Make Your Extracurricular Activities Pay Off

Orchestra, football, or paintball are still valuable, even if they don't lead to scholarships.

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I played trumpet in concert bands, pep bands, and orchestras throughout high school and college, including a few summers at a relatively prestigious music camp for high school students. It was at this camp where a guest conductor arranged the band in a way I'd never seen before. Oboes, bassoons, bass clarinets, baritone saxophones, and tubas sat smack in the middle, while the more populous trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and flute sections were consigned to the outsides.

What's more, the conductor dubbed this middle section "Scholarship Row." After years of conducting collegiate bands, he'd come to learn that there was a shortage of talented musicians taking up these offbeat but crucial horn spots—thereby ensuring that there was a lot more scholarship money out there for an above-average bassoon player than for an above-average trombone player.

[See U.S. News's Paying for College guide for tips on financing your education.]

The same holds true outside the world of music, too: Extracurriculars are always good for your scholarship applications, but the extracurriculars you pick—and the areas in which you specialize—can make a big difference when it comes to scholarship funding. And it's important, as you consider paying for college, to balance your passions and your potential payoffs so neither loses out.

"Scholarship Row" is an example of one of the three biggest steps to making your extracurriculars pay off:

1. Focus on your unique skills. This is especially key when it comes to sports. Athletic scholarships can seem like a guaranteed ticket to college—after all, athletic budgets at major colleges tend to be in the stratosphere, and stories abound of talented basketball, soccer, and softball players who used sports as a stepping-stone to higher education.

However, it's not that simple. This Houston Chronicle article does some in-depth number crunching and finds that "The sport with the highest percentage of high school participants earning at least a partial athletic scholarship is girls golf at 1.6 percent." Football is a close second, but the numbers are stark: On a team of 100, only one or two players are likely to get even a partial scholarship. Coupled with the often high cost of off-season camps, in-season equipment, and exposure to recruiters, this can mean that athletic scholarships are exclusive to the very top tier of athletes.

That said, you can boost your chances of winning an athletic scholarship just like my oboe-playing friends boosted their chances of a music scholarship: by focusing on something unique that you do well. Whether that means playing goalkeeper in water polo or learning to cox a rowing team or just practicing free throws until you can hit 500 in a row, the most important thing you can do is stand out from the pack—and make sure coaches know it.

2. Participate in activities that support your major: I'm not saying that you need to know what you're going to do with your life at 16—but as soon as you have a good idea what you may want to focus on in college, start pursuing those fields both in and out of the classroom. Thinking of a business major? Spend some after-school time with Future Business Leaders of America. Law? If you're not on your school's speech or debate team, you should be. Agriculture more your thing? 4-H or Future Farmers of America can help you gain experience year-round. Interested in a communications degree? Get on your school's newspaper staff.

[Read about 20 colleges where it's easy to get involved.]

I speak from experience on that last one; working on my own high school newspaper helped me get into the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication my freshman year, and, like most large-school departments, that meant I qualified for a mile-long list of scholarships. (All of the organizations I mentioned above feature scholarships for high school students as well.) In addition to the scholarships you might receive, any extracurricular work like this will enhance your college applications.

3. Follow your passions: Do this even if your passions don't turn into immediate money. For example, in recent years, college paintball has become a relatively nationwide activity, and the natural question that follows has led to a permanent, ongoing thread on the major U.S. paintball message board titled "There Are No Scholarships For Paintball."

[Admissions officers offer tips on finding the right extracurriculars for you.]

However, just because there aren't readily available paintball scholarships, doesn't mean you shouldn't play if paintball is your passion. Likewise, just because you're a third-string cornerback unlikely to get a football scholarship, that doesn't mean you shouldn't stick with football. And even if the punk band in your garage is about as far from a scholarship application as possible, it's valuable.

[Read about scholarships that award leadership.]

As we've mentioned in this space before, scholarships are not just about academics—and they're not just about athletic skill or particular activities, either. Admissions offices and scholarship committees are looking for students with diverse interests with the drive to follow their passions, and with the ability to connect with people. Anything you can do outside the classroom to foster that is valuable, in terms of both scholarship dollars and preparing you for college.

Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.