The importance of extracurriculars

What is their value?

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Rebecca Von Tersch

The value of extracurriculars beyond college applications is often overlooked. Students are left wondering why these extracurriculars matter.

Do sports, learn a language, lead a club! This is advice that high school students hear many times in their lives.

They are encouraged to add to their college applications with extracurricular activities. But beyond college, what is the real value of extracurriculars?

Students spend much of their free time participating in extracurricular activities. Activities like sports practices, outside language classes, or participation in a robotics team can take up to an hour or two per day for each activity. 

“Including sports, [I probably spent] around 25 hours per week [on extracurriculars] because I was doing sports work a lot outside of school. And then club stuff, like presentations and organizing heritage fair [performances],” said Nina Chung, a freshman at Parsons School of Design and former Carlmont student. 

According to a Pew Research study on student activity, 72% of parents are happy with their child’s schedule and that it is not too hectic. 

There is a balance between schoolwork and extracurriculars that students need. But many students spend more time focusing on grades than on extracurriculars. 

Common Extracurriculars by Rebecca Von Tersch

“I think that the emphasis is on grades. If you look at colleges in general, the levels of average GPAs [required] keep getting harder and harder. It is natural that people are putting more focus on grades. What can happen when you put so much emphasis on that is extracurriculars get pushed aside. You have that balance between keeping the grades that you need and the extracurriculars,” said Manuel Kernen, Director of College Applications at The Right Approach to Education Tutoring Organization.

Students should allocate at least a couple of hours a week for extracurriculars, and “there should be a work-life balance,” according to Kernen. 

But it can be stressful trying to manage the school and extracurricular balance. Students tend to put school first and extracurriculars second. 

“Definitely in my senior year, when I had everything at once, it was a hassle to balance everything. But for me, schoolwork came first; then extracurriculars came after. I just focused on getting a list done, priority number one first, and then the rest from there,” Chung said. 

Extracurriculars impact a student’s life outside of college applications as well. The skills a student can learn from their extracurriculars can apply to their opportunities in school and even after they graduate. These skills are the foundation of important work and social skills. They help make connections and develop necessary skills for their adult life, and they also help students find and create communities.

“[Extracurriculars] helped me find a community. I feel like I was lost in middle school; I didn’t know where I fit in, and I didn’t like to embrace my culture. I think the extracurriculars helped me through that,” Chung said. “Clubs help shift people into like-minded groups. You join a club, and you automatically find people who enjoy the things you also enjoy, which helps you create new friends. It’s a great way to have a community.”

Teamwork skills and leadership skills are always essential to have. They help students learn to work well with others and lead projects. 

“Leadership is really important. I think if any student has the opportunity to grab a leadership role, they should. You’ll learn in college that there’s a lot of group projects, and even if it’s an unspoken leader, there always is one… I think that leadership and knowing how to talk to people, read people, and adapt to different situations is important, so that applies to your real-life situations,” Chung said. 

Many factors go into a student’s ability to lead an extracurricular. But most of those factors also go into the ability to participate. 

Studies by Pew Research on children’s extracurriculars say that family income and education play a huge factor in students’ ability to participate in extracurricular activities. Parents with higher income and education are more likely to have children who participate in multiple extracurriculars, volunteer work, and organizations like scouting. Only around 23% of children living below the poverty line play sports, nearly half of the number of children in high-income families who participate in sports.

Affordable Extracurriculars by Rebecca Von Tersch

Some organizations provide affordable activities for students to add to their college applications. For example, AYSO soccer has a non-refundable annual player fee of $20, while there are club soccer teams that require much larger registration fees. Many volunteer organizations, or civic engagement organizations, have no registration cost. The Youth Advisory Committee programs throughout California cities, as well as Belmont’s youth volunteer group Voices, have no registration fees. 

“I’m a big advocate to have organizations that provide [affordable] services to students. I think one aspect that people do not speak about too much about the extracurriculars is the cost associated with being able to do them. That’s money about to come out of the pockets of students and families. It’s the social-economic factors that play a role,” Kernen said. 

Participating in school clubs is another affordable extracurricular option for students. Most clubs are free, related to a student’s interests, and provide opportunities to fill leadership roles. 

A Pew Research study on child care and education states that parents from lower-income families have a more negative assessment of the availability of after-school programs in their communities than parents in higher-income families. Fifty-two percent of parents with school-aged children from low-income families say it is hard to find high-quality, affordable after-school programs where they live. In comparison, only 29% of parents in higher-income families say it’s difficult.

There has always been a gap in testing scores between students in different socio-economic situations, but colleges are phasing these scores out of applications. Extracurriculars are becoming more and more critical for admissions. The balance of application factors is shifting to emphasize grades and extracurriculars. 

“I remember when I was studying for [the SAT], that’s all I heard. ‘Sorry I can’t, I’m studying for the SAT.’ When it’s taken away, you have so much more time to embrace something else and do something else. [Extracurriculars] will be much more of a priority to people than it was before,” Chung said.

While grades will still be highly impactful on an application, the extracurriculars are what stand out about the student. The extracurriculars tell what kind of person the student is, and the grades tell colleges what kind of student they are. 

“The extracurriculars are going to become more important, but grades are going to still be there; you can’t take that away,” Kernen said. “They’re both on equal par; extracurriculars can make the difference between you and another student.”

According to Kernen, colleges want to see “more than just a hard worker;” they want to see someone who did more. The extracurriculars can be a tipping point on an application. 

“The bar is already set high because [other students] tried so hard in school. There’s nothing that makes them a different person from the others, except through outside work. Students need to focus more on getting involved with clubs and getting more volunteer work in because that is what gets you into good colleges,” Chung said.

Being a member for four years and showing commitment to a group can look impressive on an application, Chung also said. Some students do not have the time to lead a club, but they can dedicate themselves for four years and still have a noteworthy application. According to the College Board, commitment to working or volunteering appeals to admission officers. 

“I think doing four years of baseball, versus doing four years of volunteer work for robotics, [robotics] is just as impressive. Maybe even more because things like that require your dedication because there’s no coach… You’re doing it yourself, and you have your own leadership positions. If you ran a club or if you were part of a club, not a school funded club, that’s more impressive than just doing a sport [for four years],” Chung said.

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I think doing four years of baseball, versus doing four years of volunteer work for robotics, [robotics] is just as impressive. Maybe even more because things like that require your dedication because there’s no coach… You’re doing it yourself, and you have your own leadership positions. If you ran a club or if you were part of a club, not a school funded club, that’s more impressive than just doing a sport [for four years].”

— Nina Chung

Just simple participation in a club or other extracurricular is not always enough. Colleges look for upward progression in an extracurricular; they look for student progress and dedication.

“You’re going to have to have a few things where you can stand out… Colleges like to see like a peak somewhere. You have to have that thing you can show, this is an area where you are passionate about, and then you have something to show for,” Kernen said. 

Starting a group, not just joining a few groups, is an important thing that impacts applications. The initiative shown in starting a club or other organization is a crucial factor in college admissions.

“One of the most important aspects of extracurriculars is something that you started yourself… That means don’t just join the group. Start a group. Don’t just participate in a project, start the project, gather momentum, get people to come with you, be a leader, [have a] self-starting attitude,” Kernen said.

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