How to evaluate your activities

As students progress through high school, it’s natural to wonder how colleges will perceive your activities. If you ask any college or good college counselor, they’ll tell you that there is no list of required or even preferred activities—colleges want you to make your own choices about how to spend your time. But eventually, those activities will be evaluated in comparison with other students in the applicant pool. So here are three measures you can use to estimate whether or not your activities will get you noticed:

1. How do you spend your time?
“Spending” is the operative word here. Time is your most valuable asset. How you choose to spend it can say a lot about what’s important to you. If you make the choice to spend a good chunk of your time volunteering at a soup kitchen, earning a black belt in karate, or hitting the trails in pursuit of cross-country titles, you’re making a statement to yourself and to others about the importance of those activities in your life. But if you just dabble here and there, if you often start new activities but don’t continue them, or if you feverishly pursue everything possible with seemingly no focus, it’s hard for anyone to tell what actually matters to you. Here’s a past post on evaluating your time, another on the risks of over-scheduling, and a final one on just how ineffective you are if you’re busy being busy (total number of hours by itself isn’t always a good measure of an activity’s value).

2. Do you enjoy it?
When I counseled students, I always liked to ask, “If the state made it illegal for students to pursue activities, which of yours would hurt the most to lose?” A student who shrugged her shoulders clearly wasn’t enjoying what she was doing. But students who lit up about playing the saxophone or mentoring kids or hurling softballs from the pitcher’s mound were making great choices for their personal fulfillment and their college admissions chances. Extracurricular activities are meant to be done by choice (unless you’re working a job out of financial need, which makes the activity even more admirable). Your level of enjoyment is the most important measure. Don’t plod through something just because you think it will look good on a college application. Dive into things that make you happy.

3. What impact have you made?
If you stopped showing up, would your group, team, part-time job, etc. miss you and your contributions? If your answer is yes, you’re probably making an impact. And while you could be the elected club president, the team’s leading scorer, the youngest manager on staff, etc., you could also be the one who draws the cartoons for the paper, who fundraises for new uniforms, or who has a knack for making every customer at the drive-through window smile. Impact is available for anyone, even if you didn’t get elected to office or picked as a starter or promoted up the ranks. Just find areas where your energy and enthusiasm can be put to good use and focus there to do more than is asked or required of you. Here’s a past post on how to measure impact and another on how to show it to colleges.