The Ivy League Guide to Extracurricular Activities

Posted by Alexander Loveless | February 4, 2016

If you have been actively researching Ivy League admissions strategies, then you have most likely heard of the “spike” approach. Contrary to being a well-rounded student who participates in a variety of unrelated extracurricular activities, the spike approach encourages students to be very good at one thing and do everything they can to demonstrate this interest on the application. The spike approach is not bad, and is certainly more likely to lead to Ivy League admission than the well-rounded approach. However, we here at IvyZen like to take the spike approach a step further.


A “theme” is the spike approach mixed with a student’s goals, passions, and dreams. The trouble with the spike strategy is that it runs the risk of coming across as superficial, contrived, or forced. It is an admissions strategy rather than a sincere representation of the student’s ambitions. A theme is a simple unification of what the student is good at and what the student likes, but presented in a streamlined manner. An effective IvyZen theme is comprised of four parts:
1) Academics
2) Extracurricular activities – Leadership
3) Extracurricular activities – Scholarship
4) Accomplishments and competitions

This article will focus on the middle categories, extracurricular leadership activities and extracurricular scholarship activities. The reasons for these categories are obvious: colleges like leaders and colleges like scholars. In these categories, there are plenty of different activities, but we know, based on experience, that different activities have varying degrees of success when it comes to college admissions.In addition, students should keep in mind that it is a common myth that having a large quantity of activities is beneficial. Remember, quality over quantity. Below, you will find a list of quality activities ranked from good to better to best.

It is important to remember that this set of recommendations is just that: recommendations. IvyZen is meant to help students strategize when selecting extracurricular activities, and thus help them achieve the best possible chance of Ivy League admission. This article is not meant to discourage students from participating in activities that they truly love, in spite of knowing that the activities won’t necessarily help with admissions. However, you should always keep the hedgehog concept in mind. A high achieving student must balance that which they love with that which is practical, and part of doing this is selecting the perfect theme.

With this in mind, let the list begin! Let’s start with leadership activities.

Leadership Activities

Ivy League colleges expect to see students who have demonstrated leadership abilities in some way, because these colleges are expecting to cultivate future leaders. Whether a student pursues science and technology, art and performance, or writing and humanities, Ivy League colleges expect this student to be the best at what they do if they expect to receive admission. So how does one prove himself or herself to be a great leader?

Good: Community service or volunteer work

Colleges are interested in admitting students who are actively engaged with their communities. Whether it’s a school community, local community, or otherwise, a connection to the outside world and an understanding of something greater than one’s self is a trait that invariably leads to better Ivy League candidates. Remember, an Ivy League college is interested in choosing the people most likely to make big achievements and big differences in the world. This, of course, begins with community engagement. Plus, volunteer work is a great educational experience.

What qualifies as meaningful volunteer work? Imagine yourself as a college admissions officer reading an application that says: “Picked up trash on state highway.” Is it volunteering? Yes. Is it helpful? Yes. Is it impressive? Well, in a sense, spending your Saturday picking up garbage does demonstrate strength of character, but it also draws the image of convicts in orange jumpsuits doing their penance for petty crime. It doesn’t take any particular skill or vision to pick up trash on the side of the highway, and thus doesn’t really ‘say’ much about the candidate. A better alternative would be something like an environmental conservation volunteer, which yes, may include picking up trash, but with a greater goal in mind.

What about volunteering to read to seniors at the retirement home? Spending time with senior citizens demonstrates patience and selflessness, sure, but this activity is open to anyone with the ability to read, which is the majority of the population. Read: not impressive. Why not take a commitment to senior citizens a step further and implement an activity that you created? Make some calls, have some supplies donated, and start a senior art class. Teach them how to dance. Rather than reading to them yourself, connect them with local elementary students who need to practice literacy. There are thousands of ways to transform a generic, menial volunteer task into something impressive that demonstrates initiative and leadership.

Good: Travel

Traveling is perhaps the best way to broaden one’s horizons because it offers the chance to step inside someone else’s shoes. Traveling to your country’s capital can give insight to the country’s political proceedings and history. Traveling to Europe can give an artistic perspective. Traveling to a developing country can stir latent humanitarian feelings, especially if the purpose for traveling to the location is service related.

It is good for a student to talk about the different ways that travel has impacted his or her decisions, outlook, and global perspectives. But does it qualify as an extracurricular activity in its own right? In order to determine whether travel should be included on an application, it is important to consider purpose. If the purpose of the travel was to spend time with family, as in a family trip to the Grand Canyon, the application may not be the best place to include the experience. If the purpose of the travel was educational, as in a class trip to Washington DC for the purpose of observing a congressional session, it may not be best to include the experience in the application itself but perhaps mentioning it in an essay would be helpful. If the purpose of the travel was service related, consider the scope of the service. Was the student building houses with Habitat for Humanity? This is probably better left in an essay rather than the application, since anyone who can operate a hammer and nails has the ability to help build homes. Was the student teaching underprivileged students how to read? Was the student helping to establish an orphanage or a school? Was the duration of stay extended, with a true purpose of establishing meaningful change, or did the student spend a week in a foreign country and leave a project partially finished? The answers to these questions should give insight as to the value and scope of the travel and whether it will impress an admissions officer.

Better: Model United Nations

If a student’s theme involves anything about history, diplomacy, international relations, or political science, Model UN can be a powerful addition to his or her application. Model UN is unique because it is an activity almost universally favored by admissions officers for the wide breadth of benefits it presents.

First, Model UN is an excellent educational opportunity because it teaches students through action. What better way to learn about history than to be placed in the middle of it? What better way to develop global awareness than to resolve conflicts diplomatically? Model UN provides a uniquely hands on approach to learning that top colleges genuinely appreciate.

Model UN is also a great way to connect with students from all over the world while cooperating in teams. Model UN is a globally recognized activity with opportunities to participate in conferences in many different countries, and as such it draws international students from almost every conceivable background. Participating in Model UN conferences is a great way to expand one’s knowledge of the world while building relationships that are likely to last well beyond the conference itself.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, participation in Model UN demonstrates leadership in a very real and demonstrable way. Model UN delegates must speak publically in front of large groups in order to make arguments, debate points, and compromise in the spirit of cooperation. Delegates must also fulfill a variety of roles as they are placed into certain committees and positions. If you are successful at fulfilling such roles, there are many opportunities to receive awards and commendations, which look great on college applications.

Ivy League admissions officers appreciate Model UN participants because such participants are most likely to be good, confident leaders, with goals of improving the world through cooperation and diplomacy. Plus, with Model UN’s international recognition as an organization, top colleges know what to expect when they see it listed on an application.

Better: Sports leadership

Sports are good extracurricular activities because they promote teamwork, dedication, and perseverance. However, sports are a really popular choice of extracurricular activity because there is basically a team for anyone who wants to participate. Therefore, students must be extremely discerning and honest about their ability and potential in a given sport before deciding to undertake the enormous time commitment.

Allow me to elaborate. Football teams are generally as large as the number of students who want to participate, but that doesn’t mean that every person gets to start or even play in the game. However, all team members are still expected to participate in team practices and games, which are likely to take place nearly every night after school, and often on Saturdays too. Games may require traveling to other towns, counties, or states, depending on the level of competition, and frequently these seasons last for months. The question for young athletes, then, becomes this: Is it really worth the time?

Perhaps the student would prefer to choose a less time consuming sport, like an intermural or a B team that requires less time and dedication, but still demonstrates a commitment to physical health. But then, is this really an enriching addition to a college application?

Sports are helpful on Ivy League applications, but only insofar as they also demonstrate a level of skill or leadership. In other words, if you are in a leadership or starting position on your team and your team is good enough to win games, competitions, or prizes, then sports are helpful. An impressive application would list a student as the captain of his or her team and a solid record of victories. An application that lists a student as a participant in the intermural swim team who never placed in a competition begs the question: could all that time have been better spent?

Not everyone is an athlete, and that’s okay. But if a student has a genuine talent for athletics and the chops to demonstrate leadership on the field, court, pitch, or pool, then that activity should definitely be pursued and emphasized. If not, it may be best to consider alternatives.

Best: Political activism

Ivy League colleges love to see active students, so activism is one of the most powerful extracurricular activities to include on an application. Political activism demonstrates a student’s engagement in the world around him or her, the dedication and initiative to take action in building a better world, and most importantly, a true interest in the betterment of society. Of all extracurricular activities, political activism may be perceived as one of the most honest forms of “demonstrated interest”.

There are plenty of ways to engage in political activism. The first step is to choose a cause that is relevant to the student’s selected theme. This may be related to food security, human trafficking, education, homelessness, or any one of the most pressing issues that face our world today. The student may also choose to engage with a cause through an organization such as Amnesty International or another large organization with the resources and tools to build a campaign. Students may then choose to start petitions, organize fundraisers, and orchestrate rallies to support this cause.

When an admissions officer sees that a student has identified an important cause then approached a real life problem from many angles, he or she will probably be impressed. If this campaign has achieved actual results, that’s even more impressive. And if the cause has applications that extend beyond the scope of high school, which carry into the student’s major of choice and career plan, then the odds of admission may be substantially increased.

Best: Starting a club

We at IvyZen recommend applying a theme to an application, and the more specific a theme is, the more successful the application is likely to be. However, finding a very specific club may prove difficult. For example, a science club may exist, but a biological anthropology club most likely doesn’t. Art club may exist, but digital art may not. If a student and a few friends of his are interested in a subject, why not start a new club?

Starting a new club is relatively simple, usually only requiring a staff sponsor and an administrative signature. Once the correct signatures are obtained, the benefits begin. First, founding a club likely comes with an automatic leadership title such as president. Or, if a student is a co-founder, perhaps they may be co-president, vice-president, secretary, etc. Second, starting a specific type of club gives students the opportunity to collaborate on a large project, such as a research paper or community outreach program, which means an opportunity to include demonstrated results on the application. And third, students have the ability to bond with a faculty sponsor who will then be more likely to provide a solid recommendation when the time comes.

College admissions officers like to see initiative, and starting a club shows more initiative than simply joining one. Plus, the club can be as specific as it needs to be in order to support the student’s theme. Overall, starting a club is a favorable addition to any Ivy League application.

Scholarship Activities

Scholarship activities are every bit as important as leadership activities, and they extend far beyond the classroom. Top colleges know that the best students have an active interest in their academic pursuits that reaches into their free time and admissions officers expect to see proof of such an interest in the extracurricular activity list.

Good: A job or internship

A part time job or internship is undoubtedly a good, character building experience. As a high school student, it is tempting to want a bit of freedom and pocket money that a part time job affords. However, for a student seeking Ivy League admissions, money frequently isn’t an issue, and employment winds up being an unnecessary waste of time. However, if a student can find an appropriate job that will actually help in the admissions process, then it is possible to boost the odds of acceptance to an Ivy League school.

What constitutes a valuable work experience? An after school job at a friends’ business? Perhaps this could be helpful if the theme revolves around entrepreneurship, but then wouldn’t the student be better off being the entrepreneur herself? What about a gig at a local restaurant? Or folding shirts at a retail outlet? While these employment opportunities might be great for making friends and cash, they are not so helpful for admissions, and in fact, can distract students from more fruitful undertakings.

A valuable work experience should be closely related to the student’s theme. Consider, for example, Karen’s success story. Karen’s theme was biological anthropology, so she secured an internship at a local university’s hospital as a research assistant. While she was employed as a research assistant, Karen was able to prove her maturity in a lab setting, gain new skills, and receive face time with several graduate students and professors. After spending many months getting to know these professors, Karen was able to ask for a recommendation letter, which was ultimately a valuable component to her acceptance into Columbia.

If a high school student is considering employment just for the money or if a parent wants his or her student to have a job just for the experience, consider whether the job will help with admissions. Time management is critically important to a high achieving student and should be maximized in the most helpful possible way. Employment will factor into the student’s life eventually, one way or the other. Why rush?

Better: School Newspaper

Working on the school newspaper is great for a student who is interested in writing, especially since a large collection of articles can build a strong portfolio by the time of graduation. Plus, writing articles is a great way to enhance research and interviewing skills. But is working on the school newspaper for everyone?

For a student considering a staff position on his or her newspaper, it is important to consider how doing so can support a theme. If the theme is at all related to English or journalism, then newspaper is an obvious choice. However, it is also possible to start columns in newspapers about various specific subjects, such as music and the arts or political science and activism. Writing about a similar topic every week or month is great for research, and as previously mentioned, can build up into a larger portfolio or project.

Academically, writing is always impressive, no matter the subject. In college, every major will require well written papers, research or otherwise. If writing is a student’s talent, it is certainly worth pursuing in a way that is connected to his or her theme. Plus, it teaches students about time management, deadlines, and producing consistent quality.

Better: Music or Theater

While music and theater may not immediately be viewed as strictly academic pursuits, they should be. Students of music and theater are frequently shown to have excellent grades and better tests scores than students not involved in such activities, so top colleges know the value in studying the arts. However, just as with sports, both music and theater are incredibly time-consuming activities and performance responsibilities that must not be shirked.

Marching band, concert band, orchestra, and choir often require students to use one of their class hours to participate, which can prohibit students from taking an extra AP class or something otherwise academically valuable. In the case of marching band and theater productions, hours of after school time are spent rehearsing for performances and competitions, which also limits time for other extracurricular activities. Additionally, the added stress and pressure of preparing for auditions is enough to send some students into a panic.

Based on the demanding nature of both music and theater, students should consider both theme and achievement applications when deciding to pursue one of these paths. First, if the student plans to build a theme around or major in theater or music, then of course these activities will prove valuable on an application. If the student is not interested in pursuing the arts as a career, perhaps he or she could consider writing and directing a play about the theme of their choice, or organizing a charity concert for an active cause. Or, if the student is exceptionally talented at his or her instrument or craft, then he or she should apply for competitions or awards, as achievements are highly valued in the application process.

Many students begin theater or music classes in elementary school for the purpose of making friends, building confidence, or releasing their inner artist. By high school, however, it is important to consider the real life application of spending a great deal of time on these activities. Therefore, students of theater and music should include these pursuits in their schedules if it suits their theme and college ambitions, and reconsider otherwise.

Best: Research paper

One of the very best and most impressive ways to seal the deal on an Ivy League application is to include a research paper on a topic related to the student’s theme. A long, well-researched, well-cited paper is certainly worthy of regard, and is considered a big accomplishment for high school students. However, top colleges have recognized this trend, and now it is all but expected for students to contribute some sort of research assignment in the additional materials section of the application.

In order for a research paper to be taken seriously, it is important to have a good mentor to assist the student in selecting the correct resources and proofing the material for content and legitimacy. This is just another of the dozens of reasons that a student should forge strong relationships with his or her teachers. Additionally, a good research paper takes a lot of time to write and edit, which is part of the reason it’s so impressive to admissions officers, so it’s important to start during the junior year of high school.

Once the research paper is completed, students should consider submitting the paper to as many journals as possible in the hopes of becoming published before it’s time to submit applications. The only thing better than a long, well-written research paper is a long, well-written published research paper, and there are plenty of student journals that can make this happen.

Best: Competition

If a student is good at something, then he or she should make every effort to quantitatively prove it in a competition. What better way to show that a student is talented in a given subject than presenting an award of excellence from a contest in such a subject?

For students who are at all interested in the math or engineering, the American Mathematics Competition should be considered. This annual contest is held all across the world and is intended to identify those who possess exceptional talent in math. Any college would recognize a good AMC score as an achievement, and consider this achievement in the admissions process. IvyZen students have a demonstrated history of acceptance to top schools with the help of a high AMC score, so as such, all mathematically inclined students are encouraged to participate.

Essay contests are also a good way to prove skill in English, and some contests even come with the opportunity to earn scholarship money. Essay contests pack the additional benefit of providing a tangible piece of paper to attach to the application as a supporting document. Essay contests can range from the creative to the scientific to the political to the humanitarian, so there is a contest out there for anyone. Essay contest winners are frequently featured in reputable publications too, which means applicants can boast being a published author if they succeed in winning a prize.

Any competition or award is worth pursuing, as long as it is related to the theme. Ivy League colleges are interested in admitting the best candidates. The best candidates will not have to prove that they are the best if an external organization does it for them by way of an award.

Best: Build a mobile app

Like a research paper, a mobile application is a real, tangible thing that admissions officers can access quickly, making it an easy way to demonstrate both interest and excellence in a given subject. In today’s technologically savvy world, apps are used every single day, so when a student builds a useful and practical application, admissions officers are bound to take note.

Mobile applications are particularly useful for disseminating a message, so they can be great as a supplement to a political activism theme. Apps are also great for providing specific services, so if you have an idea for a service, why not turn it into an app? Like the research paper, mobile applications are highly customizable and accessible. There is almost always a way to turn a theme into an app.

Imagine an admissions officer reading an application and seeing ‘mobile app’ as an accomplishment. Then, imagine that officer reaching into his pocket, searching for the app, and seeing the student’s name as the developer. Now that’s impressive.

It is critically important for any Ivy League bound student to select extracurricular activities that represent himself or herself as a person, fit in with a theme that is related to the desired major or career, and present the best use of time and energy. High school is an incredibly busy and stressful time, but by being strategic and thinking ahead, a perfect set of extracurricular activities can always be crafted.

Get a Free Copy of “IvyZen Success Stories”

IvyZen Success Stories

Also check out some of our other articles:

The following are some of our Success Stories

Karen’s Success Story

When we start working with a student we don’t just sit down with them for an hour, develop a theme and then wham! they get into the school of their choice…

John’s Success Story

John had aspirations of majoring in business and eventually attending a business graduate program, but his high school was lacking in opportunities for future business students…

Debbie’s Success Story

Debbie was a top math student at her school. She had done consistently well on her AMCs and had qualified for AIME three years in a row. She was the Captain of her math team and …

Read More

Zach’s Success Story

Zach came to us after hearing about our service from a former student. He and his mom were nervous that Zach wasn’t on the right track with his applications. As soon as we met, Zach …


Want help with your extracurricular activities?

At Ivyzen, we have decades of experience helping students demonstrate the leadership and scholarship necessary for admission to a top school.

Check out What We Do and then set up a 1-on-1 consultation with one of our expert mentors.