Do Activities Really Matter – Or Are They Just Formalizing Fun?

At a recent professional conference for educational consultants, I attended a phenomenal presentation about the hyper-education of American students. Families are enrolling children in academic enrichment programs and hiring tutors as early as age three, believing that academic accomplishment is the key to future success. In college admissions, academic achievement is, without question, the single most important actor in the admissions review; admissions officers pay close attention to a student’s transcript, that is their grades and course rigor, in the context of their high school. Standardized tests, if required and submitted, can help admissions officers determine academic potential as well.

But college admissions is about much more than grades and test scores. An admissions dean at a highly selective university one described the review process as choosing the interesting kids from among the smart skids. So what makes a kid interesting? Sometimes it is connected to academic achievement – a student who exudes intellectual curiosity, who has engaged in research, who writes and publishes poems and short stories. But sometimes, in fact usually, what makes a kid interesting is connected to what they do outside of the classroom.

Whether in sports, the arts, community or religious activities, volunteering, or working, non-academic pursuits are not just another way to have “fun.” These activities allow students to differentiate themselves from their peers and to develop skills that colleges (and later on employers) value: leadership, adaptability, resilience, and grit. In activities, students learn teamwork, cooperation and collaboration; they learn how to listen, and how to advocate. They have experiences that make them interesting.

Activities are also important because they give students space for “flow” experiences. The concept of “flow” refers amental state where one is completely absorbed in an activity and deriving pleasure from it. (Check out this article, What is Flow in Psychology?, for a deeper discussion of “flow.”) When students have flow experiences, they are better able to think thoughtfully about what they enjoy doing, information that can help inform what they want to study in college.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, over 30% of students change their major at least once and about 10% of students change their major twice. This can be a costly change if students are unable to complete their undergraduate studies in four years because they switch majors. While participating in flow activities does not guarantee that students will not change their majors and graduate on time, it can help them get some clarity around the perennial questions: what do you want to study, what do you want to do with your life?

Thinking about it this way, extracurricular activities really are not “formalizing fun.” Rather, participating in activities helps students mature into young adults, to sift through the noise as they explore their aspirations for college and the future. And, participating in activities may have the added benefit of helping a student be the interesting applicant who the college admissions officer just has to have on their campus.