UC Admissions 2 of 3: How the UC Reads Extracurriculars

woman holding a sign in protest
Sheelah Bearfoot
Sheelah Bearfoot

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Get the inside scoop on UC extracurriculars from our UC Admissions Expert, Sheelah. She’s seen UC admissions from all sides; she graduated from Cal in 2016 with a B.S. in Genetics and Plant Biology, and has over four years of experience working in UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Admissions Office.

This will be a three-part series, broadly covering the following categories:  1) evaluation of your academic record;  2) evaluation of your extracurriculars; and  3) fine-print admissions questions. Hope this helps clear up some confusion during this stressful process!

Question: How important are UC extracurriculars, particularly for UCLA and UCB?

Very important. Here’s why:

  1. We want to see evidence that you can take initiative beyond the classroom.
  2. It’s very difficult to write a personal statement if you haven’t excelled in anything other than pure academics. You have to demonstrate that you are exceptional in something and passionate enough about it to get involved. UCLA and UCB want students who are looking to change the world.
Question: Do middle school awards count at all? For instance, placing first in the nation in a well-known national competition.

Middle school accomplishments are not considered in the UC application. Getting a good foundation in a particular skill early on is quite valuable, though. This is because that sets you up for success later in high school. Elite private high schools will look at middle school achievements, however, if you are considering that route. Regardless of the utility of a particular award, being first in the nation sounds pretty amazing for its own sake. This is worth it just for building self-esteem and life outside the UC application. Middle schoolers, if you’re going to do a competitive activity (or really any activity), do it to the absolute best of your ability. Parents of middle schoolers, don’t stress out if your kid doesn’t win any awards. This should be a time where students are playing around with various interests and building skill sets.

Question: If we do an internship/job shadowing, should we write it in our personal statements or just list it? Should we write about pre-collegiate programs?

I would advise writing about it in your personal statement if: the experiences were meaningful to you; and the position allowed you to develop or showcase skills that you’re proud of. There will be lots of applications who had an internship at, for example, a community-health-oriented non-profit. An admissions committee will want to hear your specific narrative of the insight you gained. For example, if you gained perspective into how ageism negatively affects the quality of care for chronic pain that seniors receive at X hospital. That’s a lot more interesting than “Volunteer at Mercy Medical Center, July 2017-July 2019.”

Question: Are summer programs like TDP and Cosmos useful in the application?

Summer programs are an excellent way to gain hands-on experience and make connections with professionals in the field. They are useful because they provide those opportunities—but other summer activities that meet those needs (work experience, a self-guided project, etc.) are just as valuable. I encourage everyone to think beyond the application; you’re going to a UC to do something important afterward. Choose summer activities that give you the skills and the background to succeed at what you want to do and allow you to contribute your utmost to your desired field. Please don’t just do something you think looks good to check a box; the admissions office can tell when that’s the case, and we dislike it.

Question: I am from a very rural community and there are very few opportunities for volunteering, summer experiences, etc. Are there ways for me to branch out, and will this affect my application for the worse?

The UC system understands that not all communities or high schools have the same opportunities; we wouldn’t, for example, expect that someone takes six AP classes if their high school only offers two. Students don’t often have control over where they grow up and go to school, and we do not penalize students for going to a high school with limited opportunities. In that case, though, we will want to see that you are using other outlets to demonstrate critical thinking, excellence, and leadership. We want to see that you are maximizing your resources and creating opportunities for yourself where you can.

In this case, you might want to start self-guided projects, see if you can take community college classes or online university classes, get work experience, or start up a community garden. What kind of activities do you already do, that give you perspectives and insights most other applicants wouldn’t bring to the table? You don’t need to have stereotypical UC extracurriculars or experience; there really are no right answers when it comes to that. Whatever you do, we want you to prove that you’re an exceptional person who will be a valuable addition to the campus community.

Note: Over the years, I’ve heard lots of unfair comments that suggest it’s easier to get into a UC if you’re from a community with fewer resources, and that those students have to do less work. This bizarre “greener grass” notion doesn’t reflect reality; the more resources you have at your fingertips, the easier it is for you to demonstrate potential, and the better prepared you are for college.

Question: Is it better to find an internship through a program a company already offers, or take the initiative to reach out to a company on your own?

There’s nothing wrong with doing an internship through a program that is easily accessible to you or already well-established. Demonstrating your initiative by making your own opportunity come to life is always impressive as well. Even in a pre-set, at-your-fingertips kind of program, there are opportunities to demonstrate initiative, perhaps by making their processes more efficient or expanding their market/community outreach. UC extracurriculars look at what you’ve done with your opportunities. At the end of the day, pick an internship opportunity that best provides you with real work experience and allows you to develop skills you’re actually interested in learning.

Questions? Let us know!