We know that colleges pay attention to students' extracurricular activities when they make admissions decisions. But just how important are these extracurricular activities? Linda Morgan, editor of ParentMap and author of the book Beyond Smart, explains more.

Do extracurricular activities give students an edge for getting into college?

They help kids stand out from the crowd. They can show a student has qualities such as leadership and commitment – and if he's really talented in sports or music, it can demonstrate passion and high ability. But it is just one piece of the whole – and students should remember that academic performance and test scores still are the most important elements in the college app and the high school record.

What are colleges looking for when it comes to activities?

They want a vibrant campus community with intramural sports, musical groups, student government and other diverse activities. An exciting campus can attract more students and provide them with rich experiences. And a student's activities tell schools something about the student. They are a way to help students paint a picture of themselves. A student who works weekly with the elderly or tutors disadvantaged children shows compassion and dedication. A challenging outdoor trip or a service project away from home can show that a student is adventurous.

Is it better to be well-rounded and involved in many activities, or to specialize in one or two?

If you're a sports superstar or you really stand out in any area, you will attract the attention of a coach or a drama teacher or the orchestra conductor – who might become an advocate for you. So – if you excel and are passionate about something, they notice that. But colleges look for authenticity. Don't stick with one high school sport for four years just to show continuity. High school is a time to explore and find exciting interests. Don't fall into the college résumé trap.

What should kids think about when considering extracurricular activities?

Be a leader. Everyone loves leaders, and college admissions teams are no different. If you rise to captain of the crew team or president of the debate club or your church youth group, you stand out.

Use your essay. Go beyond the one-sentence description of your out-of-school activities. Tell the college why you chose to do it, what you learned from it, and how you can use the experience to give back to your community. If you've tried a variety of things but never explored any deeply, explain how that's helped you broaden your horizons.

Jobs count. Not all students have the opportunity – or luxury to participate in sports and clubs. Jobs and home responsibilities also teach great lessons in hard work, perseverance, creativity and other values colleges are looking for. Write about them.

Think passion. Don't invest time in a particular sport, club or activity you think a school will like just to boost your resume. Colleges can see right through that. Don't take oboe lessons because you think Stanford needs an oboe player in their orchestra.

For more information on this and other topics, go to ParentMap.com.

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