US Colleges and Universities and Extracurricular Activities

The “Liberal Arts” model of education favored by many US colleges and universities promotes the development of critical thinking and the broad value of learning from one’s peers over direct training for any one profession or career. As a result, admissions to many of these schools can seem opaque, and at least equally focused on broader intangible qualities as on objective academic criteria, which are so much more heavily weighed in other systems around the world. 

The value of liberal arts has led US uni’s to seek campuses full of diverse people, interests, talents and backgrounds in order to promote that sense of broad learning both in and out of the classroom. So it makes sense that US unis also value students who have excelled in diverse activities both in the classroom and out.  Because the US uni admission process values the work students do outside of the classroom, international students interested in studying in the US must commit themselves to diverse activities that represent their interests and strengths outside of being a student in their academic programs.  

So, how should international students think about their own extracurricular engagement as they prepare to apply to US colleges?  Here are some helpful things to remember:


  1. Quality over quantity.  Activities in and of themselves do not have inherent value.  It is how they fit into the broader narrative of each student’s journey through high school that impacts the admissions process.  There’s no reward for having the most activities (the Common App allows you to list no more than ten). So pursue meaningful experiences that fit into, and grow, the story of your life.


  1. Do things you like, or even love, and make an impact in some of them.  There’s no formula — how activities will be viewed in the context of your journey starts with how they fit into your experiences and your story.  


  1. Depth over breadth.  Long-term commitment tends to yield greater impact, and that’s where the greatest student growth occurs.  Numerous brief commitments tend to portray an effort to collect achievements, or to fill a CV. Admission offices look down on “resume building” and prefer authentic student commitment. If you are thinking about applying to US universities early in your high school career, then finding ways to make an extracurricular impact over a longer time is worth prioritizing.


  1. Context does matter.  If you are attending school in an environment where there are very few clubs or opportunities outside of class, then you will not be expected to have the same extracurricular profile as someone in a US independent school overflowing with club and team opportunities.  That said, do what is available to you — join that Model UN group, become a peer tutor, play on school teams or in school bands and orchestras. Create that fundraising effort to make equipment available to under-resourced students in other communities or parts of the world.  


Make your school and/or your community a more vibrant place, then talk about it in your application process. The good news is that a lot of the US university application process values what students naturally love to do. So when you are approaching your time outside of class focused on your own fulfillment and impact, the benefits to you, to your school, to your community, and to your world go far beyond your own application’s fortunes — they make for happier, healthier students!

About The Author

Peter Olrich, MBA