Extracurricular Activities: Our Most Common Parent Questions

by Vinnie Gupta, Co-Founder & CEO of UCEazy

My wife and I are first generation immigrants to the United States. Because we never attended grade school, high school, or undergraduate school in the United States, we had no knowledge or experience making the transition from an American high school into college. With our first child, we had a bad experience. She did many things outside of her academic studies in middle school and high school; however,her extra curricular activities had no plan. As a result, she got into several colleges, but she did not get accepted into any top tier private universities. So, for our second child, we made a plan for his extracurricular activities, and it worked very well. Our main advice for parents is to start as early as the 8th grade with a plan for your child’s extracurricular activities. But how do you create such a plan? That is why we are here. Below, we answer this question and many others that we hear all the time from parents.

How do I know what my child should be doing? How do I make this “plan”?

First, remember this: your child is unique. Not all activities are a perfect fit for everyone.  Athletics, music, and art are the 3 big boxes, but you should think outside the box. Internships and summer camps may or may not be right for your child. How do we know that your child’s time and energy should be spent there? Not everything is for everyone. Your child is unique. Your plan may change several times, but you must have a plan.

Is it mandatory to be in a leadership position from 11th -12th grade?

Nothing is mandatory. There’s no prescription for Extracurricular Activities. Instead of thinking only about “leadership”, go deeper into activity. A child should continue an activity because he or she wants to do those things or because they excel or are gifted at those things. If you are in a leadership role, why would you not continue? What’s stopping you from doing that? If possible, keep the leadership role. If not, it’s ok not to be the President of every club, but stay involved, and stay active.

What if my child is in the 11th grade, and doesn’t have any Extracurricular Activities?

Consider everything your child has done since 7th grade. Anything they’ve done outside of school is Extracurricular Activities. If your child really does not do anything, then yes, it’s time to for them to do something, to get involved. Assess your interests and correct this going forward, or prepare to explain why there’s a blank there.

What about extenuating family circumstances?

Are you a single parent? Was there an event that disrupted your student’s college plans? If your child’s activities outside of academics require them to help with family finances, babysit a younger sibling while you work, or do other such things that don’t allow time for school clubs, that is extremely relevant and important for colleges to know.Those situations should be brought to light and explained as responsible things you’ve done. We all have to adapt and overcome things in our lives. Your child may already be accomplished at doing so. That’s a good thing for a prospective college to know.

What actually counts as Extracurricular Activities?

All of the above. Whether the activity is informal, formal, school-based, outside of school, anything outside of the school day is considered Extracurricular Activities. Jobs, volunteering, helping out a neighbor on a regular basis, babysitting are all Extracurricular Activities. Take a look at everything your child has done and is doing. It might not fit into athletics, music, and art, and that is ok. A great example is reading to young children at the local library during the summer. What a wonderful example of how someone can give their time to unleash a child’s imagination!

What if a child has been pursuing classical dance or martial arts for many years?

Yes! Such activities are very important. These types of pursuits may not have anything to do with a major in chemistry or computer science, but they demonstrate commitment, longevity, discipline, advancement, and a desire and patience for achievement. At some point, if you go deep enough in any activity, then you are an expert and can teach others.

What if my child has no leadership positions in clubs?

Not everyone is the next President, but good people in any organization are valuable. What did your student do in the organization? Being consistent is leadership. Informal leadership is influence. Being an active member of any organization for 2, 3, 4, or 5 years has weight. Not everyone is going to be a leader, and every leader needs the people who are good at getting things done.

My student dabbles in many areas but nothing specific. How do we parents help kids focus?

First, ask yourself this: what freshman has a specific career goal today? The answer is precious few. The Freshman and Sophomore years are times of exploration. Encourage them to branch out. Perhaps have them shadow someone at a job or two for a day to see what they like or – just as important – what they do not like.  Try to get student out of comfort zone to see / try new things. At that age, we really do not know what any child will love or be really good at until they see it done and then do it.

What should my child be doing?

What does your child want to do? Have them try that, if they are not already doing it. Do not try to guess what Stanford wants to see, and then go and try to do that. Stanford might change, then your child has lost a year or more doing something they don’t care about. Your child should do what he or she really wants to do, knowing (because they’re teenagers) that what they love will likely change more than once. If all else fails, get a job!

What Top Tier Colleges are Looking for

Every college has its own criteria for deciding which students they will accept. The top tier colleges start with the academic all stars. Those students make up about ⅓ of every new class. That means the remaining ⅔ are not super smart, but they are doing something. Perhaps they have found a way to solve a world problem, and are pursuing that idea. As parents, unless our children are Valedictorians and Salutatorians, we must outside the box. What can your child do? Can she create an app, start something, solve a problem, find his or her own niche? Athletics, music, and art are the 3 big boxes. So think outside the box. Colleges want to see that you tried. Maybe you failed, but then you tried again. Do that. Explain that to the college. Own it.