In this article, we answer popular questions and explain how extracurricular activities affect your admission chances and how to improve your application in this area.
What Are Extracurricular Activities?
Extracurricular activities are things you do outside of academics. Virtually any activity that you are actively involved in and where you have accomplished something can fall into this category.
The key difference between a hobby and an extracurricular activity is that the latter should showcase your talents or benefit others. For example, going to the movies with friends or playing the guitar in your leisure time would be a hobby. Meanwhile, starting a movie club at school or participating in a music contest is an extracurricular activity.
To make an impression on the admission committee of a foreign university, your extracurricular activities should be about passion, leadership, and impact.
Types of Extracurricular Activities
The list of possible extracurricular activities is long. Here, you will find over 200 ideas, and it’s only one of many sources. According to the Common App platform, used by many universities around the world to facilitate the admission process, extracurricular activities may be divided into the following categories:
Sports. For example, you play in a school or all-city team, do an individual sport, and take part in competitions.
Community service. This includes volunteering, that is, voluntary work for the benefit of the community that you do on an unpaid basis. You can organize charity events, help with fundraising projects for those in need, visit animal shelters, or be a volunteer at sports, cultural, and scientific events in your home country or abroad.
Work experience. This category includes internships and on-the-job training.
Creative activities. Playing in a music band or amateur theater, participating in a photo exhibit or a stand-up show, as well as carrying out creative workshops are good examples of creative extracurricular activities.
Participation in clubs and groups. This is a section for promising bloggers, filmmakers, members of anime clubs, hiking clubs, and others.
Academic activities. These include, for example, science clubs, reading and public speaking contests, research, writing, etc.
Why Extracurricular Activities Are Important for Prospective International Students
They help you understand what you want to study and gain experience. Thanks to extracurricular activities, you can dip your toe into different fields and decide on your future job. If you are thinking about changing your major, extracurricular activities can help you get the experience you need and show the admissions committee what you are actually interested in.
They help you decide on a destination and hone your language skills. Doing extracurricular activities abroad (for example, short or long-term volunteering) is a great way to “try” the country and see if you want to live there longer. Meanwhile, communicating with other volunteers and locals will ensure you the best language practice.
They increase your chances to be admitted and granted a scholarship. Being smart and having good grades is not enough to enroll in a top university and get a scholarship. Leadership and proactive attitude are essential for those aspiring to become students and get scholarships. Volunteer and social work experience is an indicator that you do have these qualities.
They broaden your horizons. Extracurricular activities make you a more interesting person and provide you valuable life experience. You will always have a couple of funny stories for a motivational letter or an interview.
They are a source of networking opportunities. Extracurricular activities help you get out of your comfort zone and start meeting new people. The more active and daring you are, the faster you'll establish yourself and enlarge your network of valuable contacts. In a couple of years, one of them might get you an internship or job you’ve long pursued.
Is a Vast Extracurricular Experience a Guarantee of Being Admitted and Getting a Scholarship?
No, but those having this experience have better chances. For example, if you apply abroad through the Common App platform, your Activities section may account for 10-20% of your application success, depending on the university.
The best universities in the world are much more than quality education. They are cultural, research, and philanthropic centers that influence and change society. And the driving force behind this change is talented, caring, and committed students.
So, if a candidate is actively involved in high school and community activities, they will most likely keep doing it at university. Therefore, volunteering and other extracurricular activities are your chance to show the admissions committee how you can develop and contribute to the student community and enhance the image of the university.
Where to Look for Opportunities
First, ask yourself what you like and what kind of experience you'd like to gain.
- You can start on a local level by finding out what kind of opportunities your school or university offers to their students. Make a list of foundations and organizations in your city that you find interesting, like hobby clubs, animal shelters, libraries, etc. If there is no mention of volunteer programs or job openings on their websites, just contact them by phone and ask.
- International organizations like the UN and the Red Cross regularly publish job openings and other offers for interns and volunteers on their websites.
- Don't be afraid to come up with ideas and create something yourself. If you live in a small town where there are not so many opportunities, don’t be shy to take the initiative. For example, you can start a movie club at school, participate in charity events, or throw a photo exhibit. Proactivity and leadership are essential qualities for a prospective international student.
How to Present My Extracurricular Experience in an Application
Having a vast and vivid experience of extracurricular activities is not enough. You need to know how to deliver it. Here are some tips:
Keep it short. For example, the Common App platform has set a limit of 150 characters per activity. Describe your experience concisely and stick to the point. Don’t get emotional and avoid big words.
Quality over quantity. It is better to have one or two things that you’ve been doing for several years and in which you have made progress, than switch to something new every year. That way, the admissions committee will see you as a consistent and persistent student.
Word choice matters. It's not enough to just list your extracurricular activities in chronological order. Use action verbs (“did”, “achieved”, “developed”, “implemented”, etc.) and numbers to illustrate your accomplishments (“wrote 15 texts”, “raised 70,000 rubles in donations”, “volunteered at a festival with 1,500 participants”). Otherwise, it will sound like some abstract description rather than a real experience.
Save more detail for a motivation letter. Even if your extracurricular activities are hardly related to your major, you can make your motivation letter very convincing. To that end, mention what you've had to overcome, the lessons you've learned, and the experiences you've gained through the extracurricular activities that you could use in your future job.
Personal Experience of Daria Gorbunova, a Mentor in StudyFree
My extracurricular activities included volunteering and an internship. In 2018, I volunteered for the FIFA World Cup 2018. I helped the broadcasters during the games with updating programs, setting up the cameras and TVs. Sometimes I instructed journalists on how to shoot.
A few months later, I became an intern at the Russia Today agency in Moscow. I was supposed to meet respondents and work with the audience.
I presented my experience in the best way when filling out an application. For example, I stressed that I had held 16 conferences and interviews in just a few months. Eventually, this was one of the reasons why they accepted me into Art and Humanities at the Minerva School in California.
Personal Experience of Marina Tereshina, a Mentor in StudyFree
Several years ago, I was a volunteer at the Help Needed foundation (“Nuzhna pomoshch”). Together with the staff of the foundation and other volunteers, we talked about social problems, looked for solutions, and implemented fundraising projects.
We held two charity football tournaments. I also helped transcribe materials for the So It Goes (“Takiye dela”) web portal launched by the foundation.
Moreover, I have internship experience as an English teacher at school. I used to help more experienced colleagues prepare children for Cambridge exams.
My dream is to become a history teacher. I applied to participate in the Erasmus+ exchange program in London for History. The University College admissions committee appreciated the fact that I had volunteering experience in a major organization. The teaching experience was also a big plus for my portfolio. My story is definitely an example of how extracurricular activities can help you get into a dream program.
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