Standing Out From the Crowd: Extracurriculars for the International Applicant

Over the past twenty years, international student enrollment in the United States has doubled. With the proliferation of the Common Application and a concerted push by universities to attract a talented and diverse group of students from across the globe, what was once a straightforward path to US universities has now become more competitive than ever for international students.

Throughout the course of the year, I am fortunate to meet with and present to groups of students, parents, and schools on the value of attending a US university and the process by which to apply. From lecture halls at Yale University, to schools in Switzerland, Brazil, and Jordan, I am often asked how students can successfully make their applications stand out from the tens of thousands of other students applying to universities in the States. While there is no magic elixir to find your way to a US university, by ensuring that you have a well-balanced extracurricular profile, you will enhance your chances considerably.

The Extracurricular Challenge:
Most US students are encouraged, from a young age, to participate in sports, music, the arts, and community service. As such, programs to support these initiatives are often easily accessible either at school, through after-school programs, or through well-established clubs and organizations. In fact, schools will often build time into the curriculum to allow students to pursue their non-academic passions.

Internationally, students typically have fewer school-sponsored opportunities in this regard. For some, it is because extracurriculars are not a point of emphasis, and for others, following a curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate, the Swiss Maturité, or the German Abitur, and the significant time commitments required to achieve success in these programs, makes pursuing extracurricular extremely difficult.

The Extracurricular Solution:
Despite these challenges, we encourage students to make it a priority to explore extracurriculars to both enhance their university profile and to pursue activities that enrich their daily lives. In the university process, students will commonly be asked to list 10 activities they have been involved in during their high school years. What’s more, many universities have supplemental essay questions which ask students to describe an extracurricular activity they have enjoyed the most or one that has had the greatest influence on them. Finally, as university admission officers review applications, you will be differentiating yourself from the crowd by providing a robust list compared to many other international applicants.

Tips for Building Your Extracurricular Profile:

  • Start Early! Begin with extracurriculars as early as possible in your high school career
  • Focus on finding 2 or 3 activities you can commit to over a long period of time
  • Choose something you enjoy! Pursuing your passion is a mantra of American universities
  • When possible, strive for achieving balance – sport, arts/music, volunteer work
  • Use your summers and holidays to explore new opportunities
  • Get a job! Universities value students who work and can demonstrate responsibility
  • Be Bold & Demonstrate Initiative! If an opportunity doesn’t exist – create one!
  • Perspective is Key – extracurriculars should never take away from your studies

Next Steps:
Like many things in life, the most difficult part of getting involved in extracurriculars is simply getting started. We encourage you to first think about what you would enjoy doing, and then begin doing research on opportunities that exist. Start small, but think big! Local opportunities are often easiest to find, but there are many excellent programs at US universities, or in other locations, where students can explore their talents and interests, and find new ones. The team at McMillan Education is here to assist you and can direct you towards various summer programs that are listed in our OWL Portal.

Armed with this information, we hope you will be bold and begin exploring your own extracurricular opportunities to help you stand out amongst the international crowd!

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