People enroll in college to become more educated and to receive an academic qualification, usually with a view to improving their career prospects. But once they arrive on campus, all students quickly discover that there is more to college than just taking classes. Especially for undergraduate students, there are a host of extracurricular opportunities on offer: clubs, societies, sports teams, political parties, campaigning organizations, internship opportunities, and more.
Are any of these extracurricular activities worth the time and attention? And if so, how much effort should be devoted to them?
The short answers are (a), yes, extracurricular activities can be worth it, and (b) students should devote as much time to them as possible without adversely affecting their studies. The problem is that students often fail to get the balance right.
In my experience, students tend to fall into two categories. Either they disregard extracurricular opportunities altogether and finish college much the poorer as a result, or else they devote too much time to non-school work and risk not graduating at all. Rare is the student who uses their spare time in a careful and strategic fashion.
There are two main reasons for why you might choose to engage in extracurricular activities. First, they are fun. Joining an organization can be a fantastic way to meet people and form enduring friendships. Nobody can study 24/7, and so why not spend some of your spare time on your favorite sports and hobbies?
Second, extracurricular activities can be vital when it comes to strengthening your CV or resume. It’s no secret that today’s graduates are entering a job market that is global, competitive, and unforgiving. Although a university education is still the best thing you can do to improve your job prospects, the reality is that a bachelor’s degree alone is no longer sufficient to guarantee a desirable first job, let alone a comfortable long-term career.
In order to be truly competitive on the job market, graduates need to stand out from the crowd. That doesn’t need to mean canoeing backwards up the Amazon, inventing a healthy cigarette, or coming up with a cure for the common cold – but it does mean getting serious about strengthening your candidacy for the jobs you’ll be applying for.
When I was an undergraduate, it was fashionable for careers advisers to tell students that they were each the CEO of “You, Inc.” This sort out of language is less popular nowadays, but the message is a good one: that we each have an individual responsibility to turn ourselves into people that employers are going to want to hire.
This means using your time in college to gain valuable experience and to hone important skills: project management, teamwork, communication, marketing and advertising, working with technology, organizing events, public speaking, using or even creating software, and so forth. More specifically, you need evidence of these things so that other people can easily recognize you as somebody who is driven, capable, and multi-skilled.
This is where extracurricular activities come in. It’s unlikely that the classes you take in college will give you all of the skills and experiences that you will need to land your dream job. It’s up to you, then, to make up the difference. Your mission is to “build” your resume in strategic ways, to give yourself everything you’ll need to get hired.
Do you want leadership experience but never seem to get it in the classroom? Run for election in your student government or volunteer for a leadership role in your favorite sports club. Do you want a job in environmental conservation but you’re a sociology major? Find some way to become involved in conservation so that you’ll have something meaningful to discuss when writing job applications and attending interviews.
To understand the importance of all of this, just put yourself in the shoes of a future employer. Why would they believe you when you say you’re interested in X or Y, or when you tell them that you’re capable of achieving A or B? You need proof. You need evidence. You need lines of text on your resume that will convince a skeptical hiring committee that you’re the person for the job.
Nobody else can give you the experience you’ll need to succeed as a young professional. You have to create your own opportunities. You need to identify a goal and think hard about what skills and experiences you’ll need to reach that goal. Then you must be ruthless about getting hold of what you’re missing.
Overall, the point is that extracurricular activities can be enormously beneficial for undergraduates. For this reason, you owe it to yourself to be strategic in how you “use” such activities and opportunities. That’s not to say that you should only participate in things for cynical reasons, of course. Having fun and making friends is still the best reason for joining clubs, teams, and other organizations.
But nor should you be afraid of doing simple cost-benefit analyses. How much do you expect to get out your participation in a given club? Will this sports team require you to miss class or do poorly on assignments? Is there something better that you might be able to do with your precious time? These are important questions to ask yourself, and will help you to allocate your time effectively.
Finally, though, always remember that extracurricular activities are just that: extra-curricular not alt-curricular. If you’re enrolled in college then your schoolwork should always come first. Clubs and organizations are rarely good reasons for missing class, and they are not going to help you on the job market if you don’t finish your education.
Be smart. Be strategic. Set yourself apart from your peers. You can have a lot of fun and make a lot of friends in the process!
Other posts in this series:
Avoiding plagiarism, 11 April 2017
Writing professional emails, 4 April 2017
Strong writing skills aren’t optional, 28 March 2017
Writing a great introduction, 21 March 2017
What good in-class participation looks like, 7 March 2017
Credible sources: Who to trust when doing research papers, 28 February 2017
How to study for an exam, 21 February 2017
“Showing up” to college: What choosing to succeed looks like, 14 February 2017
Taking notes, part two: What should you write down?, 9 February 2017
Taking notes, part one: In defense of pen and paper, 7 February 2017
How to manage your time effectively in college, 31 January 2017
How to get the most out of office hours, 24 January 2017
College is a team sport, 17 January 2017