How To Choose Your Extra Curricular Activities Wisely


Sports, part-time jobs, volunteering, computer games, partying and even The Bachelorette. These are all great examples of extra curricular things we spend our time on.

My best advice for managing these is to try to have balance. Balance defined by your priorities and goals (see How To Set Realistic Goals For The School Year for more about setting REAListic goals).

If one of your priorities is to “get experience that will better prepare me for life post-graduation,” let’s talk:

Getting relatable, real-world experience doesn’t have to feel like ‘work’. Seek out opportunities and organizations where you can enjoy what you are doing and the people you would be working with.

In my role with Students Offering Support, we work to continually redefine the experiences we provide our student volunteers to help prepare them for post-graduation.

Changes are driven in part by numerous conversations with our national partners, grad school recruiters and executives in our networks – and here are some tips to help you choose your extra curricular activities wisely:

Direct field-related experience is gold

If you can get paid, or if you can do volunteer work which is directly related to your field while you study, jump on it! Example: work as a legal office assistant, volunteer as the accountant for a campus association, teach review sessions or assist at a local school, etc.

Use creativity to gain direct experience in unique ways

For many who can’t find a silver bullet, find opportunities that can get you the qualities employers are looking for, yet in odd places. For example, experience managing others through volunteering at a high school or after-school program working with students.

Great responsibility TRUMPS great (well-known) organizations

Having an unskilled role at Google or The Red Cross will always lose out to real-world experience at a smaller scale campus club or local business.  Ideally, you want great responsibility AND a great organization, but if that isn’t available, go with experience and skills over name. Seeing a laundry list of ‘general member’ volunteer placements at national organizations on your CV indicates that you love getting monthly mailing list e-mails and may contribute with the occasional re-tweet or by attending a pizza social. Not exactly something that will jump off the resumé.

Find clearly-defined roles, learn/experience as much as you can, move on (or up!)

Vague roles that do a whole bunch of ‘stuff’ can be worthwhile and provide a lot of value, but if you can’t communicate exactly ‘what you did’ and what you learned or the skills you gained, then it becomes really hard for an interviewer to wrap their head around what you took away from it. Instead, take a role for four or eight months that has clear responsibilities, learn a ton, do a great job at it, and then move to something else.

It doesn’t mean you need to jump from one organization to the next every term, but always reflect to see if you are in the right position – that you are learning, getting new experiences (gaining skills and attributes your career looks for), adding value to the organization, and have something tangible to talk about afterwards. When an interviewer asks ‘tell me a time when you did…’ try not to use the same thing each time. Ideally, you want three different instances that you can bring up to illustrate your superstar qualities.

Build relationships with potential references

In applying to grad school or jobs, references are key. The best situation is to have three strong references who can speak well of your abilities and character: one academic (professor), one employer (work related), and one volunteer related. When considering what extra-curriculars to take on this year (TAing, volunteering, part-time job, etc.) take a second to think about the potential relationships that could be formed and if they could be a good reference. Can the role build a relationship with the organization president, or a professor, or do you work closely with a manager?


Getting relatable, real-world experience doesn’t have to feel like ‘work’. Seek out opportunities and organizations where you can enjoy what you are doing and the people you would be working with.

I hope these tips can help give you some thoughts as you look for and refine your extra-curricular opportunities for the upcoming year. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment or e-mail me.

Photo credit: club rush by sweetthing10601 on Flickr
About the author

Greg Overholt Greg Overholt (@goverholt) is the founder and executive director of the national student-led charitable social venture SOS: Students Offering Support (@SOSheadoffice). SOS is an organization where student volunteers teach their peers in exam-prep group review sessions, with the proceeds used to fund education projects in rural Latin America, built by volunteers on annual outreach trips. Since 2004, 25,000 students have been taught across 30 universities, raising more than $1,400,000 for development projects. Greg has spent the last five years since graduating helping 3000+ student leaders across Canada to "raise marks, raise money, and raise roofs" on their campuses.