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University applications can be difficult to put together. With so many things students need or want to include, striking the balance between academic ambitions and personal passions is tricky. Here, we give all our top tips on how students should incorporate their extracurriculars.
Figuring out how to include extracurricular activities in university applications can be difficult and confusing – not least because different admissions systems around the world value extracurriculars differently. But failing to strategically and thoughtfully write about all the great things they’ve done could cost your students places at their first-choice universities.
That’s why it’s so important to understand exactly what extracurriculars are supposed to convey in an application, and the best ways to make them stand out and show the student’s aptitude for their chosen field.
In this article, we explore why universities care about applicants’ extracurriculars, which activities are most valuable, and how to incorporate them into applications to different destinations.
Read on to become a master of adding all-important extracurricular magic to your students’ applications!
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Why should students include extracurricular activities in their university applications?
You’re doubtless familiar with the standard rationale for including extracurricular activities in university and college applications, but understanding the nuances of what admissions officers are really looking for can make the difference between shoe-horning extracurriculars in any which way, and making them the silver bullet of students’ applications.
Broadly speaking, it’s not so much the activity itself that counts. The reason students should include some form of extracurricular in their applications is to demonstrate that they’re active and interested, and show universities what they can bring to campus life.
Universities want to cultivate diverse, dynamic student bodies which contribute not only to the prestige and success of the institution and its members, but also to its surrounding communities. Showing that they’ll be part of that is a huge bonus to any student’s application.
Which extracurricular activities should students include in their university applications?
These days, there are countless extracurricular pursuits available to students. Many students are already involved in a wide range of activities – whether that’s due to academic ambitions, varied passions, enthusiastic parents, or sheer curiosity.
And while it’s great for students to explore different areas and keep their minds and bodies active, not all activities are entirely equal, nor is more always better when it comes to including extracurriculars in university applications.
What to include will depend to some extent on factors like the subject a student is applying for, or the country they are applying to. But for the most part, there are certain attributes that make extracurriculars particularly compelling:
- Unusual and memorable experiences (these also make it easier to excel – it’s harder to be the best when half the world is doing something!)
- Long-term commitments
- Strong passions and personal motivations
- Impacts on teams or communities (which can include micro things like recruiting new members to the club, or macro things like setting up a food bank for underprivileged families)
- Activities that have shaped their personalities/ambitions/perspectives
- Personal projects
“The competition to stand out and make an impact is going to be much stiffer, so if they do a popular activity, I’d say, be the best at it… The alternative is to do something else, to do something that no one else around you is doing, but your goal should be to be the best.“Sara Harberson / College admissions consultant and former Undergraduate Admissions Dean at both Franklin and Marshall College and the University of Pennsylvania
If students are struggling to find activities that meet any of these criteria, they should set them up for themselves! Avid readers could start a book club. Budding journalists could establish the first school newspaper. If they’d like to be a vet, perhaps they set up a volunteering scheme at a local shelter… You get the idea!
Of course, the very best extracurriculars combine several of these categories – longstanding, unusual personal projects motivated by events that had a big impact on them and stirred up strong passions, in which they’ve taken a leadership role and had an impact on their community would be ideal!
How many extracurriculars should students include in their university applications?
This is an area where stereotype would say there’s a big difference between systems like the UK’s and those of North America (we’ll look at both of these more closely soon!).
Traditionally, it’s been thought that Canadian and US universities like to see lots of diverse activities. After all, the Common App has room for at least ten different pursuits! On the other hand, almost all admissions officers in the UK emphasise that the bulk of students’ personal statements should be dedicated to the subject they’re applying for.
Related resources: A Step by Step Guide to the Common App and UCAS Personal Statement Tips from Top UK Universities
But while a few years ago variety and quantity might have been more valued in North America, these days most higher education systems want students who are driven and focused. Plus, as we just covered, what really count are the activities that students have shown commitment to. It’s much better for students to dedicate their time to a few worthwhile activities than dabble lightly in lots of different ones.
And of course – particularly for students applying to the UK – having a small selection of activities that directly relate to their academic and professional goals is generally more advisable than using up precious words talking about hockey, jazz band, fun runs and their movie reviews (unless they can find a snazzy way to tie these all together!).
How should students decide which extracurriculars to include in their university applications?
Now that you know the kinds of factors and criteria to keep in mind as you parse through students’ extracurriculars, there are some activities and exercises that can help them choose what to include.
The best way to start is for students to list experiences they’ve had in different areas, and how they relate to their future goals.
Students should ask parents, friends, teachers, and probably you to look over the list to verify its accuracy and remind them of things that might slip their minds. Having a non-expert read it also avoids jargon or obscure acronyms slipping in and bamboozling admissions officers.
Students can then begin to categorise each experience and activity into the characteristics they demonstrate/develop. Some traits that tend to be a good bet when it comes to university applications include:
- Time management
- Technological skills
Finally, they can research which qualities their respective admissions teams are looking for, and tailor the extracurriculars they include (and how) accordingly. Unsurprisingly, these characteristics will depend entirely on the university and the subject area.
Of course, the process we’ve just outlined can require quite a bit of time, work, and self-reflection, so you might have to structure some of your time with students to exploring these areas.
Better still, you could get them onto BridgeU’s free platform. Our Strategy Advisor guides students through the whole process, and helps sort experiences for them! It can even pick the most relevant ones depending on the countries they’re interested in.
Once they’ve got a range of experiences to hit each of the most relevant criteria for their region, institution and subject, students can start to piece them together in a way that tells a compelling story.
How should students write about their extracurricular activities?
We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the best approaches and tactics depend somewhat on the specifics of students’ applications. There are definitely some general tips which you can pass on to all your students, though.
We don’t just mean that challenges should be the star of the application – although they may well be. Rather, we’re referring to the popular STAR technique:
Students should think about any specific challenges or big accomplishments related to each activity. Was their team 11-0 down at half-time? Did the debate club need to fundraise for a national heat? Did they decide to organise a student-led maths tutorial service at school?
Whatever it may be, a good way of showing their skills and impact is to use the STAR method:
- First, they describe the situation and why it spurred them to take action.
- Next, they explain what task was born as a result of the situation – what needed to change?
- Then what actions they took (and why)
- Finally the all-important result – what did they achieve, and what was its broader impact?
If students don’t have any particular challenges or obstacles they overcame, they can still personalise their accounts to ensure they’re memorable and valuable.
If they have any anecdotes about the activity that show why it’s so important to them and/or how it’s shaped them, they should include them!
Maybe a particular topic they covered at MUN inspired them to pursue international relations. Or perhaps a big win for their sports team underlined the value of teamwork and their desire to work towards a common goal and under immediate pressure, and that’s why they want to work on a television set.
The stories students choose to tell and their reasons for doing so are limitless. Just try to make sure that they’re genuine and related to their plans.
This brings us nicely onto our next point, which is to encourage students to think outside the box when they’re illustrating how an extracurricular activity has benefited them.
Of course being part of a sports team makes them a good team player, but what else have they learned from it? Do they analyse opponents’ tactics like they analyse historical sources? Does their signature tackle translate to out-of-the-box thinking in the lab? Do they apply trigonometry to calculate what angle to kick the ball from?
In this way, even students who don’t have particularly obscure extracurriculars to include in their applications can make them sparkle in a new way and ensure they stick in admissions officers’ minds.
This approach can be a great way to get started, but it’s also a useful in helping students be succinct and clear when including extracurricular activities in their university applications. That’s particularly important where tight word limits are applied – like the UCAS personal statement!
Have students write one direct, active and compelling sentence about what the activity meant to them and how it ties to their goals.
Look to the future
A final piece of advice is for students not to focus entirely on what they did and what impact it had on them. Instead, they should also think about how that activity will shape their future.
A particularly impressive and very direct way of doing this might be to express their eagerness to set up a similar activity or be involved in a related society at university. That shows long-term commitment, drive, dedication and initiative, and it tells admissions officers that they’re going to be a great addition to the campus!
Regional considerations when including extracurriculars in university applications
While the advice we’ve given holds true across students’ university applications, there’s no doubt that different higher education systems regard extracurriculars differently. But that definitely doesn’t mean they should ever be completely foregone!
In fact, even in the famously academically focused UK, extracurriculars are more important than ever: 59% of UK university admissions teams say they have become more pivotal in their decisions.
Let’s think about how different regions view applicants’ non-academic interests.
American institutions assess applicants holistically and want to know all about what they get up to outside of the classroom. This is perfectly exemplified by the fact that many universities dedicate an entire supplemental essay to extracurriculars.
Activities included in either the supplemental or main essay needn’t necessarily relate directly to the area students want to focus their studies on, and instead should be prioritised by the impact on themselves and their community.
Of course, students who have decided to declare their major in their applications should consider writing about related activities! If they’re passionate and sure enough to declare it, universities expect to see that certainty outside of the classroom.
Related resource: How to Write the Common App Essay 2021-2022 (with Examples)
UK personal statements are known to be heavily academic in focus. In fact, advice typically suggests that students dedicate at least 80% of the statement to their aptitude for the course.
In the other 20%, it’s definitely best to prioritise activities that are directly related to the subjects students are applying for.
Related resource: How to Write a UCAS Personal Statement (with Examples)
Broadly speaking, Asian universities lean towards the UK side of the spectrum. In fact, in many countries in Asia it’s unusual for students to pursue a range of extracurricular activities, as the focus is firmly on academic achievement.
Students applying to Asian universities should check the institution, department, and course websites to see what’s required, but for the most part applications will be mostly academic. Where students do bring in extracurriculars, they should be closely related to their academic and professional ambitions.
Australia is often considered a middle-ground between the USA and the UK academically speaking, and its attitude to extracurricular activities is no exception.
Like in Asia, personal essays aren’t a blanket requirement. Often, though, universities that request an essay want to learn about students’ interests, passions and experiences. Because the degrees aren’t as narrow in subject focus as UK ones, the areas which students’ extracurriculars explore needn’t be either.
Related resource: The Ultimate Guide to Studying in Australia
Make sure your students are sending the best possible university applications
Cultivating and incorporating the right extracurriculars is challenging, time-consuming and stressful – often at a point when students have enough on their plates!
But with the right tools, it becomes much easier. And we think BridgeU is the most powerful tool you could give to your students.
From the moment they join the platform, students can use BridgeU’s strategy advisor to see which areas they’re already excelling in, and which they should dedicate more time to. It will even alter its suggestions according to the subjects and destinations students are most interested in!
When they get to the stage of writing up the applications, they’ll have a record of all their tailored extracurriculars and their benefits, plus our writing tools to ensure they convey them in compelling and memorable ways.
You can get all of this (and much more) for every single student, totally free forever. To get started, just click here.
Book a free demo
Learn how BridgeU can help students research a wider range of vocational courses.