6 ways to turn your interests into extra-curricular activities for your university application

Business Week recently shared advice from university admission officers: depth means more than breadth when it comes to extra curricular activities.

Schools are becoming more familiar and less impressed with “resume padding” in the university application. Susan Chan, the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University, comments in a September 2006 article:

“We are not necessarily impressed by students who list a high number of different activities,” Chan said. “We are much more impressed with students who have accomplished something significant in an activity or two that they obviously know and love.”

Passion and dedication are hard to fake, and admissions committees know this. They also know that not every interest has a local club you can join, or a volunteer position you can easily obtain.

This is good news if your child’s most noteworthy characteristics are a subscription to Popular Science, several late charges from the public library’s video documentary section and an RSS reader full of industry blogs. But, how do you apply to university with a reading list instead of an activity list?

6 ways to turn your interests into extra-curricular activities for your university application

(and how to do it so that it actually benefits you and doesn’t just pad your resume)

1. Creativity Counts – create something

I can remember having an intense class discussion in high school arguing whether or not one needed to actually create something to be considered creative. (It is right in the word itself, after all!)

Whenever I think I have a particularly “creative” idea, I always use the memory of that discussion to remind myself that if my creative thoughts don’t actually produce anything, what have I really done?

Joe also helps me remember this by often repeating the line from Amadeus, “It’s of no use to anybody in your head, Mozart.”

It’s one thing to have a passion for a particular topic, but it’s what you have created from your passion that can be more easily showcased on a university application, and can direct your passion into a worthwhile endeavour.

Here are just a few of endless examples:

  • write about your topic
    • outline a new idea you have
    • address a common problem or issue in the area, and research possible solutions
    • compile existing work into a “beginners guide” or teaching material
    • describe your journey from beginner to enthusiast, and how it affected you as a person
  • build something
    • a working model or prototype of an established or experimental idea
    • experiment with function and design
  • establish an organization or charitable foundation related to your area of interest
    • coordinate group projects
    • fundraise
    • distribute a newsletter
    • lobby the government
  • set a travel goal and document it in words, photographs
    • visit every major league baseball park
    • view “original/historical sources” in your area of interest
    • meet/interview major personalities in your area of interest
  • use your area of interest to inspire artistic creations
    • write songs
    • sculpt or paint
    • write screenplays, short films, commercials
  • create and maintain a website
    • demonstrate an ongoing commitment by keeping up with important news in your field
    • start an online discussion board where people from all over can connect
    • create an online photo gallery of pictures you have taken related to your interest
    • research careers in your area, then share this information as a “how to get started in …” guide

2. Flash Forward – think about the future, plans goals

Where are you going with your dreams and ideas? There’s nothing wrong with living in the moment, but the act of devising future plans can go a long way to helping you feel grounded with a purpose … and looks great on the university application!

Of course, plans can change. As my father will tell you any day of his life, “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” But making these plans, evaluating options and becoming aware of the steps necessary to achieve future goals allows you to envision yourself as a real player in the industry, and then gives you a road map for becoming one.

To the universities, this plan can not only demonstrate your intentions to commit to a course of action (such as, say, I don’t know, a university degree!) but also assures them that you have the drive and skills to go beyond your interest (e.g. languages) to research the educational and professional arenas (e.g. the top translation schools in the country, which schools offer exchange programs or internships, which international organizations accept summer volunteers, the top translation firms that specialize in diplomatic work).

3. Social Significance – whom can you help, and what problems can you solve?

If your ideas are of no use to anybody in your head, then spend some time figuring out who could benefit from the thoughts swishing around up there.

In these days of resume padding and going through the motions of altruism, assisting a very specific part of the community in a specific way will catch the attention of college admissions departments. Which applicant will seem more genuine and effective as a volunteer?

  • one who spent a weekend sorting food at the local food bank (with no other indication anywhere in her application that helping the disadvantaged is a cause near and dear to her heart)
  • one (suffering from allergies and/or chemical sensitivity) who created an information pamphlet describing common toxic ingredients in everyday household cleaners, then created “make your own safe cleaning products at home” workshops which she presented at local community groups or in people’s homes.

There is nothing wrong with the first scenario. After all, it is by leaving our comfort zone and experiencing something totally different that gives us a new perspective on life. No doubt the first applicant was moved and forever changed through her volunteer experience.

But, which applicant gives the greater impression that she will contribute to her university, or to society at large (both of which ultimately benefit the university) when a college application is no longer on the line? The second applicant has shown that she can make her own opportunities to contribute to the world around her, and that she sees a real connection between her own life and the lives of others.

The ability to see needs and react to them is also an important skill for an inventor or entrepreneur. Fostering this ability can set you up for a lifetime of independence because you may realize that you don’t need others to give you a job — you can create one yourself by filling a gap in the market place.

4. Technical Tools – what did you need to know in order to know what you now know?

Very few areas of interest exist in a vacuum. Only in school is “math” separate from “history” and both are separate from “language.” (As if the economy and our ability to communicate with each other never caused some pretty big historical events … )

To give weight to your area of interest on your university application, spend some time answering these three questions:

  • What did you have to learn/master to get where you are?
  • Which skills are you currently working on, or which topics do you need to further understand in order to progress in your area of interest?
  • Which skills or which topics are next on your list to learn?

There’s a lot of number crunching in the study of earthquakes, so a budding geologist will at some point need to ensure that his math skills are up to snuff. Radio waves (so I’ve been told by engineering tutors I’ve worked with) are based on the system of complex numbers . . . aka imaginary numbers. That’s right, they only exist in our minds, but yet without them we can’t understand radio waves. A historian could rely on English translations of primary texts, but we all know something gets lost; at some point, foreign language skills are required to analyze historical documents.

Your area of interest will no doubt require you to learn topics and skills in other disciplines. Document these for your university application. Not only will it make you feel good about yourself to realize that you know more math or Latin than you thought, but it will demonstrate to the university admissions department a commitment to excellence in your field of study.

Going through a skills/knowledge analysis will also help you determine how ready you might be for an AP, CLEP or SAT subject test in one of these related areas, giving you useful information as to which tests you might want to take for university entrance.

5. Knowledgeable Networking – have some names to drop

It’s impossible to really get into an area of study and not encounter the same names over and over again. Knowing who’s who in an industry is sometimes essential for knowing what’s what.

It’s easy for anyone to put information on the internet, accurate or not. So, knowing the names of the respected players not only ensures that your information is coming from credible sources, but that you’ve taken the time to really get inside the industry. Really, it’s the people and their contributions that made your area of interest what it is. Without musicians, there would be no music!

Also, if you are mainly self-educated, then questions can arise concerning exactly what you’ve been studying. When a high school student applies to university with a government-accredited diploma, the university has at least a general idea of what material was covered in class. As a homeschooler, you have much more flexibility to pick and choose your own learning resources. Citing key authors or researchers in your area of interest, therefore, can help the university admissions departments feel confident that you’ve done more than memorize a few facts; you’ve done enough study in the area to know the major players and their theories, contributions and positions.

To give more credibility to your self-study, be sure to work the following into your university application:

  • Who have you connected with, studied about in the course of your interest?
  • Who are the big names in your area of interest, and how has their work influenced you?
  • How do you envision contributing to or adding on to their work?

6. University USP – how will the specific university you’re applying to fit into those plans?

In the world of sales and marketing, USP stands for “Unique Selling Proposition.” In other words, it’s what makes a product or service unique.

When you apply to universities, it is really worth your while to understand each school’s USP: what they can distinctly offer you that the other schools can’t. Not only is this essential information with which to make your final decisions, but also universities are understandably impressed (even flattered) when you know specifics about them.

In your university application, specifically mention:

  • Why their specific department is a good fit for you and your interests. Include references to specific faculty with their research interests, facilities (e.g. the most powerful telescope on an Ontario university campus), degree options (e.g. the opportunity to major in criminal forensics in an undergraduate degree)
  • How you see yourself contributing to the social scene. Find out which clubs are already running that would interest you, or suggest organizations you might initiate that don’t already exist. Mention specific annual events that you can see yourself becoming regularly involved in, such as a breast cancer walk or clothing drive.
  • How the stated mission of the university is a good fit. Examine the school’s motto, philosophy and/or mandate. Explain how or why they resonate with you. Has the university recently removed trays from the cafeteria to save water and energy washing them? Are you impressed because the university has a strong student services department demonstrating a commitment to student success? If the university takes a stand on issues that are important to you, mention how you can get behind those initiatives.

This is more than buttering up the university, this is ensuring that you and the university really are a match made in heaven. It’s for your own benefit as much as it is for getting you noticed by the admissions committee.


It’s easy to think that an interest, passion or obsession can’t be leveraged on a university application. But, having a strong interest may just be what gets you noticed and pushes your application into the “accept” pile!

With a little clear, focused thinking, you can turn your interests into a showcase for your skills, talents, and desirability to any post-secondary institution.

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