College applicants don't have to participate in common, school-sponsored activities – like the National Honor Society or school band – to catch the attention of admissions officials.
Students who bypass extracurricular activities to work part-time jobs, start businesses or master hobbies can explain their out-of-school pastimes in their college applications.
"Applying to a university is your time to brag about yourself. Talk about all the things that you've done, including jobs, including whether you've volunteered at your church or did community service," says Al Nunez, director of undergraduate admission at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Experts recommend that students take every available opportunity on an application to fill in details about who they are and how they spend their time. Talk about your Etsy shop, lawn mowing service or rock band, for example, if they highlight your individuality, personality and passion.
[Avoid these big college application mistakes.]
"In your essay you really want to talk about why this makes you, you and why this makes you passionate – and then definitely include why the university that you want to go to will help you get to where you want to go in the future," says Fabianna Pergolizzi.
Pergolizzi – a law student at Temple University and graduate of Georgetown University – founded Project Anti-Bully as a sophomore in high school. The nonprofit started as an online club but grew into an international organization by the time she was a senior.
Pergolizzi participated in several school-sponsored extracurriculars in high school, but she chose to highlight Project Anti-Bully in her applications because it was her passion.
"I literally wrote in my essay, 'With Georgetown I can accomplish so much more with this ... you'll give me the exposure and the academic background for me to succeed in what I need to do,'" she says.
"And at the same time, tying Georgetown University with my extracurricular activity would be good for Georgetown, too, because it shows that they're having students do different things for public interests."
Explaining your hobbies in your college application can also help officials recognize valuable traits that aren't revealed in a high school transcript. For example, admissions officials say entrepreneurship in high school shows that you're a leader who takes action – a characteristic that colleges value.
"In many ways starting a band or starting a business says a lot of about the student – it shows that they have initiative and those are the types of skills that we like to see in students and the types of students that we like to see on campus," IIT's Nunez says.
Students who don't participate in school-sponsored extracurricular programs because they work to help support themselves or their families should explain their work responsibilities in detail, experts say.
Admissions counselors want to hear about what you do on the job, any leadership positions that you hold, your job performance and if you were promoted in any way.
"A lot of students tell us through their application or statement that they were working to help their families. We know that students who have done that really have drive, they want their education and they want to continue on, but they also have very strong commitment," says Kasey Urquidez, dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Arizona.
"It helps us to see the kind of person that they are and so we value that work experience as much as we do other things that they might be doing," she says.
A great recommendation letter can also help students demonstrate the value of their activities. You don't necessarily need a recommendation letter from your teacher or school counselor. Ask someone in authority who knows you and your work or creative endeavors well, experts say.
For example, if you spend most of your time working, Nunez says that a recommendation letter from your employer can help validate your influence and contributions as an employee.