Parents often ask me about the importance of extracurricular activities when it comes to supporting a college, graduate school or job application for their son or daughter.

Here’s how I answer that question. First, I make clear that four other components of the application are more important because schools and employers have found them to be greater indicators of initial success. These components are:

  • high performance in a rigorous curriculum;
  • strong results on standardized tests;
  • noteworthy and personalized recommendation letters; and
  • an application essay (or in the case of a job, a cover letter) with a clear and compelling storyline.

With that context in mind, I then tell parents that the passionate pursuit of achievement or a leadership role in one extracurricular activity is much more critical to making an application stand out than a laundry list of perfunctory participation in a wide range of activities. More importantly, I try to tell them that such a pursuit is also critical to building a long and happy life.

“Yeah sure, but what about the application?” is often the parents’ response. So I tell them that pursuing a singular passion with intensity easily beats just checking another box. Schools – and employers – want to accept and hire leaders, not joiners.

Now it is true, of course, that students do need exposure to a wide range of extracurricular activities when they are relatively young and it can’t hurt to note that fact in supporting documents for a college application, or at the very bottom of early-in-career resume.

But once that exposure occurs, it is also important for the distractions of too many clubs or too many activities to be put aside, and for just one thing – a sport, a musical talent, a political cause, a volunteer initiative – to be pursued with the vim and vigor that only can come from the fire that burns within each and every one of us.

There is no uniform line of demarcation when participation in every sport turns into a specialty in a single sport, or when doing a musical riff in the basement leads to a prominent role onstage, or when answering the phones at a campaign headquarters turns into leading a “Student for Fill-in-Name-of-Candidate” effort.

But for some of you, the fortunate among you, that line will be crossed by your child and you will feel it in ways large and small. You will probably pinch yourselves a bit, and wonder what you did right to have nurtured someone who is able to muster such commitment.

For others of you, the parents of students who are still working on a list of things but who haven’t yet dove headfirst into that one thing, don’t give up hope. Just as your encouragement is critical to supporting your child’s success in academics, so too is your encouragement important to unleashing your child’s passion for an outside activity.

Encourage your son or daughter to do a self-assessment of his or her skills and interests. Once that inventory is complete, together you may discover a hidden passion that has not been pursued by your child because of a mistaken perception that it is too hard, too time consuming or too expensive.

Support – but do not force – that newfound pursuit. It may be a false start or it may flame out completely. But give your child a chance to find that out, so that years later he or she is not wondering what might have been.

When it comes to applying to school or for a job, I want to remind you that the category of extracurricular activities is probably going to rank #5 in most cases, after grades, scores, recommendation and essays or cover letters. But when it comes to playing the game of life, I want to suggest to you that the passionate pursuit of one extracurricular activity can, for some people, easily outpace everything else, and indeed provide a meaning for everything else.

Here’s hoping that you – and your child – are able to find your passion to pursue, and that you are able to muster the time and energy to pursue it.

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