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How much do extracurriculars really matter for your college application?

In Extracurriculars, First-Year, Junior and Sophomore.

The impact of extracurriculars on your college application

If the three horsemen of the college application are your transcripts, your test scores, and your essays, then the fourth, baby horseman is your extracurriculars.

The extracurriculars are, in a way, the dark horse (lots of horse references so far) of the application process.

Rumor has it that killer extracurriculars can be enough to bring a non-competitive applicant into the competitive category for even the toughest reach schools. That's because ECs speak to something not reflected anywhere else on the application: one's concrete tendency to act.

Did you balance your academics with job for all four years of your HS career? Did you launch a non-profit, collaborate on unique research with a professor, or even take care of your grandparents twice a week? If so, you are on the extracurricular map.

But how do extracurriculars actually impact the overall application? Are they important? How important?

As always, there are no easy answers. My short answer is that yes, they are important - and can be absolutely decisive for weaker students or competitive students applying to selective schools.

But the importance of ECs for your application somewhat depends on the type of school you're applying to. Let's go through some school types and talk about how ECs fit into each.

Different types of schools have different standards for extracurriculars

Different colleges and universities will have very different selection criteria for their students. Let's consider a few examples of school types and think about how extracurriculars fit into each of their admissions processes.

High-competition public and private schools

The first category we'll talk about are highly competitive public and private schools.

Now, some may argue that it's already a category error to include public and private schools (even highly competitive ones) in the same category. And that's a point well-taken.

Look at schools like Cornell, Williams, Carleton College, and UC Berkeley. Each of these schools will preach a "holistic" review process that considers all facets of an application closely.

These schools give special attention to the context surrounding GPA, test scores, and other numeric factors. Generally, they are closely cued into your extracurriculars.

Part of why these schools commit to holistic review processes is because the students who apply to them are so academically competitive. Over 80,000 students applied to UC Berkeley in the 2020-21 cycle. Almost 75% of those students had GPAs high enough to merit consideration. But the number of students with competitive applications was far greater than the number of admissions positions UCB could have awarded.

So, when a merit-based evaluation reaches its limit, Berkeley will turn to "soft" qualifications such as extracurriculars and essays to make the cut.

It's exactly the same with the other schools I mentioned, and even more so. Berkeley, being a state school, has more stringent quantitative requirements for its applicants that say a Williams College might. Even though Williams is highly selective, because it's an independent private school, it has more latitude to accept students who may be statistical anomalies.

Low or medium- competition state schools

Less competitive state schools may eschew the importance of extracurriculars in the evaluation process. Think about your state's flagship university. In my case, it's the University of California system.

The UC system has nine campuses and collectively enrolls almost 300,000 students at once. But the goal of the UCs isn't just to enroll as many students as possible. Written into its charter is the express mission to educate Californians. The whole system was set up as a pathway for educational attainment and upward mobility for California residents.

To create transparent, public standards for fairness, the UC is bound to a more exact criteria for who gets in and who doesn't. To be considered for admissions, a student needs to show a 3.0 GPA. Students with higher GPAs from California households receive special consideration in the admissions process. But in keeping with the university's mission, so do students who come from first-generation households.

All this is to say that there are pre-ordained criteria for selecting applicants at most state flagships. These criteria limit the impact that an extracurricular section can have on an applicant's chances. In theory, a student with a 2.7 GPA but with AMAZING extracurriculars could earn a spot at Stanford or USC.

At larger state schools, not so much.

Low-competition private schools

At less competitive private schools, extracurriculars matter, but with a caveat. These schools often receive the lowest number of cumulative applications out of any school type. So admissions members have the time and resources to comb through them all with a fine-tooth comb.

Because there are no rigid grade or test score requirements imposed at small private schools, extracurriculars play a more outsized role in admissions outcomes.

At schools that have a 70%+ admissions rate, you may not need stupendous extracurriculars to get in. But if you have 'em, it's a plus, because these schools pay more attention than others. Students with better extracurriculars may jump the line for merit aid consideration at lower-competition private programs.

Extracurriculars mean more for students with weaker transcripts and scores

One other thing I want to get to is the disproportionate effect that strong extracurriculars have for students with weaker academic profiles.

This is completely subjective. I can't tell you with absolute certainty that it's true. But I've noticed that my students who have lower GPAs but exceptional extracurriculars are often able to punch above their weight. Their outcomes are always((Testing annotations)) pretty strong.

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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