Courses, faculty, advising and housing are things that can easily be compared among colleges. Extracurricular activities are somewhat harder to rank. Even so, they can have a profound impact on your time in school and life after it. These groups, teams, and opportunities can lead you to people, ideas and experiences classes can’t offer.
Extracurricular activities can take many forms depending on where you study and what you and your peers are interested in. They can include participating in, or supporting college athletics teams; debate and pre-professional societies; periodicals on arts and literature, social matters and science; student performances, plays, and exhibits; community service organizations and more.
Extracurricular activities offer the chance to build knowledge and experience that can be as invaluable in your future work as the skills you learn in class and the grades you earn. Athletics teach personal discipline, teamwork, and physical skills that can help in nearly every career. Working for a student-run periodical whether the campus newspaper or a literature review teaches how to meet deadlines, grows communications skills, and lets students interact with people from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives.
Student performances and exhibitions can help you get over the fear of being on stage or improve your communication and performance skills. You can get invaluable experience as an artist, thespian, photographer or musician. Student performance groups tour frequently. They give shows for alumni, community leaders and other people who you may connect with at an engagement or through the often-extremely powerful social networks these organizations have to offer.
To say that you played a sport for university X, or were on the student newspaper at college Y, or were a film star on campus Z can literally open doors that no faculty member or transcript will. For this reason, as you think about “what you want to be when you grow up,” it is important to look at more than just what classes your prospective colleges have available or what academic rank the campus has.
Rankings cannot and do not capture extracurricular activities well. This is true because knowing what opportunities are available outside of classes and how well connected people in those groups are is nearly impossible without insider knowledge. Even people who have been on one campus for a long time may well not know all of the extracurricular opportunities available there.
The number of available activities at any school is somewhat proportional to the size of the student body. Larger colleges often have a comparably greater set of possibilities. That said, smaller campuses still have opportunities likely to meet your interest. Most campuses have an online directory of student activities. This can be an essential tool in learning about how students at schools you’re considering spend their free time.
Activities are important but in many ways the groups that organize and facilitate them have equal value as opportunities for socialization and leadership training. There are a lot of possibilities on most campuses. I can only survey a few of them here. Student interest groups of all types are an invaluable resource. Prehealth organizations can help you learn whether being a physician, nurse or scientist is best for you. They often have speakers or field trips that can expose you to various healthcare careers. Preprofessional societies are great places to meet people thinking about going into politics, law, business or journalism; all of which require strong speaking and communication skills. Many campuses have pre-business societies that help people connect with local entrepreneurs while letting students explore what its like to be in civic organizations that mix socializing with peer individuals and a focus on community service.
Speaking of community service, many student organizations engage in a wide variety of activities that are invaluable to people off campus. Some teach about science, medicine, art, or health. Members of other organizations tutor individual students on these and many other topics. Some work with local groups on neighborhood improvement. Others engage in religious outreach or work with local religious groups on issues important to their members. Members of many community service organizations work with the disabled or disadvantaged, helping these people get to appointments with healthcare professionals or do a wide variety of errands that they wouldn’t otherwise accomplish. These tasks, if left undone, can seriously endanger the health and welfare of society’s most vulnerable individuals.
There is plenty of available information on line about the leadership, alumni and reputation of these activities, especially in long-standing organizations like newspapers, musical groups, or athletics for example. Spending some time looking at online resources that discuss these programs and organizations can be incredibly helpful in learning more about essentially important parts of campus life that outside “experts” can’t rank objectively.
Please remember that all things in life are impacted by logistics which affect getting from home to classes and activities. Because on-campus residences can be closer and more convenient than those off campus, living in college-owned housing can have academic, social and practical benefits. The literature shows students are often more engaged and likelier to complete college if they live on campus.
However, on-campus space may be costly or limited. You may want to “test your wings” off campus. If housing is an important factor, look at the proportion of students living in college-owned residences and any available housing guarantees at your prospective schools.
Wherever you go and whatever you’re interested in, there are extracurricular activities that can be fun, interesting and important in your life. Research extracurriculars as carefully as you do majors. They can be just as important in shaping your future as anything you do in lecture, lab or in the library.