When I was applying to college, I vacillated between focusing on the hard numbers – the facts, the stats, the algorithm-generated probability that I’d get in – and obsessing over discovering the “indefinable qualities” of each school. Somewhere along that continuum I guess I forgot to really look at the extracurricular opportunities each one had to offer. Other things just seemed so much more important; I had been convinced, by my peers and my culture, that this was the case.

The problem isn’t just that the influence of admissions/applicant culture makes it taboo to focus on anything but prestige and whatever else I was supposed to be focusing on (I forgot). It’s also that, because this culture has created a demand for certain details, aspects of the college experience such as extracurricular opportunities aren’t widely publicized and definitely not synthesized. You might find a few tidbits here and there on forums and colleges’ own websites, but you aren’t encouraged to delve deeper for that information, and it certainly isn’t compiled in as easily digestible forms as SAT score ranges and other statistics are.

On the flip side, maybe part of the reason extracurricular opportunities are so difficult to discern before actually attending college is because they are such a nebulous part of the experience. Like I said, they’re somewhere on the continuum between “indefinable quality” and “actual thing.” They can help you get a vibe for the school you’re going to. How varied are the interests of the student population? How receptive is the university to those interests?

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But you could get half of that information from the pamphlets the school mailed you after they got your test scores. If you want to really know what the extracurricular experience is like, you should ask someone who goes to school there – preferably multiple people, so that you can get a better sample of what the university has to offer. You could even call the office of student affairs and see if they’d be receptive to your questions; it sure can’t hurt to try.

Many schools also have some sort of list of recognized student clubs and organizations. Even if you can’t find a current one, you should be able to find an archived one from a few years back. Speaking of archives, a yearbook can be a great place to get a cross section of student life and a glimpse of the extracurricular activities your school of interest has in store.

Great, thanks for the advice, but can I get back to figuring out where I fit, percentile-wise, into last year’s freshman class at Yale?

Yes. You could get back to that. Or you could take a few more seconds and peruse the intramural sports offerings at another college. You could google “unique college extracurriculars” and probably find a listicle about it. You can try any of the strategies in the above few paragraphs, because even just thinking about extracurriculars instead of statistics can be a form of destressing. It takes your mind off of what you’re “supposed” to be thinking about when you’re choosing a college.

It gets really tiring processing these numbers all day, and you don’t necessarily get rewarded for these efforts. One the other hand, thinking about and researching extracurricular experiences can immediately reward you by hinting at a niche and, let’s be real, allowing your tired mind to run wild with imagination.

It’s easy to just sit at your desk and picture yourself going out, making friends, joining a club or a Greek organization, having the time of your life, and finding yourself. It’s fun and unstressful, and that’s good. And in all likelihood that will happen.

But what will it really look like? Will you join Bread Club (I think this is the second post in which I’ve mentioned Bread Club… no regrets) or Skydiving Club? Intramural volleyball or club swimming? Will you be featured in the yearbook or will you write for it yourself? What will you do?

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I could fill this post with a million more demonstrative little questions like that. Many schools have hundreds of active student organizations on campus, and that’s another hidden advantage of taking an interest in exploring them: you’re exposing yourself to the wealth of extracurricular opportunities available to you and showing yourself just how unprecedentedly wide your world is about to become. Unlike college classes and degree programs, extracurriculars are entirely voluntary (although they do look good on a resume), so you don’t need to feel pressured into performing perfectly. They provide a way to “realize your potential” – be it social, creative, athletic, what have you – in a far less stressful way.

So you should definitely care about extracurricular opportunities in terms of planning for your future and making your college list. You can ask questions about these opportunities on tours if you decide to visit. But you should also care because the extracurriculars a person chooses say something about them, at least as much as a major does. Extracurriculars are how you and others choose to spend your precious free time. You can make just as many friends by being involved in the same activity as you can by appreciating the vastly different extracurricular paths you and a classmate are on.

And unlike comparing majors or grades, there’s no competition when it comes to extracurriculars. There is little stress in this arena, not like the imagined pressure of a theater major to somehow measure up to an engineering major. No one will say that your improv comedy group or sports team is “not a real extracurricular” or complain that your extracurricular workload is so much lighter than theirs.

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Perhaps the greatest relief in being involved in extracurriculars is that it’s not the first thing on the inquisitive minds of your well-meaning friends and family. They might ask you how your social life is faring and whether you’ve managed to pick up any hobbies, but they’ll never inquire as to how your club swim meet went with quite the same concern and unwitting expectation as when they ask you how you did on your econ exam.

With a lot of the college application and admissions process, the things you look forward to are also the things that can stress you out: classes, roommates, freedom – it’s all a lot to handle, and all you’re trying to do is make it into college in the first place. Taking an interest in how your college choices stack up from an extracurricular standpoint is something you can do to give yourself a break while still, paradoxically, being extremely productive in terms of both the short-term (picking a great college to apply to) and the long-term (having a great college experience).

There’s a reason the Common Application asks you to list your high school extracurriculars and then asks you whether you’d be interested in continuing your involvement in college. I won’t pretend to know for sure, but I’d guess it’s so that colleges can gauge your excitement and readiness for being an active part of their community. It serves a second function, though. I think it provides an opportunity for you to reflect on the things you enjoy and are passionate about, and for you to sit back and realize just how much fun you’re going to have once admissions season is over.

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Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.