Extracurriculars are a significant part of your college application, and just participating in an extracurricular is not enough. Colleges don’t want participants. Colleges want leaders. If you want to stand out, it’s not sufficient to be the president of a club. Colleges want leaders who take initiative and get their goals accomplished.
Why Is Leadership Experience Important?
Demonstrating leadership is one of the most important parts of your college application. It's almost required to get into a top college, and having great leadership experience can help compensate for another area of your application that isn't quite as strong as you'd like it to be. Admissions officers like to see students take control in their high school extracurricular activities and show off their leadership skills.
Why do admissions officers care about leadership? Colleges hope that the applicants they admit will go on to be leaders on their campus and leaders out in the world. Colleges want their alumni to have a significant and beneficial impact on the world. Admissions officers use your high school extracurricular activities as a way to judge if you have the interest and ability to be a leader.
What Is Impact?
Impact is making a real difference: leading your club to raise $5,000 for breast cancer research, leading your team as captain to the national championship, leading your club to collect 1,000 cans of food to donate to your local food back, etc. In general, your impact should be measurable by a number amount (i.e. $1,000 raised or 500 students attended the event) or by meeting a big goal (i.e. getting to the state or national level of competition). You should be able to say, "Under my leadership, the student council raised $5,000 to make prom free for all students" or "Under my leadership, our math team went from not making the regional competition to winning the state championship."
How Can You Get Leadership Experience?
If colleges want to see meaningful leadership experience, you should try to get it! But how can you become a leader? Your first thought might be to think of traditional high school leadership activities such as being on student council. Student council is not necessarily the best leadership experience for all applicants. There are many other ways to show leadership. Below, I give you my top four options:
Option #1: Become a Board Member, Club President, or Team Captain
You can become club president or team captain by getting good at whatever the main club activity is, cultivating relationships with teammates or other club members, and doing more work than is just required. Show that you're willing to do more work than expected by offering to help with the events (come early, help with set up/organizing, help with clean up, etc.).
Don’t expect to become club president immediately as a freshman. I recommend you try to work your way up to becoming a top leader in the club. Start in a smaller position such as secretary or treasurer your freshman or sophomore year, and then move up to vice president and then to president. All during this time you need to be making relationships with teammates or club members and show you're willing to work hard. That was my strategy to become my high school’s student government president, and it worked!
Option #2: Start a New Club in Your Area of Interest
Before founding a new club, brainstorm what you'd want that club to be, come up with ideas for what the club's purpose would b,e and talk to people with similar interests to see if they'd be interested in the club. For more information, read about how to start a club in high school and check out our list of clubs to start in high school.
If you’re nervous or unsure about starting a new club, consider first trying to plan a new event or project for an existing club. For example, if a math club exists, consider planning an event at which the math club offers free tutoring to other students struggling with math. If your planned event goes well, you’ll feel that much more confident and ready to start your own club.
Option #3: Lead a Project in Your Area of Interest
Before leading a project, you should help a current club or charity plan an event or host a fundraiser. That way you can learn how to organize a successful event or fundraiser. You'll see how that person did it, get advice, and see how successful they are. Talk to classmates about what kind of fundraiser they'd enjoy, and see if any classmates would be interested in helping you.
Option #4: Increase Participation in an Activity
In order to make a real impact, I'd suggest trying to get the number of participants or attendees for a club, fundraiser, or similar event above 50 (100 or more is better). Before you attempt to increase participation, you need to see how that event or club runs. Offer to help the person currently responsible for planning that event or the person who is responsible for club recruitment. See what they do that works and what they do that doesn't. Ask people who attend club events what they liked, disliked, and what suggestions they have for improvement. Take all of this into consideration when trying to increase participation in a club or event.
Tips on How to Follow Through With Your Leadership Activity
Once you narrow down your choices to the final one or two that you’ll do, how should you go about actually developing your leadership in these areas? I recommend writing down what you plan to do on a piece of paper and putting it somewhere important (like your desk) where you’ll see it every day, so it’ll keep you motivated. Tell your parents/guardians about your goal. They’ll be impressed, and you’ll be more motivated now that they know your plan.
Create a timeline of goals or an action plan to meet in order to execute your plans. Start with today (whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior) Create actionable goals for today. Make these something you can do right now: “I’ll join the math club.”
Create goals for later this year. Once you join some organization(s), you can then start looking for or creating leadership opportunities: "I'm going to run for math club treasurer."
Next, create goals for next year (and every year you have left of high school) to build on that initial leadership experience and expand your impact. “I’ll run for math club president, and I’ll start a charity drive for graduating seniors to donate their calculators to students who can’t afford one. I’ll recruit other math club members to spread the word about the calculator donation drive by making announcements in their classes and giving fliers to their teachers to put up in their classrooms.”
Why is creating a timeline or action plan important? It’s easy to procrastinate and avoid taking the leap to becoming a leader. It can feel daunting. It’s hard to imagine being elected president of a club when you’re not even a member yet or when you haven’t held a position or planned an event. However, your action plan should show you that your goal is achievable! You just need to take the appropriate small steps to get there.
Dora Seigel is an online blogger and expert ACT/SAT Tutor