So you’ve started your first year of college and are realizing that you have the freedom to re-assess all of your high school extracurriculars. Do you want to continue to play the piano or run track? Are you interested, instead, in learning a new instrument and playing intramural soccer? Or maybe you want to try something new?
Many schools host “activity fairs” during the first few weeks of the year, where campus clubs and organizations set up information tables to share more about their mission and ways that you can get involved. While it may seem overwhelming to try and figure out what may be of interest to you, getting involved from the start can be helpful in diving into college life—as well as down the line when you apply for jobs and internships.
I generally recommend that students go to club’s intro meetings, where they can meet some of the other participants or members, and get a sense for how the organization is run. Keep an open mind—the other students at the meetings may be totally different from the ones that you knew in high school, and you could actually find yourself interested in a whole new topic with people who share that interest with you. This exercise does require you to step out of yourself a bit and “check your assumptions” at the door. College is a great time to see if maybe you want to learn more about working backstage on a play, or get involved in local politics—activities you might not have had time to think about or pursue in high school. No one says that everyone you meet when branching out is going to become your best friend necessarily, but allowing yourself to explore new ideas with new people will help you break into college life and uncover new interest and skills.
You don’t need to be planning your future grad school or professional path from the minute you start your first year of college, but do try to look ahead occasionally. Keeping an eye on the juniors and seniors in the clubs that you join to learn a little more about their college path, or their leadership roles, can help you better explore all the different kinds of possibilities that exist. You may feel like a leadership role is something you don’t want, or could not expect to have—but speaking with students who have been through it, or hold those positions can help you to think about how to put this into a compelling narrative later.
Not surprisingly, when you apply for graduate school or your first job, admissions officers and HR managers are going to want to determine cultural fit—have you had experiences outside of the classroom that demonstrate a particular interest, affinity, or skillset? Have you had the chance to work in collaboration with other team members, or have you perhaps led an organization or event? Your potential new boss and coworkers will look to more than resume bullet points to asses these interests and traits—extracurriculars are fair game, so use them to your advantage.
One of the great things about the college extracurricular scene is that there is plenty of room for everyone; in fact, if you do a quick scan of what is offered, there is more than enough room for meaningful engagement and leadership opportunities to go around. Additionally, you can choose your own path, and choose from opportunities that cover a wider range of interests than you may have had previously because you “thought you should” or because your friends were involved in them.
You never really know who you will meet outside of the classroom, the kinds of conversations you will have, and the types of new skills that you develop can be so useful later on. For example, chairing a social event in college translates very nicely to engagement on a social committee at your company/organizations post-college; similarly, captaining or co-captaining an intramural team lends itself to highlighting your team-orientation and leadership capacity, which is beneficial in your day-to-day work in most jobs as well as within your company/organization’s general culture.
It is worthwhile to begin to think about how beneficial extracurricular opportunities are early in your college career so that you can grow your skill and character trait “portfolio” during your four years of undergrad.
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