As an international student, you may have heard that American colleges and universities apply a holistic approach to the application process. But, what exactly does that mean? Colleges look at everything you accomplish in your high school years by assessing the rigor of your curriculum, your grades, standardized exams, essays, recommendations, and activities. How do you contribute to your school and your community? How do you balance your education with participation outside of school? How are you active outside of the classroom?

Extra-curricular activities are important to American college admissions officers because it gives them a glimpse into how you impact your community. Your involvement shows us how you’ve balanced your time with your academic commitments; it tells us you’ve likely developed skills like collaboration and communication. It also demonstrates how you’ve interacted with other students and members of your community. Perhaps you represent your school as an athlete or in a science competition. Maybe you act, dance, or sing in performances on or off campus. You might help take care of a relative living at home or nearby. Maybe you have a part-time job, or you volunteer. Any of these commitments are considered extra-curricular activities. If these opportunities don’t exist in your school, then take the initiative to create them or seek them out in your larger community!

If you are starting high school, think about your hobbies and passions. If you don’t know yet, that’s fine! Start with your interests: Do you like to draw? Consider taking an art class and presenting your work at schools, local cafes or galleries, or entering them into contests. Do you like being physically active? Channel that into playing for a sports team at school or in your community. Do you enjoy working on math or language puzzles? Look into competitions where you can represent your school and challenge yourself in math, science, history and much more. Do you want to learn more about a particular subject? Perhaps jump into researching with a teacher or college professor. You are a global citizen, so perhaps you can jump into leadership through student government or use your public speaking skills through debate or speech competitions.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to high school activities:

  • There is no prescription or formula of what students “should” do. Whether you have an interest in chess, dance, or foreign languages, jump into a club! Admissions officers do not have a checklist of required activities—they simply want to see that students are engaged in activities that interest them.
  • Think about time: Admissions officers are excited when students demonstrate continuity and consistency in their activities. A few years of sustained involvement in a handful of activities is highly desired compared to meager involvement in a lot of activities that change over time.
  • Certificates of completion are not required for admissions and students do not have to prove their involvement in activities. Admissions officers can see proof of your activities in your application through your resume as well as teachers’ and guidance counselor’s recommendations.
  • Most importantly, have fun! This is your opportunity to delve into your hobbies and passions and to explore and discover new opportunities in your high school and local community.


Written by Sai Somboon
Sai Somboon is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Sai previously worked as a senior admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania. To learn more about Sai, be sure to read his bio on