It's hard to make your activities stand out on a college application when you have to list them like this (the numbers are the grades in which the student participated):
Varsity soccer: 11, 12
Key Club: 10-12, President (12)
Spanish Club: 9-12, Treasurer (11)
This student should be proud of his involvement. But it's not going to make him more noticeable than the hundreds of other students in the pile who have similar lists. The problem isn't the activities–it's that the lists all start to look the same.
But what if that student used his short essay to talk about how he organized a fundraiser to bring the entire team to a soccer camp over the summer?
What if he mentioned in his interview that under his leadership, the Key Club raised $2,000 to put on a special prom for special ed students to attend? What if he also pulled up a picture on his phone to show the interviewer the group photo taken at the event?
What if his long essay talked about how 60% of the students at his high school are recent immigrants from Mexico, and how he started a program in the Spanish Club that gave special campus orientations–in Spanish–to new Spanish-speaking students and their families?
He listed his activities just like the colleges asked him to. But now it's clear that he is not like every other student. He used the other parts of the application to share stories that showed exactly what kind of impact he makes on campus. He's left the admissions officers with a snapshot of who he is.
Unless you're going to win an Olympic gold medal or invent a new element on the periodic table, it's hard to do an activity nobody else applying has done. But you can do things in your activities that make you stand out. And you can use the application to tell those stories.