If you have ever played any sport in your school, competed in a mathematics olympiad, or sung in the school choir, then you have most certainly been involved in extracurricular activities .
Extracurricular activities are any activities that you do consistently besides your academic work. In most African countries, students generally have a chance to take part in activities such as athletics, student leadership, music, science competitions, and debate. While these activities rarely contribute to the admissions process in African universities, they are crucial in the admissions processes of most North American colleges, particularly in the United States.
If you are an African student who is considering pursuing higher education outside of the continent, you therefore ought to pay attention to your involvement in extracurricular activities.
In the United States, universities use a student’s extracurricular profile to gauge qualities such as initiative, leadership, and persistence. In a pool where students have similar academic grades, extracurricular activities are useful in differentiating students.
Additionally, exceptional performance in extracurricular activities can be useful in obtaining athletic scholarships—some colleges set aside scholarships specifically for students who are highly gifted in areas such as baseball and basketball.
How will Colleges Determine the Value of my Extracurricular Activities?
Some students think that what matters most is having dozens of extracurricular activities. This is not true. International universities, particularly those in North America, value depth of your extracurricular activities – not just the breadth. Depth simply means that you have spent substantial time in a given extracurricular activity. It means you commit several hours per week on the activity and that you have made some notable achievements in it.
For example, if the activity is debate, you spend between five to ten hours per week on it and you have attended and been recognized in several regional, national and international competitions. It is better to have a few extracurricular activities with depth because this demonstrates your ability to concentrate and excel in a particular field. On the other hand, if you take part in dozens of extracurricular activities and you stand out in none of them, this will portray you as someone who is unable to focus and excel in a given area. This will reflect poorly on your candidacy for admission to the college of your interest.
How Many Extracurricular Activities Will I Need?
There is no particular number of extracurriculars that you need to meet. However, if you plan on applying to universities in the United States and Canada, it is a good idea to have between five and ten significant extracurricular activities. If you are using the Common App platform to apply for American universities, you will be allowed to add up to ten activities. You will also be expected to put the amount of hours you spent on each activity and any awards you received. In other application platforms, such as the University of California system application, you will be allowed to add up to twenty extracurricular activities. For most Canadian universities, you can add up to five activities.
As stated above, remember quality is more important than quantity – so do not attempt to put in everything you have ever done in your life. Just focus on recent activities that you have done consistently and in which you have earned some recognition at the school, regional, or national level.
What Are the Best Extracurricular Activities I Can Participate In?
There are many types of extracurricular activities that you can participate in to boost your application. Below we highlight some of the main ones:
One of the most popular extracurricular activities is athletics. Athletics consist of everything from soccer, basketball, track and field, rugby, volleyball and similar games. Most secondary schools and universities in Africa have competitive teams in the above activities and they regularly hold regional and national tournaments. Joining a team in one of these and taking part in these tournaments is an excellent way of showcasing your discipline, persistence, and focus when the time for college applications comes. In addition, if you get a chance to lead the team as a captain, that will be a good way to demonstrate your leadership skills which international universities value highly.
Music and Dance
There is a wide range of activities that you can participate in within this category. You could join a choir in your school, play an instrument such as the guitar or drums, or be a member of a dance group. As long as you do these activities consistently and ideally get some awards or other forms of recognition, they will reflect positively on your college application. Some universities will even give you a chance to send them samples of your work – whether that is a piece of dance choreography, a vocal performance, or a song you have written.
Science and Technology
If you are particularly gifted in the sciences, there are many activities that you can be part of besides academics. For instance, most secondary schools hold mathematics competitions and science contests at the school and regional level. Attending these competitions is a good way to showcase your aptitude in these areas. In some schools, students also get a chance to participate in science fairs where they present innovative solutions to specific problems. Gaining recognition in these competitions and fairs is a good way to enrich your application profile – students who have shown exceptional skill through their participation in science fairs and competitions make for good candidates especially in science-oriented universities such as MIT and California Institute of Technology.
Community service involves volunteering in a cause that you care about. While this is not a very common activity in African schools, you should consider taking part in it if you get a chance because it shows initiative and concern for your community. There are many ways in which you can perform community service. For instance, you could be a volunteer teacher at a local elementary school, you could help elderly people with basic chores, you could participate in beach cleaning, etc. Any activity that contributes to the improvement of a community and which you do on a voluntary – rather than paid – basis, is fair game for this category.
Politics and Student Leadership
Being a leader in your school is a great way to improve and demonstrate your leadership abilities. Depending on the school you attend, you can become a student leader either through elections or appointment by your teachers. Regardless of how you become a class prefect, a school captain, a house captain, or any other sort of leader, this is an important opportunity that will reflect well on your college application. Similarly, taking part in activities such as the Model United Nations where you get a chance to debate and learn more about world politics is good for your extracurricular profile. In some schools, being part of the Model UN is a good way to attend regional and national events where you are able to showcase your political knowledge and presentation skills. Any recognitions and awards you get in these activities will be valuable for your application.
Jobs and Internships
As a student, you may not have the time to pursue full-time employment. However, during holidays and weekends, you may have the opportunity to take a part-time job or internship. Jobs usually pay a wage as specified by the laws of the place you are working at, while internships may or may not offer you a stipend. Jobs and internships are especially good for your college application profile if they are related to a field that you want to pursue in college. For example, if you want to pursue a career in film, having some internship experience in a cinema or a film studio reflects well on your profile. Similarly, if you are hoping to pursue a medical career, having some experience working or interning in a hospital or a clinic shows the admission officers just how serious you are in your goal, and this can only boost your chances of gaining admission to your desired institution.
While not much detached from regular academics, academic clubs are part of extracurricular activities because they are something you do out of your own volition and without getting any kind of academic credit. Examples of academic clubs include the Philosophy Club, the Mathematics Club, the Geography Club, etc. As a member of these clubs, you get a chance to discuss topics of interest with fellow-minded students and dive deeper than you would normally do in a classroom setting. Just like participating in science fairs and olympiads, being a member of these clubs shows the admission officers that you care deeply about your field of interest and that if you were admitted to the degree program you are applying for, you would most likely do well.
If you love words and language, writing is a great extracurricular activity for you to consider. You could, for instance, write for your school magazine, and if there is none, you can create one. Writing is one of the most critical skills – and colleges, especially the ones in North America, place special emphasis on it. Writing or editing for your school newspaper or magazine is an excellent way of strengthening your writing skills. In addition, you can write fiction, poetry, and essays and take part in writing contests. Some universities will give you a chance to submit samples of your writing to be considered along with the rest of your application materials.
Extracurricular activities are a central part of the application process to international universities. If you want to stand out from the pool of applicants, it is crucial to ensure that you participate in a range of extracurricular activities and gain substantial recognition in them. This will be a good way to tell the admissions committees that you are indeed a candidate who takes initiative and is capable of focusing and excelling in a specific area.
What matters most is the quality of your involvement – not the quantity, so pick a few areas of your interest and excel there. This will reflect better than juggling twenty different activities.
Curious about how else you can strengthen your college application? Check out our guide on applying for scholarships as well as our step-by-step guidance on crafting a powerful university application essay.