage as any higher-education fallacy currently being spread through the halls of every American high school. In reality, colleges are most interested in students who are very talented/committed to a particular something that will translate to their campus. They are interested in a stellar soccer player, an adept oboist, an efficient nonprofit organizer or a dedicated school newspaper editor. They are not looking for all of these roles to be filled by the same person.


Quality vs. Quantity 

A student who dabbles in 10 things but commits to none comes across as unfocused. Admissions officers would much rather see “only” three or so activities that:

• Are aligned with the student’s future academic/career goals.

• Demonstrate the student’s ability to lead and get results (titles matter less than actual duties/responsibilities).

• Show evidence of distinction, such as placing in a local, state or national competition (this is of greater importance for students applying to elite schools).


Experiment Early

A high school student should spend his freshman and sophomore years experimenting with extracurricular activities. In a couple of years, he may find himself with a part-time job, rigorous AP courses and a serious love interest. Students who are 14 or 15 years old generally have nothing but time on their hands. 

Encourage your student to consider immersing herself in multiple activities, following her areas of interest. If she is musically inclined, suggest that she sign up for chorus, orchestra or the marching band. If she’s more interested in politics, she might want to consider joining forensics, mock trial and Model U.N. clubs.


To Play or Not Play a Sport

Your student should play a sport because he loves it and it’s fun, or because he is awesome at it and it may open doors for him. He should not play a sport simply because he wants to fill in another one of those 10 blank spaces on his Common App. A year on the JV football team or a brief stint as the weaker half of the lowest-rated doubles tennis duo is not going to impress an admissions officer at Duke University or Caltech. Plus, forcing in an athletic experience solely to appear well-rounded will rapidly drain your student’s valuable time, taking his attention away from other, potentially more valuable extracurricular endeavors. 

Determining how many extracurricular activities your student should be involved in during high school should be based on where and how she wishes to spend her precious after-school, weekend and summer hours. As she grows older, that time will become even more precious.


Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at


Categories: College Planning, College Transitions, Education, Lifestyle