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The Four Degrees of Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities (ECs) have long been an important component of student’s applications to selective colleges. As students finalize their summer plans, they should be aware that ECs are ranked differently by admissions staff. High school students, including rising freshman, should evaluate how to spend their time outside of the classroom by understanding the four degrees of ECs.

4th Degree

These ECs include general membership in student clubs and sports teams, as well as other casual hobbies. Students entering high school may want to start by trying many extracurriculars to see what they like. But after the first year, they need to focus on those that they enjoy most, and in which they are most talented.

Spike | Hook | Angular | Passion

There are numerous adjectives to describe the unique character colleges like to see in student’s ECs. The idea being that the rarer, the more selective, the higher degree admissions officers assign the activity.

Colleges are looking for students who have developed one or two passions. Why? Because these students have clearly-defined interests and have proven to be successful in them, so admissions staff believe those students are likely to be even more successful in the future.

3rd Degree

Third degree activities include smaller achievements, such as being editor of the school paper or treasurer of the history club. While such accomplishments are commendable and fill out a student’s resume, they are not intensive or unique, nor do they show a student’s passion for a topic.

To step up a degree or two would be attending a prestigious summer program for journalism such as Northwestern University’s High School Institute at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, or have a history article published by the Concord Review which is the only quarterly journal in the world to publish the academic work of secondary students.

2nd Degree

Second degree ECs includes activities that showcase students’ larger achievements, such as being elected student body president. There is prestige in being elected student body president; yet, given that there are just under 40,000 public and private high schools across the country, a student has stiff competition from just this subset of student government stars.

Highly selective colleges are interested in students who have demonstrated depth in their passions. Admissions officers also want to know how a student’s involvement in an activity developed them and what meaning it has for them.

The student who ran for and was elected student body president might demonstrate their interest in politics by enrolling in George Washington University’s summer immersion course, Public Policy on Capitol Hill, volunteer for a local candidate’s campaign for Congressional office, or hold an internship in Washington, D.C. for a congressperson.

1st Degree

In the top category are those activities that are uncommon or extraordinary. For example, a nationally ranked student athlete or individual who attended a top (merit-based) summer program such as the Summer Science Programs at Ojai, California, and Socorro, New Mexico, might fall into this category.

Being on the USA Science Olympiad team, being a U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts winner, or being invited to participate in the Telluride Association Summer Program are more examples of remarkable achievements that are rare and place the student in the top tier of their respective area of interest.

Character Counts

While nearly all ECs reflect well on a college application, some make a far greater impression than others. Students will be well-served by using these gauges as they decide where to devote their time:

Engagement: Is this an activity they are passionate about, can immerse themselves deeply, and will take on additional responsibilities?

Motivated: Does the activity spark a drive within the student to push themselves well outside their comfort zone?

Depth: Can the student commit to a particular activity or involvement for years?

Character traits: Does the activity require the student to be a self-starter, leader, to be creative, curious, or adventurous? Or perhaps a combination of these?

Royal’s Recommendations

Need ideas for 1st and 2nd degree ECs? Follow us on Instagram where we post Royal’s Recommendations every Monday. The posts will highlight top tier programs and extracurriculars that will not just develop students’ resumes, but more importantly, their minds and their characters.


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This blog was written Janice Royal, MA. She is the Founder and CEO of Royal College Consulting.

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