At Empowerly, parents and students often ask us questions about extracurricular activities and how important they are for college admissions. We’ve developed a mental model we call the Activity Matrix to think about the different types of activities.
In this Matrix, we break out the impact of each type of activity and give direction to the frequently asked questions we receive. In this article, we will explain the Activity Matrix and answer the frequently asked questions we get on extracurricular activities for college applications.
The Activity Matrix
We believe there are four types of activities: in school, out of school, social work, and competitions. Within each of these types there are 4 sub-types in which every activity can fall into. Our goal at Empowerly is for students to find activities that actually interest them instead of constructing a story for college admissions.
To accomplish this goal, students need to think seriously about why they like doing what they do in their free time. If they play video games, that is not a bad thing. It is something to explore. We have helped dozens of students with this exact interest find professions and a story in computer science animation, game development, or program management, for example.
Parents sometimes dismiss an interest because it does not seem resume-worthy. It does not stack up to the activity of their friends’ children that have got into great universities. This is the exact opposite way we need to think. Start small, and then work your way up.
On benefit of working with 8th and 9th graders is that we get to watch interests develop and grow. We get to help them form those interests and develop them by using this Activity Matrix. Even if you are in 10th or 11th grade, focus on thinking deeply about your existing activities and building a story around those activities.
One exercise we do with students is listing all of their activities in each of the types and sub-categories in the Matrix above. Our goal is to find activities that align thematically across different types. This is what we call an activity thread. The activity thread is a combination of 2 or 3 activities that link together across types. The thread forms the basis of the Common Application main essay and the thesis that a student writes about.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How important are extracurricular activities?
This is by far the most common question we get asked. We believe activities constitute 50% of an applicant’s admissions chances along with their essays. We can represent extra activities in a pyramid that might help explain this in more detail:
Academics form the base of the successful applicant. Without sufficient grades, it is hard to apply to college. The second layer is activities – an applicant with insufficient activities that tie together or activities in general across the Activity Matrix is difficult to position. If they have good scores and mediocre activities, it can work, but it is harder.
Finally, the type of the pyramid is vision. Applicants must have the ability to understand why they are doing certain activities and reflect on how that shows who they are and who they hope to become. The best applicants have this maturity and it shows through their essays. The brilliance of this pyramid is that any applicant can have all three of these components. It just takes time, effort, and some thought.
Activities are important because they help show admissions officers how you thought and acted on those thoughts in high school. The reflections on actual experiences is what matters as much as the activity itself. This is a key learning that many parents and students underutilize.
2. I am in 11th grade and do not have any activities. What should I do?
Start looking and finding things to express your interests. At Empowerly, we are building a crowdsourced database of activities that will be helpful. Second, most students and parents who say this are not being true to themselves. Students might spend their time doing something not resume-worthy, but in fact, they have great experiences. One example was playing video games. That can be the genesis of a great essay on why the student wants to study animation. The essays are great exercise because they make students reflect more deeply.
3. Are school clubs important?
At the grand scale, there are millions of school clubs. The area of differentiation for most students is the second type of activity in the Activity Matrix – the out of school activities. This bucket allow students to pursue activities at the state and national level, which can help set them apart.
Other awards like National Merit are great but again not a major differentiator. Students and parents should focus on internal introspection on existing activities and building a story across types, and especially in the second key area.
The Activity Matrix is a mental framework we use at Empowerly to help students and parents think through their extracurricular activities – both existing and new. Students can particularly stand out in the second and fourth type of activity, and finding activities can be done through friends, the database we are developing, and by keeping an eye out on local publications. The main thing in extracurricular activities that students and parents often miss is how important reflecting on activities actually is. Reflection and writing on these experiences is as important as actually doing them.
If you have any more questions on admissions, feel free to ask us at www.empowerly.com.