Guide on Extracurricular Activities

Guide on Extracurricular Activities for High School Students

by Becton Loveless

Just about every high school in the United States offers students the opportunity to participate in some sort of extracurricular activity, whether it be sports, music, theater, academic clubs, student government or special interest group. Unlike traditional high school curricula that focuses almost entirely on academics, extracurricular activites help student learn the values of competition, teamwork, individual initiative, group responsibility, sense of community, endurance, diversity and even interpersonal communication skills. Extracurricular activites also help to reinforce skills and lessons taught in the classroom. For example, students who join the business club will learn how to apply various mathematics concepts in a real-world context. Science clubs provide a channel for students to enhance their knowledge and understanding of concepts they learn in biology, chemistry and natural science classes. Most school consider extracurricular activity part of a well-rounded education.

Studies suggest that there are many ancillary benefits to high school students who participate in extracurricular activities, such as a lower drop out rate, greater sense of attachment to their school and an enhanced feeling of acceptance and belonging. If participation in extracurricular activities has such a positive impact on student success, should these programs be made available in all public school systems?

Topics on this page:
> Does Participation in Extracurricular Activities Improve Students' Performance in School?
> Benefits of Extracurricular Activities
> How Participation in Extracurricular Activities Affects College Admission
> Examples of Types of Extracurricular Activities
> Dangers of Overdoing It

Does Participation in Extracurricular Activities Improve Students' Performance in School?

The National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), a brief that explores relationship between between extracurricular activities and participation in school, suggests that extracurricular activity is positively associated with consistent attendance, higher academic performance and a strong desire among high school seniors to continue their education after high school. In fact, high school seniors who regularly participated in extracurricular activities reported the best class attendance–with over half reporting no unexcused absenses and having never skipped a class. Compare this with only one-third of nonparticipating students reporting having no unexcused absenses and only two-fifths reporting having never skipped a class. When compared with students who did not participate in extracurricular activities, participating students were three times as likely to be in the top 25% of their class in both math and reading assessment. The brief also showed that roughly two-thirds of students who participated in extracurricular activities were expected to completed a college degree, while only fifty percent students who didn't participate in extracurricular activites where expects to go on to college.

(Note: The data provided by the NELS brief does not conclusively show that participation in extracurricular activites leads to success in high school. It can also be argued that successful students are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities than unsuccessful students.)

The table below shows percentage of high school seniors participating in extracurricular activities vs high school seniors not participating in extracurricular activities across selected indicators of school success

Indicators of school success Participating Non-participating
GPA of 3.0 or higher 30.6 10.8
Top 25% in math and reading assessment 29.8 14.2
Plan on earning a college degree 68.2 48.2
No unexcused absense* 50.4 36.2
Never skipped a class* 50.7 42.3

* During the first semester of their senior year in high school

Do All Students Have the Opportunity to Participate in Extracurricular Activities?

A survey of high school seniors throughout the United States indicated that extracurricular activites, at some level, are provided in just about every public high school nationwide. Those extracurricular activities most reported include performing arts, honors society, sports/athletics, publications, student government and academic clubs. Other, less popular extracurricular activities reported include professional clubs and hobby clubs. Interestingly, schools with afluent students as well as those serving poor students reported similar availability to extracurricular activities. Large schools (750+ students), small schools (under 150 students), rural schools, urban schools, suburban schools and minority schools all reported access to core extracurricular activities such as sports, honors society and student government.

The Real Value of Participating in Extracurricular Activities

Although there is no conclusive evidence that participation in extracurricular activities leads to success in high school, it is evident that there is strong association between participation and success. Students who participate in extracurricular activities, across the board, have better attendance, higher levels of achievement, and aspirations of attending college.

There is however a strong correlation between college acceptance, scholarship and participation in extracurricular activities. In addition to academic performance, college admission boards want to see accomplishment, initiative, commitment and leadership in their applicants. Participation in extracurricular activities at the high school level can make the difference between getting in or not getting in to many colleges, and extracurricular achievement is often the key to qualifying for merit based scholarships.

Benefits of Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are clearly much more than just a resume builder (although that’s an obvious benefit), and as a teacher I’ve seen how they can be the one thing that gets students to school every day. Ask any high school student what their favorite part of school is, and more often than not, you’ll hear about drama club or football games, not first period math. Although extracurricular has the prefix “extra,” they are anything but. These activities teach fundamental skills in a way that can stick with students forever. So what exactly are those benefits?

They develop communication skills

Whether it’s calling a coach or adviser, solving a problem with teammates, or planning events, extracurricular activities give students more opportunities to communicate with others than they would have otherwise. Many activities also give students a chance to practice their public speaking skills, whether it’s pumping up the team before a game or giving a speech at Academic Decathlon.

They teach teamwork and leadership

Other than the occasional dreaded group project, students could get through school pretty easily without learning a whole lot about teamwork. That is, unless they join a club or activity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “For some students, social interaction in extracurricular activities is their first experience working with others toward a common goal. And teamwork is an important skill that most instructors and employers view favorably.”

Students in extracurricular activities have many opportunities to practice being leaders: captains, officer positions, organizers or leaders of events, even mentoring younger students, athletes, or club members. As a leader in an extracurricular activity, students get a taste of what it’s like to lead a company or direct a group of colleagues--all in a low-stakes and fun environment. You can’t learn what it truly means to be a leader by sitting in a desk listening to other people all day.

They encourage time management

I can remember when I was in high school, I actually buckled down and did my homework more on the days when I had a game or practice. When you know you’re busy and have to manage your time, it motivates you to get organized and get things done. Having this structure in your life can be very beneficial, and according to speech language pathologist and former teacher Rachel Cortese, “kids tend to do really well when they have structure, and part of that structure is having an after school schedule.”

These time management skills help students do well in school as they plan their day to get everything done, and they also translate to the real world when teachers, coaches, and parents aren’t there to remind them every day of what needs to get done.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics echoed this sentiment; “Researchers found that self-motivation is a factor: Achieving success in an activity that interests them requires students to develop good time-management habits that carry over into schoolwork.”

They boost confidence

The more students work on the skills they develop through their extracurricular activities, the more the have a chance to build their confidence in themselves. When students do something well or when they see that they’ve improved over time, they grow confidence in their abilities. Students who have traditionally struggled in the classroom can build confidence when they find success in extracurricular activities.

An article for TeensHealth from Nemours reveals that “Confidence helps us feel ready for life's experiences. When we're confident, we're more likely to move forward with people and opportunities.” As students work to develop their confidence, they start opening the door for more and bigger opportunities.

They give students responsibilities

Whether it’s showing up to practice every day and putting in the hard work so you don’t let your team down or remembering to bring the dip for the culture club party, extracurricular activities inherently come with responsibilities.

Every parent can be heard at one point or another telling their child they need to be more responsible. Most teenagers don’t care about bringing their dirty dishes to the sink, but they do care about their activities. When they have responsibilities related to the things they care about, they’re more inherently motivated to carry out their responsibilities, thus preparing them for the real world where the responsibilities never end.

They force students to face failure and overcome adversity

Losing a game. Not making varsity. Not landing the lead role in the play. Joining a club only to realize it’s not for you. Not being elected president. \

These all sound like things that nobody really wants to experience, but that’s exactly why they’re so beneficial. Nobody seeks out failure, but unfortunately it’s a necessary part of life. When students face these mini failures, they learn how to cope, and they’re then more equipped to handle bigger failures as they go through life.

They Create a Aense of Community

High school can be a very lonely place, especially when you feel like you don’t belong. Studies suggest that the presence of extracurricular activities can help students connect better with their school, creating a sense of community. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that “Recent research suggests that participation in extracurricular activities may increase students' sense of engagement or attachment to their school.”

Anyone who has ever been to a pep rally or seen the community come together to support a production of the drama club has seen this in action. When students have a club, sport, or activity that they belong to, they know that they have a safe place to go to and fit in while they’re at school. This also creates a safe space for students to be themselves and make friends with other students who have similar interests. Often, students make friends with people they might never have met if it hadn’t been for a similar interest in French or community service.

They can get you that coveted letter or recommendation

Whether it’s for a scholarship, a job, or a college application, almost all high school students need a letter of recommendation at some point. Often, students default to asking the teacher of the class where they have their highest grade, which isn’t actually a great strategy.

What students really should seek is the teacher, mentor, or coach who knows them well and can speak to their work ethic, personality, and special skills. More often than not, this is going to come out of a relationship formed outside of a traditional academic class. It’s much easier to write a glowing letter about a student when the teacher or mentor knows them on a more personal level.

They can cut down on risky behaviors

Multiple studies and surveys have found that extracurricular activities can reduce risky behaviors. There are many factors that come into play in this. When students are engaged in extracurricular activities, they have less time to be engaged in risky behaviors, they often have a plethora of positive role models, they feel a responsibility to not let their team or club down, and they want to be at their best to perform well, among other reasons.

One study found that “how students feel about their school environment also impact their risk of delinquent and risky behavior. Students who view their academic environment as positive are less likely to be involved in serious delinquency or risky behavior.” This is just one example of how all the benefits of extracurriculars combine to benefit students. That feeling of community and connection to the school is part of what cuts down on risky behaviors.

How Participation in Extracurricular Activities Affects College Admission

When it comes to college acceptance, most college admission boards aren't as interested in what you do in your free time as much as they are in the extracurricular activities and accomplishments that demonstrate your level of initiative, commitment, accomplishment, and leadership. It's perfectly fine to spend hours on your favorite hobby (i.e., video games, crochet, etc.) but it's important that you schedule time on a regular basis to be involved in extracurricular activities that showcase who you are and the direction you're headed.

How Much Is Enough to Get into College?

The answer to this question is, "it depends". The required level of participation in extracurricular activities depends on what college you want to attend, on your academic performance in high school, and whether or not you're looking for a scholarship. When it comes to extracurricular activity, highly competitive colleges, such as Yale and Harvard–with admission rates right around 8%–are going to have much higher expectations of applicants than schools like Kansas State University, which accepts virtually everyone that applies. If you graduate summa cum laude, have an academic GPA of 4.0, and complete several AP classes in high school, having a stellar record of extracurricular achievement will probably qualify you for various scholarships but isn't necessary for admission to college. If you have a GPA of 3.5 and want to attend a top ranked college, then demonstrating ability and accomplishment through participation in extracurricular activities becomes much more important. For those seeking competitive merit-based financial aid scholarships, participation in meaningful extracurricular activities can be vital.

What College Admission Boards Are Looking For

When college admission boards evaluate an applicant's involvement in extracurricular activities, there are few specific things they're looking for:

Commitment

Whatever extracurricular activities you're involved in, you want to demonstrate you were a committed and dedicated participant. College admission boards are much more impressed with depth than breadth. Belonging to 10 school clubs, where your level of participation did not extend beyond attending weekly meetings, is not nearly as impressive as belonging to 1 or 2 clubs where you were nominated president, put in charge of managing major projects, or made noteworthy and meaningful contributions to the success of the club.

Leadership

Leadership is a vital skill and attribute in today's world. Every organization, whether commercial, non-profit, religious, educational or volunteer in nature depends on leaders. Colleges are looking for applicants with leadership experience and demonstrable leadership skills. If you can demonstrate through involvement in extracurricular activites that you're a leader, it will go a long way toward getting you into the college of your choice. More prestigious and selective colleges are going to carefully evaluate your leadership experience and potential. Getting involved in student government or taking on a leadership role in whichever club you choose is a great way to showcase your leadership ability.

Balance and Diversity

Colleges are looking for diverse, well-rounded applicants that bring something unique and original to the table. Getting involved with the drama club in high school can be just as powerful as playing on the football team when it comes to college admission–especially if you excel at drama but are only so so on the football field. Showing meaningful and commited volunteer work with scouting, church groups, community centers, boys and girls clubs, tutoring, etc. suggests to admission officers that your horizons extend beyond the academic.

Dedication and Involvement

Demonstrating hands-on involvement in extracurricular activities is key to the college admission process. Admission officers are adept at differentiating between the applicant who occassionally showed up to support the high school band and the applicant who spent every Saturday for six months organizing a science fair. Students who can demonstrate real involvement in extracurricular activities are much more likely to impress college admissions officers.

Specialization

Being talented or unique always captures the attention of admission officers. It goes without saying that being a star quarterback on your high school foot ball team will take you farther than warming the bench for two years as the alternate. Well the same holds true for just about any extracurricular activity. Look for activities where you can excel or stand out from the pack. If you have a talent, develop it and show case it. Like playing the piano? Become the pianist for your church, school or a musical group. Have knack for business, start a home-based business. Entrepreneurship almost always impresses admissions officers–especially when you're successful. Remember, admission officers love seeing exciting and unusual activities on college applications. Step out of your comfort zone. Instead of getting involved with student government, becoming an editor for the high school newspaper, or a yearbook staff member, consider becoming a funk dancer, magician, or maybe even an application developer.

Examples of Types of Extracurricular Activities

So clearly, extracurricular activities are great, but not everybody is made to be on the football team or debate club. Fortunately, even small and rural schools have a plethora of extracurricular activities to choose from. Of course, what is available depends on the school but at many schools, teachers are even willing to help students set up activities if there is enough student interest. Below are just some examples of the many extracurricular activities schools might offer.

Clubs/Organizations

  • Key Club
  • Student government
  • Foreign language clubs
  • Chess club
  • Subject specific clubs (history club, creative writing club, etc.)
  • Yearbook
  • Journalism
  • Travel club
  • Gay-straight alliance club
  • Academic Decathlon
  • Religion affiliation clubs
  • Robotics
  • Science Olympiad
  • Robotics
  • Technology Student Association
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • PALS
  • Recycling club
  • Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA)
  • Mock Trial
  • Future Farmers of America (FFA)
  • Odyssey of the Mind
  • National Spelling Bee
  • Film club
  • Culture club
  • Ski club
  • Junior ROTC
  • Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD)
  • Animal rights club
  • Forensics

Honor societies

  • National Honor Society
  • National Art Honor Society
  • National English Honor Society
  • Spanish National Honor Society
  • Mu Alpha Theta (math honor society)
  • International Thespian Society
  • Quill and Scroll (journalism honor society)
  • Science National Honor Society
  • Tri-M Music Honor Society

Sports

  • Football
  • Cheerleading
  • Soccer
  • Volleyball
  • Tennis
  • Wrestling
  • Cross country
  • Track and field
  • Lacrosse
  • Field hockey
  • Hockey
  • Dance
  • Baseball
  • Softball
  • Golf
  • Gymnastics
  • Swimming
  • Diving
  • Basketball
  • Bowling
  • Surfing

Music

  • Marching band
  • Jazz band
  • Concert band
  • Choir
  • Women’s choir
  • Men’s choir
  • Ensembles
  • Orchestra
  • Pit band

Theater

  • Drama club
  • Comedy club
  • Improv club
  • Theatre arts club

What to choose

With so many options out there, choosing an extracurricular activity might be overwhelming. Undoubtedly, each activity has its own advantages. Students should first think about what activities they are passionate about before they think about which ones might help them get into college or which ones all of their friends participate in. Picking an activity that will challenge you can be a good option as well. For example, a shy student who is trying to gain more confidence might join Theatre Arts Club.

Dangers of Overdoing It

There is no denying extracurricular activities are great, but how much is too much? If you’re a student, are you constantly running from activity to activity, getting home late at night with no time to study? Are you in so many clubs, sports, and activities that you can’t fully devote yourself to any of them? If these sound like you, you’re probably overdoing it, and there are some dangers to that.

Your grades can start to slip

This is pretty obvious, but if you start taking on too much and devoting too much of your time to your extracurricular activities, something has to give and you grades will probably start to suffer. Most schools have policies in place that don’t allow students to participate in activities if their grades get below a certain point, so there might be some help for this built into the system, although you don’t want to let your grades get to this point. If you notice that your grades are lower than normal of you just don’t have time to keep up with it all, that’s probably a sign you’re doing too much.

You can get burned out

This is a phrase usually reserved for people who are working full time and get burned out at their jobs, but it can absolutely happen to high schoolers as well. According to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, the main warning signs of burnout include exhaustion, alienating yourself, and reduced performance.

Everyone needs some time to themselves, and this is hard to come by if you’re getting up at 5 am for practice before school and not getting home until 9 or 10 pm after a full day of practice, school, meetings, games, and whatever else you’ve piled on your plate. Burnout can also happen if you choose to do activities that you don’t actually enjoy.

You can become pulled in too many different directions

Sometimes, you just need to say no. Once you hit the point where you’re missing practice or meetings because there are scheduling conflicts with all of your activities, you know that it’s gone too far. Being in so many activities that you can’t fully commit to all of them is stressful and it’s not fair to your peers.

Being pulled in too many directions can mean you get pulled away from your family, too. Prioritizing family time is important, but your parents can get frustrated when they turn into a taxi service and never get to spend quality time with you. Dr. Sharon Wheeler, author of a study about extracurricular activities said, “A busy organised activity schedule can put considerable strain on parents’ resources and families’ relationships, as well as potentially harm children’s development and wellbeing.”

What to do

Giving up some of your activities can be a hard pill to swallow, but it might be necessary. Quitting in the middle of a season or project might not be feasible, but when it comes time to sign up again, only pick the activities that really interest or challenge you. If it’s all too much and you can’t wait until seasons or school years end, talk to a parent, guidance counselor, coach, teacher, or mentor about how to lighten your load now. Your mental health is more important than any club or activity.

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