Extracurricular tips for college admissions during a pandemic


One of collateral damages from COVID-19 is the ability of teenagers to participate in extracurricular activities before applying to college.

Right now, you can’t participate in a school marching band or play Shakespeare on a stage. Showing athletic prowess on a track, ball field or court ain’t happening either. You can’t debate in competitions or run a school club.

While the pandemic has made pursuing extracurricular activities more difficult, it is by NO means impossible.

Teenagers just have to be more creative when thinking about extracurriculars they will ultimately share with colleges. Give it some thought and they should be able to come up with great extracurricular ideas!

Extracurricular Activities During COVID-19 Pandemic

To help generate extracurricular ideas during this surreal time, I talked with Shirag Shemmassian, an independent college consultant in San Diego, who helps teenagers with undergraduate admissions, as well as medical school admissions.

I’m sharing some of this evergreen about how teenagers should pursue extracurriculars and then I’ll highlight what he said about activities during this time of crisis.

You can see the entire interview here:


Evergreen Extracurricular Advice for College Admissions

Students need to know the best way topick activities in normal times before tailoring the advice to the pandemic. The basic advice holds for now too, but some activities will obviously need to be tweaked.

No. 1. It doesn’t matter what extracurricular teenagers select.

What is important is what teenagers do with the activities they pick.

Here’s an example for teenagers who play a musical instrument. What can set a student apart is getting involved in music beyond playing. A teenager could start an after-school music class at a local school, launch a fundraiser to buy instruments for kids who can’t afford them or think of another activity linked to music.

No. 2. Low-threshold extracurricular activities aren’t impressive.

If an activity is easy to join and easy to explain, then it’s not that impressive. It’s a low-threshold activity.

“Let’s take the  typical student who wants to go for well-rounded,” Shemmassian said. “Science quiz bowl, model UN, decathlon, track team, five AP course. All of this is very easy to explain.”

No. 3. High-threshold extracurriculars will impress colleges.

Focus on high-threshold extracurriculars, which are by their very nature hard to explain easily.

“If I told you that there is a student who started a statewide network of art kit distribution to cancer centers, explain that,” Shemmassian said.

“Work backwards and put together those steps. You may be able to, but at various points you’re going to stop and you’re going to think, I don’t know, what’s the next step? How do they do that? If the activity sticks together in your mind, it’s not impressive, but if it’s harder to explain and think through, that becomes more impressive.”

Shemmassian is working with a teenager, who loves art and teaching children. She brought both loves together by creating an art kit for young children with cancer. She is looking to partner with local hospitals to distribute the art kits.

No. 4. Ditch extraneous extracurriculars.

Time is precious for teenagers, which can make extracurricular activities a pain to squeeze in.

Shemmassian suggests cutting out fluff activities and focusing on just a couple that are meaningful to the student.

“What do students do who aspire to attend top colleges? They enroll in every single AP course maybe their school offers, which is tons of hours of homework.”

They’ll spend one hour a week “here, two hours a week here, three hours a week here in all these various clubs. Then at the end of the day, they don’t really have much time left. None of these activities in and of themselves will differentiate the applicant in any way.”

No. 5. Use the application to amplify the activities.

The Common Application has room to briefly include a long list of activities, but remember quality always trumps quantity. Students can use the additional comments section of college applications to share what they did and how that reflects their character, their values and their qualities.

Extracurricular Ideas During the Pandemic

Even with a pandemic, the foundations for college admissions, specifically extracurricular activities, are unchanged, Shemmassian says.

“Just as before the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said, “colleges want to make sure that students are achieving a lot of depth with their extracurriculars rather than trying to become a jack of all trades and trying to do everything. That still applies.

“So, things like commitment, achievement, depth, impact, all of those things still matter. It’s just that the options are quite different now versus what they were prior to this.”

Luckily, it is possible for students to pursue some of their own interests today, but much of it will be virtual.

Pandemic Extracurricular Ideas

Here are just a few ideas:

Extracurricular idea: Instead of continuing to volunteer as a tutor for children in an after-school program, explore doing it virtually.

Extracurricular idea: Start up or join a fruit and/or vegetable swap. I got this idea after reading in the San Diego newspaper about a community fruit swap.  Homeowners with excess harvest from their trees – oranges, grapefruit, guavas, figs, lemons, kumquats, avocados, to name a few – drop off their unwanted fruit and people who need food come by and pick up a bag of fruit.

Extracurricular idea:  Create raised beds for vegetables and herbs for senior citizens and others in your community who would like fresh produce but don’t have the ability to start their own gardens.

Extracurricular idea:  Make bag lunches for people who need food. (As a volunteer in Vermont, my son, who is a tremendous cook, is doing this three times a week for dozens of needy people.)

Extracurricular idea:  Become a virtual babysitter. Figure out what works and perhaps create a guide for other teenagers who want to do virtual babysitting for free (for first responders for instance) or as a paid service.

Extracurricular idea: Let’s say you had plans to travel to Europe this summer for a program that included museum tours and art lessons. Museums have virtual exhibits and with the money saved, parents could hire an art teacher for virtual lessons.

Extracurricular idea: Find a place in social media. Start a blog. Create fascinating TikTok videos. Use Pinterest to show off and deepen your creativity. Consider starting your own YouTube channel.

Extracurricular idea:  Students who are interested in politics, will have many opportunities to get involved. Campaigning will be largely online for the 2020 fall election. Candidates from the local, state and federal levels would love to have help!

Extracurricular idea: Students can take a deep dive and learn or do something that they never had time for before. Some ideas…

  • Jewelry making
  • Photography
  • Quilting
  • Woodworking
  • Learning Latin
  • Composing music
  • Robotics
  • Coding
  • Chess
  • Writing comedy and performing online

Share your own extracurricular ideas!

I would love to hear more extracurricular ideas. Please share any that you have in the comment box!

Extracurricular activities and summer program guides

To learn more about extracurricular activities, check out Shemmassian’s great (free) guides:

Extracurricular Activities for College Admissions:  The Ultimate Guide (Examples Included)

The Best Summer Programs for High School Students

Obviously, the second guide won’t be relevant for in-person programs now, but this pandemic will end some day!







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  1. Thanks for this! Super helpful video and resources.
    My son will be a senior next year and each summer he has had the opportunity to work with refugees and migrants in Spain and France for 10 days each summer. This year’s trip was canceled, obviously. He has created an program on Zoom matching his American peer with refugees and migrants in Spain who want to practice English. He coordinated with a humanitarian worker he had met on one of his previous trips.

    He has also signed up for a free course on Coursera, which will provide him with a certificate of completion for a modest fee. He wants to study mechanical engineering so he is taking a MATLAB course from a professor at Vanderbuilt through Coursera.