Why extracurricular activities are key to top-tier college admissions

Photos from Christopher Rim interview overlaid with graphics
Photos from Christopher Rim interview overlaid with graphics

For many students and families, the college admissions process is both emotionally grueling and mentally exhausting.

As acceptance rates to exclusive schools continue to dwindle, many students are left wondering what it takes to stand out. The pressure to perform academically has been drilled into most students since elementary school. But are good grades and near-perfect test scores all that it takes?

According to Command Education, a New York-based college admissions consultancy agency, it is not.

There are multiple components to a successful application. Students are pushed to achieve a perfect or near-perfect SAT score, take challenging courses (e.g., AP courses or Dual Enrollment) to push their GPA over the 4.0 scale, as well as burn through their laptop keys to craft a 600-word essay that sells their character without sacrificing wit and charm.

Say a student does all these things right; they turn in a stellar essay and lead their class as valedictorian. And when the decision letter comes, they’re still left heartbroken.

According to Christopher Rim, the Founder and CEO of Command Education, this reality is not uncommon. He argues that a student must not only demonstrate academic success, but also exhibit a unique commitment to a hobby, club, or passion — also known as extracurriculars.

New York Post columnist Rikki Schlott sat down with Rim to discuss the ins and outs of the role of extracurriculars in the application process.

Watch the full event above and read on to learn our top takeaways from our interview with Christopher Rim.

How important are extracurriculars in a college application?

“I would say it’s one of the most important aspects of a strong application,” said Rim. “Grades and test scores are the foundation to an application, a strong application. But, in order to get into a top-tier school… you’re going to need more than grades.”

Rim points out that there are roughly 25,000 high schools in the United States, which means there are roughly 25,000 valedictorians. Yale, for example, only admits a little over 2,000 students a year, which means that even top students will be competing against each other.

“So just having the grades won’t get you in. It’s what makes you different. What makes you stand out,” explained Rim. “Extracurriculars play a huge role, and participating in a school club, newspaper club, Model UN, all that is great, but it’s not unique enough, unfortunately.”

Rim emphasizes that students need to select after-school activities and clubs that make an impact on the community and allow their applications to stand apart from others.

Should you have both in-school and out-of-school extracurriculars? Is one more important than the other?

Rim suggests students should have a mixture of both in-school and out-of-school extracurriculars. But what matters more than where they take place, is why the student is involved in them.

“Really follow and really participate in something that you’re genuinely and honestly interested in. Don’t do something because you think colleges will like it,” Rim advised.

The admission expert explains that most colleges will be able to tell when a student is using an extracurricular solely to boost their resume and would prefer to see students doing something genuine. He also adds that students are more likely to succeed when they do something they’re passionate about.

He also suggests that students consider writing about their extracurriculars in their personal statements or supplemental essays.

Are there any extracurriculars that are a waste of time in terms of improving their admissions odds?

Rim has seen many students come to Command Education with detailed, 3-page resumes filled with everything activity they have ever been involved in. “It’s overkill,” he said. “Really focus on just one or two things both in and outside of school, and really show that you’re truly committed to making an impact.”

As an example, he points to one of his clients who had been involved in many entrepreneurship programs at school but wasn’t making much progress. The student had a deep interest in reselling sneakers, so he went ahead and hired people to wait in line at Kith to buy limited-edition sneakers, just so he could resell them.

“He created an entire business around that,” Rim explained. “He attended private school in Manhattan and ended up at Stanford. It shows a different side of a student; it shows that he is a leader, he is a go-getter, and it’s unique and memorable.”

Is there a specific time in middle or high school when you should start thinking forward in the extracurricular world?

Rim said that “everything counts,” beginning in the first year of high school. However, students should expect to try different activities until they land on something that is the right fit. Many kids’ interests will evolve.

“So 8th, 9th grade is really the best time to get started. Sometimes it will take six to 10 months for a student to figure out what they want to do or they might want to change in the middle of you know, starting the project, because they feel like it’s not who they are, they changed their mind, interests,” he said.

Rim suggested that kids pick up extracurriculars earlier than later due to the probability that they may not stick with some activities and need time to try new things.

With in-school extracurriculars, how much does it matter to take on leadership roles within a club versus just being a member?

The admissions expert drives home the point that it is quality over quantity regarding extracurricular involvement. He warns students that spreading themselves too thin could be a turn-off for colleges.

“I would definitely suggest trying to get a leadership role but don’t have like five, six, seven leadership positions,” he explained. “It’s just not possible, and I think colleges will really read that and say that ‘there’s no way that student was a leader of seven clubs, participated in all of these tournaments, also did these outside extracurriculars, and really had a focus.'”

What’s your best advice to make sure the extracurriculars really shine?

“Do something you’re genuinely interested in. Don’t think about the admissions process. We have so many students who say ‘I should do model UN, newspaper club, student government,’ because that’s what they think colleges want to see,” he admitted.

In Rim’s experience, the students who stand out the most have proudly followed their interests, no matter how specific or seemingly ‘non-academic’ they are. Many of his clients have created their own platforms on social media to share their interests with the world. One successful student began using her YouTube channel to review makeup accounts. Rim encouraged her to lean into this on her application.

“You know no other college counselor is going to recommend that. We told the student to do that, and Kylie Jenner, for example, sent products to the student to review on her YouTube channel. It has to be unique. It has to be authentic, because that is what is going to make you memorable,” he concluded.

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