Top 12 Extracurricular Activities That Stand Out on College Essays and Applications

One of the most important ways you can stand out from thousands of other applicants in the college admissions process is by highlighting the extracurriculars you’ve been involved with.

This article is for parents who want to help their child choose the best extracurricular activities possible from a college’s perspective. While this applies for 9th and 10th graders, it’s never too late to start! 

What Bores and What Excites College Admissions Officers

When coaching college applicants, I focus on finding extracurriculars that don’t seem like extracurriculars because they require a little more ingenuity, self-direction, and ‘outside the box’ thinking (by the way, these are qualities most colleges look for). 

Admissions officers want to be surprised and inspired. Unfortunately, they’ve already read a thousand volleyball essays and another two thousand robotics essays (no shade on volleyball or robotics, but they’re really common topics). 

If possible, look for uncommon activities adjacent or related to your more common extracurricular, so that when it’s time to write about it, the details and images used will make your essay fun for an admissions officer to read. 

12 Extracurriculars That Help You Stand Out

This list is based on a decade of experience coaching college applicants, talking with college admissions officers, and seeing the results of what works and doesn’t work. In my experience, these are the types of extracurriculars that make an impact. 

  1. Develop a new skill. Learn to moonwalk, tell a better story with toastmasters, pick a lock, solve a rubik’s cube,  juggle, speedread, play the harmonica, japanese flower arrangement, dance, DIY home renovations, calligraphy, or origami. Whatever skill you choose actually qualifies as an extracurricular in the context of an essay. 
  2. Start a micro-business. Making your own kombucha company, a summer house painting operation, have a social media brand for good, or started your own etsy store? Go for it. Learn how about business and marketing by doing it. 
  3. Try something outside your comfort zone. Participating in anything that makes you stretch yourself a bit will expand your self-identity, consciousness, and personal awareness. Going outside your zone of comfort will only help you communicate more effectively and insightfully in your college app.     
  4. Develop a new initiative or campaign for an activity that you’re already in. Make a change. Do something differently. Shake up the status quo. What do you care about? What would make your life, school, community better? Remember to track tangible impact. Admissions loves data and numbers. How many people did you help? How much money did you raise? What improvements were made? 
  5. Produce compelling research. There are plenty of independent research opportunities (check out my list of virtual extracurriculars guide under the research tab)  
  6. Engage in a professional environment.  Whether through an internship or joining a meetup group with people outside your age range, apprenticing with professionals in the field you’re interested in  can give you unusual experience and quite a bit to learn from outside the normal parameters of an extracurricular. 
  7. Create art. Whatever that means to you. 
  8. Be well-read about whatever you’re interested in. Read autobiographies of people you admire. Learn about the subject matter so you have something illuminating to say about what you’ve been doing when it comes to writing essays or being interviewed.
  9. Do something to help save the world. No pressure. I like to think that by composting, learning how to live more sustainably, keeping my carbon footprint low, and maintaining a solid meditation and forgiveness practice that I’m doing my part. But, what does “saving the world” look like to you? Fundraise, learn how to compost in the city, canvas the streets, volunteer for a local political campaign, go vegan? 
  10. Start a group with a social impact mission. Organize friends and classmates to harness the energy of your collective. Focus on something you’re passionate about i.e. cleaning up trash or writing letters to children in hospitals 
  11. Explore spiritual ideas and books. Expand your mind. Develop a meditation practice. Study books from Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, don Miguel Ruiz, Caroline Myss, and Byron Katie. 
  12. No idea where to start? Begin by using this curated list of virtual extracurriculars in every area of study I could think of. 

Real-World Examples

Here are a few examples from former students that have stood out to me and college admissions officers:  

  • Apprenticed as a magician and hosted magic shows in nursing homes. 
  • Ran an anti-bullying campaign at their school 
  • Became a volunteer firefighter
  • Interned at NASA
  • Tutored in prisons
  • Built a solar-powered oven
  • Learned about natural building and built a cobb house in a workshop
  • Led campaign for tampons and condoms to be available in every bathroom at school
  • Restored a boat
  • Participated in Survival Wilderness Training
  • Learned stonework
  • Studied Japanese language through a college-level course and learned the three complex alphabets

This is just a fraction of the unusual extracurriculars some of my students participate in, but you get the idea. 

And guess what? It makes for fun reading. 

How to Get Started

One of the easiest ways to get started is to work with an extracurricular coach, who can help your student with the following: 

  1. Compile a list of talents, interests, and skills using a unique array of assessments
  2. Identify potential areas of study based on results from the above
  3. Point student towards specific uncommon extracurriculars 
  4. Help applying to programs of interest
  5. Plan and implement action steps to further expand upon student’s activities 

You can find my Extracurricular Coaching Services here

If you want to tackle this on your own, I would suggest starting with my List of Virtual Extracurriculars to get some ideas. 

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