For Montclair Local


Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Check out the archives for her tips on building a college list, writing a meaningful essay, and more at For information on essay coaching, visit, and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram.


Implicit in the list-your-activities section of virtually every college application is the expectation that you are or should be involved in many extracurriculars. With eight or more blank spaces on most forms, that’s a tall order for many applicants.

If you’re someone who really does participate in several extracurricular activities, congrats. Before you fill out your activity list, however, weigh quality over quantity, be confident your involvement in each activity is meaningful, and give some thought to how your list reflects who you are. The last thing you want is for an application reader to wonder whether you’re spreading yourself too thin or, worse, padding your resume.

What if you’re not much of a joiner? Is that going to be a problem when applying to college? Possibly. Application readers rely on the activity list to help them identify certain qualities in each applicant, like whether you’re a team player and how dedicated you are to your special interests. Independent college consultant Carolyn Caplan ( points out that getting involved needn’t mean running every club in your high school if that’s not your thing. “Share your gifts at a retirement home,” she suggests as one alternative. “Play an instrument, teach how-to-use-an-iPhone classes, or write down residents’ stories and return to perform a show with those stories in song or poetry.” Carolyn also likes to see paid work on student lists. ”Whether you’re scooping ice cream or camp counseling, you’re demonstrating independence, resilience, flexibility and willingness to get out of your comfort zone.”





Colleges also look to activity lists for examples of leadership. Fair enough, although not everyone wants to organize a protest march or build a tutoring business or become editor-in-chief of the school paper, roles that obviously check the leadership box. That said, a strong case can be made for leading by example, even when you aren’t the team captain or club president. Maybe you’re the person who always shows up to club planning meetings and who’s great at recruiting. Or maybe you’re a positive, energetic, and creative force on the cheerleading squad. Consider requesting a recommendation (in addition to those from teachers) from a boss, coach or club advisor who can vouch for your dedication, or use a supplement essay to make the point.

Another reason to put some thought into your choice of extracurriculars is that higher education is not just about your performance in the classroom. Matriculating at a college means joining a community. Application readers look to your activities to discern what your contribution will be to the life of that college. In other words, are you a good fit?

Key to being involved is following your heart. Some activities, like joining an athletic team, happen because you’ve played and loved that sport most of your life. Others may happen serendipitously. A local student I know plays soccer and tennis, belongs to several academic clubs and has formed a band. But a few years ago, he read a Facebook post about Laptop Upcycle, a Montclair-based organization that refurbishes old laptops for distribution to high school students who don’t have computers. He joined, and rehabbing laptops has become a labor of love with several perks, not least the good feeling he gets helping fellow students gain access to the internet. Last summer, he and a friend were even asked to write the curriculum for and teach a coding class, whose students were among the smartest, most creative and funniest people he’s ever met. “When I mention to friends, family, and even strangers that I work for Laptop Upcycle, and I explain our mission, it's incredible how almost everyone immediately asks how they can help,” he told me. “I'm happy that I've had the chance to see the generosity my work inspires in others.”

The bottom line is, getting involved is important, not just for college applications but for college itself — and for life. Whether with family, fellow students, or co-workers, being involved tends to make us more productive, more fulfilled and part of something bigger than ourselves. But the best reason to get involved is the friends you make along the way. You can never have too many of those.