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For any teacher, the importance of extracurriculars for high school students is probably already well-known.

For any student looking to get into a good college, land that dream job, or simply get ahead in life, extracurricular activities appear to be the solution. But what are extracurriculars (list & examples included), and what makes them so vitally important for high school?

We’ve taken a closer look at what these additional school activities actually mean, why they’re a crucial part of high school and why responsibilities, learning, and passion shouldn’t stop once your high schoolers leave your classroom.

In the US, free time for high school is simply more opportunity to get ahead of their peers – the more prestigious, challenging, and involved the extracurricular, the better. Read on to find out more about what extracurricular activity is most important, examples of extracurricular activities, and even a comprehensive list to pick from to get started.

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What is an extracurricular activity?

It’s all in the name.

Extracurricular refers to acts done outside of the curriculum that is beneficial to a child’s education. Extracurricular activities are, simply put, an activity that you do outside of class. Younger students are often referred to as clubs, practices, or simply organized hobbies. But once students reach high school age, these activities take on a special purpose. For high-flying or ambitious teenagers, these additional outside-of-school activities become integral to getting into the schools they want to.

What makes something specifically an extracurricular activity?

There’s no hard and fast rule. Artistic endeavors, athletics, volunteering, and even paid work and internships can all count as extracurriculars. The idea is that they add value and essential knowledge to that student’s repertoire that other students may not have. Some extracurriculars may be directly linked to, hosted by, or organized by the high school. In other cases, these activities can be entirely separate.

While the definition of an extracurricular activity may sound vague, that’s because it is. Often, the relevance and value of an extracurricular are entirely subjective to what a student would like to do later in life. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t still be a fun way to spend time and a way to build important and essential skills to carry into adulthood.

Examples of the ‘types of extracurricular activity that high schoolers might consider include:
  • Sporting activities, such as taking part in a school football, tennis, hockey, or any other kind of team, or even supporting a team through spirit and cheerleading
  • Community-based service roles, such as volunteer work that’s either carried out locally or on a more global scale – whether through an organized group or otherwise
  • Formal employment, either through an internship or a paying role
  • Personal hobbies, such as hiking, film club, cosplay, blogging, artistic subjects, or anything else that doesn’t fall under academic-style extracurriculars
  • Academic undertakings such as chess, math or science clubs, journalism or class leadership positions

There’s no one ‘right way to do extracurriculars, especially for students that have a particular interest in a specific subject area and would like to pursue it. Generally speaking, any activity is better than none – and looks far better on college applications and job applications than a blank space. But as for what’s the most valuable extracurricular for your students to undertake, that depends on several different factors.

How are extracurriculars useful?

Extracurriculars can be exceptionally useful to high school students as they provide a way to differentiate and improve their prospects from others. Whether the goal is further education or a career, extracurriculars offer a way to prove an applicant has a passion and interest in certain areas. Whether it’s their actual type of extracurricular – sports, for example – or their soft skills gained from work, these additional qualities can serve as the ideal way to demonstrate responsibility, growth, and commitment to learning.

There are two main areas where extracurriculars are incredibly useful things to have:

College applications

Admissions officers for colleges will be actively considering extracurriculars when looking at applications from students. When these activities demonstrate talents, leadership, community involvement, and impact, they are especially impressive. Extracurriculars that are highly relevant to the chosen area of study – for example, a film club for a student that would like to go to college to study media – can also be the difference between getting into college or being rejected.

In some cases, particularly with sports extracurriculars, scholarships may become accessible.

Job applications

The average high school student doesn’t have a wealth of real-world work experience. But for those preferring to enter into a career over college, extracurriculars are a vital way to show responsibility and reliability. While employment-based extracurriculars are most relevant, showing ways you have been responsible, displayed leadership qualities, and proven you’re a hard worker are all critical. As with college admissions, having extracurriculars can mean the difference between a job offer or being passed over for someone with more experience.

In both of these areas, extracurriculars aren’t just taken at face value. Any activity you include as part of applications should be something that has made an impact, proves important soft skills, and goes above and beyond. Visiting the movies once a week for a ‘cinema club,’ for example, won’t be impressive. But having your ‘cinema club’ then write reviews and analyze movie content for use in the school newspaper or blog takes it to that next level. High school students need to prove areas in which they are exceptional beyond their GPA. Extracurriculars can provide that edge.

Which extracurriculars are the most valuable?

While any sort of extracurricular is an excellent addition to a high schooler’s application, some forms are more valued than others. A great deal of the value relates to what students would like to go on to do at university. Sporting sciences, for example, may make sports-based extracurriculars the most valuable. While mathematics or science-based majors may find academic extracurriculars to be most valuable, in general, extracurriculars that are more meaningful, involved, or challenge will look best on college applications. As well as those that require particular skill or talent to be involved in.

For students that aren’t sure what they would like to do at college, choosing extracurriculars with transferable skills can be an excellent option. Activities that demonstrate a commitment to excellence, responsibility, and even the ability to work well in collaboration could all be applicable.

Examples could include:
  • Group volunteering work e.g., building houses abroad or creating a local community garden
  • Student council and similar responsibility and democracy-focused roles
  • Community-led work such as supporting children or the elderly

All of these extracurriculars show a commitment to bettering the culture in a college, which can be as vital to admissions officers as relevant skills-based qualifications. If students can prove they would be an exceptional asset to a particular college, they will be in a far better place to get acceptance from the college of their choice. Especially compared with students who do not attend extracurriculars.

What skills do extracurriculars provide to students?

We know that extracurriculars are valuable for college admissions and even job applications, but what about the soft skills they provide? Beyond relevant and topical extracurriculars, developing these soft skills is essential for the future success of students. Not only does it prove their maturity, but it provides a template for the behavior in college and later in their career. By building these skills early, they will be in a far better position to succeed in the ‘real world.’

Here are just some of the skills that extracurriculars can provide to students:

Leadership

Any time where a student is responsible for overseeing guiding or supporting others in a project or activity, they are displaying leadership skills. Many of the more prestigious colleges will look for leadership skills in students to become future leaders in science, politics, or academia. Leadership skills help students stand out from the crowd by showing they are capable of shouldering responsibility both for their role and the roles of others.

Collaboration

Collaboration is another crucial skill that supports students throughout education and their careers. The ability to communicate with and work alongside others is vitally essential in many environments, from science laboratories to executive offices, classrooms to sports fields. Demonstrating the ability to collaborate is something that college admissions will look out for, and can tip the scales in favor of students that may otherwise barely scrape through.

Self-motivation

In comparison to high school, both college and many career paths require a high level of self-motivation to be successful. Extracurriculars that prove that a student can be independent work under their own steam and success without being pushed as excellent additions to any application. The ability to achieve things without specific guidance, input from others, and more can provide valuable evidence that meeting deadlines, participating in classwork, and doing further study will be second nature.

Responsibility

Above anything else, participating consistently in extracurricular activities proves that students can be responsible, in control, and trustworthy. Whether it’s a position working with other students, or an activity where time-sensitive actions are required, responsibility can shine through in multiple ways. High schoolers with extracurriculars that require specific responsibilities, high levels of reliability, and consistent work are far more attractive prospects than those without.

Implementing extracurricular activities in your school

For high schools that have a lack of extracurricular activities on offer, the first step to improving your student’s chances is to implement valuable activities that can support their plans. While not all extracurriculars need to be run and sponsored by the school – with the community and employment-based opportunities available – it’s still a good idea to provide at least a few clubs or choices to choose from. Picking activities that show talent, express positive traits, and provide experience are a fantastic place to start.

If you’ve started from scratch with an empty list of extracurricular activities at your school, the best way to start is by creating a balanced set of options for students. If you want to go the extra mile, you can also provide resources for extracurriculars and opportunities in the wider community. However, it does show initiative from students if they have to work to find something they are passionate about.

Generally speaking, providing extracurriculars for every kind of activity can provide good variety, and offer ample opportunity to students of all types:
  • Sporting
  • Community
  • Employment
  • Hobbies
  • Academic

If you’re able to populate a resource list with a few opportunities for each category, then your students will be in a better position to access those additional skills and look like a better prospects during admissions. While you shouldn’t necessarily set up these clubs and activities yourself, you can facilitate the creation of groups by approaching students you think would benefit. This not only ensures they’re involved in an extracurricular but also offers the additional boost of leadership for founding and running a brand-new club or group.

For extracurriculars to work, students must be involved, enthusiastic, and committed to making those activities work for them. As such, implementing extracurricular activities means working directly with students in the first instance, but taking a hands-off approach after.

Some clubs may require teacher supervision, coaching, and similar additional resources. But for the majority of extracurriculars, leaving it down to the students is the best thing to do to ensure they succeed.

Funding extracurriculars in your school

One factor that can harm extracurricular school-run activities is budget. If you’re able to set aside small running costs for clubs and groups, this can be an ideal way to provide financial responsibility to students in leadership positions. Alternatively, fundraising or pitching for equipment, supplies, and more can also be valuable ways that students can improve upon soft skills while contributing to an ongoing extracurricular.

Encourage high schoolers to be involved with the funding and costs of their extracurricular activities. By allowing them free reign, with monitoring, if required, it’s possible to build skills that previously weren’t used. Activities such as fundraising, petitioning changes to funding, and even putting together a club or activity budget can all provide invaluable skills that otherwise wouldn’t be gained. If you can give a small amount of up-front budget for new clubs, putting students in charge of how those funds will be allocated is an excellent way to start on the right foot.

Encouraging students to participate in extracurricular activities

Your high school might have dozens of extracurriculars that are ideal for your students, or maybe there’s plenty of scopes to bring in new options for students to try. But without motivation and personal involvement, many students won’t feel encouraged to sign up for the extracurriculars that could be incredibly valuable for their future. Helping students and making the benefits of extracurriculars clear is an excellent place to start, but more in-depth involvement can also be incredibly helpful.

These six steps, defined by Mary Ann Barge at PrepScholar, take a look at how you can students involved in extracurriculars by encouraging their direct input. Taking the time to hold a class or a brief lesson plan that covers these stages can provide students with the incentive needed to take those steps. With a little time and effort, your students will soon be far more interested in taking part in relevant, valuable, and skills-led activities:

1. Think about what you’d like to do

Brainstorming ideas and thinking about what you would like to participate in is the first stage your students should get invested in. While you’re likely to have a few outliers who say they aren’t interested in anything, encourage participation by asking them to simply write a few of their personal interests that could translate into out-of-school activities.

Passion is key to a successful extracurricular, so ask your students to think long and hard about activities that they’d like to do in the longer term – rather than ones they’ll quickly be over in a few weeks. Students may also want to think about what they’d like to do in terms of college. If they’re picking their major based on personal interest, then it makes sense to take part in relevant extracurriculars as well.

2. Find activities that line up with those interests

Provide your students with a wide range of different extracurriculars on a list – much like the one we’ve created below. Students can then match up to their interests and passions with specific extracurricular activities provided, or even add their own to the bottom of the list if nothing relevant is present. Providing a list is a great way to get students to think outside the box, and they may even discover new activities they’ve never considered before, but would be very interested in.

Interests can be multi-faceted, so your students shouldn’t be afraid to pick different and more unusual routes for their passions in comparison to their peers.

3. Do your research

Once students have thought about their passions, and taken a look at a list of different extracurriculars they may like to do, it’s time to research.

Whether you do this in-class or provide it as a homework assignment, students should see if their choices for extracurriculars are currently offered. This should include the wider community, as well as within the school itself. As mentioned in implementing extracurriculars above, it’s at this point that students can propose new clubs or classes if current options aren’t available. This is generally only recommended for opportunities that students are very passionate about, as opposed to where they have a passing interest.

4. Give yourself a trial run

It’s time for your students to go from thinking to doing. Encourage your class to sign up for several activities, especially if they’re freshmen giving extracurriculars ago for the first time. The limit shouldn’t be too high – between five and ten – and starting this at the beginning of the year is often the best way to proceed. With practical experience of various extracurriculars, it’s far easier for students to pick something they really enjoy in practice, as well as in theory.

Once your students have found one or two things they enjoy, the other trial runs can be dropped.

5. Narrow down your choices to what’s valuable and interests you

Once your students have had a go at multiple extracurriculars, they can then narrow down exactly what they’re most passionate about. This is an excellent time to consider which activities are also relevant to what they’d like to do in the future, and more valuable for admissions.

Ask your students to make a list of the top three activities that they really enjoy, with pros and cons about continuing with that activity. Depending on the intensity of each extracurricular, it may make sense to narrow it down to one or two choices. In contrast, less impactful activities could be kept anywhere between three and five extracurriculars.

6. Increase your impact

The most important thing about extracurriculars is to do something that makes an impact – which can be difficult when spread too thinly. Encourage students to pick activities where they can make a significant impact. This could be in the development of the club, personal growth, or even an effect on the broader community. Ask students to consider what an admissions officer could learn about them from their choice of activity. Is it passion? Leadership? Responsibility?

Considering all these things can give high school students a head-start, making them more than worth spending time on.

What students need to know about extracurriculars

What else do students need to know about extracurriculars? There are many different facts and figures you could consider when implementing extracurriculars into the more comprehensive curriculum. Primarily, it’s essential, to be honest with students. For those considering entering into high-pressure, high-competition environments, or applying to the best colleges in the country, extracurriculars can play a huge role in whether they are accepted or rejected. Extracurriculars also have the benefit of improving engagement, encouraging passion, and making learning fun for students, all of which are incredibly important to students.

According to PR Newswire, as many as eight in 10 parents believe that students participating in extracurriculars can lead to better earnings in the future. With parental support and potential funding from families, providing students with a well-rounded educational experience with activities they’re passionate about is more accessible than ever. Providing support for high schoolers is important, but it’s just as important to take a step back and allow them to manage challenging situations themselves.

What else do students need to know?

It’s just important to choose extracurriculars based on your own goals and interests instead of the interests of friends and peers. Encourage students to meet other kids outside their friendship group, expand their communication skills, and become less insular. All of these skills are vital for success in the real world as well as higher education and instilling them in students early is a fantastic place to start.

If you’re struggling to come up with a list that’s suitable for your students, we’ve got our own version below to help your students find what works for them.

Extracurricular activities to try

Stumped for extracurriculars?

If your inspiration is running dry, we’ve got a full list of extracurricular activities that just might be the perfect fit for your students. As mentioned above, there isn’t a requirement for every club on this list to be ready and waiting to go for your students. For some high schoolers, their passion can drive them to create their own clubs – providing invaluable skills along the way. Read on for some inspiration to get you and your students started:

Academic Extracurriculars

For students that are more academic-minded, activities, clubs, and teams that further their knowledge are vital. Whether it’s adding a competitive edge or simply fulfilling a keen interest in a specific subject, academic extracurriculars are especially valuable for students considering going into the sciences or more academic disciplines at college or for their future careers.

Potential subjects for academic extracurriculars could include:
  • Physics
  • Architecture
  • Astronomy
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Historical Learning or Re-enactment
  • Creative Writing
  • Electronics and Computers
  • Engineering
  • Robot Design and Building
  • English Writing and Reading
  • Historical Learning or Re-enactment
  • Honor Societies
  • Tutoring
  • Literature Analysis
  • Math and Calculations
  • Physics
  • Psychology and Counseling
  • Tutoring
  • Prose and Poetry
  • Robot Design and Building
  • Website Coding and Design
  • Quiz and Trivia

In terms of more competitive teams and competitions, there are plenty of options available both for in-school contests, in addition to more formal competitions on a national scale. Friendly match between local schools is also an option if adequately organized. All of the academic subjects above lend themselves to more competitive extracurriculars, including academic triathlons, regional competitions, innovation challenges, and more. For educators, it is worth researching the full range of different academic contests, bowls, and Olympiads out there to find the ideal choice for your students.

Artistic Extracurriculars

For students that have a more artistic mind, looking into clubs and groups centered around creating things might be the ideal fit. Whether it’s creating on paper, through a lens or on a stage, the arts are a point of focus for many high schoolers and certainly shouldn’t be left out. Especially for those considering going on to arts qualifications at college.

Potential subjects for artistic extracurriculars could include:
  • Anime
  • Traditional Art
  • Cartooning
  • Photography
  • Textiles
  • Theater
  • Woodworking
  • Animation
  • Fashion
  • Graphic Design
  • Weaving
  • Jewelry Making
  • Drama
  • Improv
  • Ceramics
  • Video Game Art
  • Sculpture

Cultural Extracurriculars

Perhaps you have high schoolers that are keen to study abroad. Or maybe there are students in your class that are enthusiastic about improving their additional languages. For students talented in cultural skills, these clubs and societies can offer a way to broaden their palette and understand other cultures that bit better — an excellent choice for those considering studying language or culture later on.

Potential subjects for cultural extracurriculars could include:
  • Japanese
  • Chinese
  • Korean
  • Sign Language
  • French
  • International Cuisine
  • Latin
  • Russian
  • Spanish
  • German
  • Diplomacy
  • African American
  • Pacific Islanders

Community and Volunteer Extracurriculars

For some students, traditional learning-based extracurriculars simply don’t quite work out. Instead, community-led activities offer a way to give back to the place where they live. Many towns and cities have a wide range of different initiatives for supporting and improving the local community, as well as larger-scale national and international charities.

Potential opportunities for community extracurriculars could include:
  • Local festivals
  • Building houses
  • Big brother/sister
  • Community gardening
  • Local theatre
  • Community outreach
  • Trash collection
  • Animal rescue
  • Hospital volunteering
  • Red cross
  • Local charity work
  • Soup kitchen work

Government and Democracy Extracurriculars

For high schoolers that are more politically minded, government-related activities might be the ideal solution. Whether it’s improving policies within the school or the wider community, students that want to make a change might enjoy these extracurricular options.

Potential opportunities for community extracurriculars could include:
  • Student government
  • Community youth government
  • Democrats club
  • Student council
  • Debate society
  • Model UN
  • Speech and debate club
  • Student planning committee
  • Community government
  • Mock trial club
  • National youth government

In addition to more traditional government roles, leadership roles centered around directing, inspiring, and motivating others could be the ideal choice. Clubs like a peer leadership group, youth mentoring, and the national beta club are excellent solutions.

Media and Technology Extracurriculars

Savvy high schoolers will enjoy extracurriculars in the media and technology fields, bringing information to the school and broader community – as well as providing valuable technology-related services. For students considering going into journalism, TV, or related fields, these extracurriculars are the ideal choice.

Potential opportunities for media and technology extracurriculars could include:
  • School magazine or newspaper
  • Local or school radio
  • Local or school television presenting
  • School website management
  • Local movies or movie internships
  • Yearbook committee
  • Blogging
  • Social media
  • YouTube development

Musical Extracurriculars

Students that enjoy music, or have a particular talent for rhythm, may enjoy extracurriculars centered around musical studies, bands, and even local community groups. These options are particularly useful for those considering studying music in the future in any capacity.

Potential opportunities for musical extracurriculars could include:
  • School and community choir or chorus
  • Concert band
  • Singing or glee club
  • Marching band
  • School orchestra
  • Community ensembles
  • School musicals and performances
  • Creating their own band

Performance Arts Extracurriculars

High schoolers with a flair for the dramatic and dreams of the stage or screen will do well in performance arts-based extracurriculars. For all students, these activities are a chance to be creative, collaborate, and do something new and exciting outside of the classroom.

Potential opportunities for performance arts extracurriculars could include:
  • Comedy club
  • Dance troupe
  • Acting club
  • Choreography
  • Prose performance club
  • School theater
  • Community theater
  • Mime club
  • Puppetry club

Religious Extracurriculars

Students with strong faith and a connection with the local community might find religious extracurriculars to be a valuable addition to their schedule, which can be carried over into groups and communities at college and beyond.

Potential opportunities for religious extracurriculars could include:
  • Local church groups
  • Religious student unions
  • Missionary work
  • Local youth groups
  • School worship groups

Activism Extracurriculars

For high schoolers that are passionate about specific causes, joining local chapters can be an excellent extracurricular to add to their resume. There are countless social activism causes to join, and they are a great use of time as an additional activity.

Potential opportunities for activism extracurriculars could include:

  • Animal rights groups
  • Cancer charities and foundations
  • LGBT+ communities and clubs
  • Environmental club
  • Women-based alliances and groups

Sporting Extracurriculars

The most popular and competitive form of extracurricular, sports is often a highly valued activity, especially when it comes to the most popular sports that may also be relevant for college scholarships. For high schoolers talented in sports, these extracurriculars can be an excellent way to gain an edge over their peers in college applications.

Potential areas for sporting extracurriculars could include:
  • Basketball
  • Cheerleading
  • Gymnastics
  • Hockey
  • Golf
  • Climbing
  • Bodybuilding
  • Fencing
  • Dance team
  • Cycling
  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Martial arts
  • Lacrosse
  • Tennis
  • Water polo
  • Swimming
  • Track and field
  • Skating
  • Yoga or pilates
  • Running

What’s next?

Once you’ve provided your students with plenty of options, insights, and advice, it’s up to them. You can make it clear that investing in their future with extracurriculars is essential, but providing them with the autonomy to decide for themselves is just as important. As a teacher, being on-hand to provide advice, suggestions, and support is the best we can do – and to help our students become independent, we don’t need to do more.

Do you think extracurriculars are important for students?