In Defense Of Extracurriculars

When I was in high school, I was the president of my school’s Queer-Straight Alliance, the vice president of the Artistic Cooperation Society, and I occasionally attended the Socialist Club and the Feminist Club. I also had a part time job, working Sunday afternoons at an antique jewelry store, and in my senior year, I was nominated to be a GLSEN National Student Leader, meaning that I occasionally did work at other schools, helping them to form their own GSAs.

All of this was time-consuming, especially QSA. I planned lectures, fundraisers, school events, debates. I coordinated our participation in school assemblies. I designed and pitched flyer campaigns. I organized with the Black Students’ Association, the Young Republicans Club, and the Diversity Club to co-sponsor meetings that we hoped would bridge some of the ideological divides between students in our school. I learned how to delegate, how to manage my time, how to work on a team, how to speak in public, how to negotiate with my teachers and school administration, how to respect people I disagreed with, how to cope with disappointment, how to lead. I learned what my principles were and what it meant to stand up for them.

It was, beyond a doubt, the most rewarding work I did in high school. I mean, yes, I do remember the particular pride of studying hard, doing a ton of research, writing out an outline, churning out a paper, and getting an A. But my extracurriculars not only made my high school experience worthwhile, they made me who I am.

So when a high school freshman argues in the Washington Post that extracurriculars shouldn’t be considered in college admissions, just grades, I panic a little. My participation in my extracurriculars was motivated by my interests and by the things I believe are right – but that’s the point. Colleges look at extracurriculars because extracurriculars demonstrate what grades can’t: Follow-through, passion, principles, teamwork, diplomacy. Your grades tell colleges what you know and how well you study, but your extracurriculars tell colleges what you’re like as a human being – all of which is just a bonus to the deep personal rewards of actually getting deeply involved in something you care about.

Audrey Rappaport argues that her extracurriculars – sports and her school’s robotics team – are costly and time-consuming, which puts an extra stress on a family that struggles to afford these activities. It is true that schools could do a better job to make extracurriculars as accessible for students whose families struggle economically as they are for students whose families don’t struggle.

But, Rappaport goes on to argue that the idea of seeking a “well-rounded” college applicant is itself classist, and to express anxiety that college admissions officers prefer students who stick to one activity for four years over students who dabble, finding their passions along the way. The problem here doesn’t seem like extracurriculars, though. It’s the fact that our culture puts pressure on fourteen-year-olds to think about college before they’ve even really gotten to be people.

My suggestion to high schoolers is to stop listening to the formulas people will tell you you can use to get into college – that you need X extracurriculars, an X grade point average, to participate in X sports and you’ll have a guaranteed ticket in. You don’t know what individual admissions officer will be looking at your college applications one day, and what their personal standards are going to be.

In the beginning of my junior year of high school, my principal forwarded me an e-mail he’d gotten from an alumnus. He had seen QSA’s flyers around the school – we had made posters depicting famous LGBT people and explaining the history of repression – and wanted QSA to know that we were doing good work:

“As a gay alumnus who had to hide any hint of homosexuality in a far less tolerant time, it was heart-warming to see the extent of change in atmosphere. How wonderful that students can today be able to go through a very difficult period of learning about their sexuality in a far more affirming environment!”

It was amazing to get that feedback, and it summed up everything that was important to me about the work that I was doing. It’s impossible to predict what an admissions officer is going to want, so high schoolers, focus on what is possible: Doing your best to become the person you want to be. Your classes alone can’t afford you that opportunity.

[Washington Post]

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