Why do colleges care about extracurricular activities?

by on April 13, 2010 at 8:48 am in Education | Permalink

Bryan Caplan asks:

Colleges care about applicants' extracurricular activities.  Employers don't.  What's going on?  I'm tempted to just repeat my adage that, "Non-profits are crazy," but even non-profit employers don't seem very concerned about how you spend your spare time. 


I'll take the bait.  Colleges want to expand the heterogeneity of the selection criteria so they can pick who they want.  If it's a top college or university, mostly this means limiting the number of Asians and maximizing the number of future donors and by the way those two goals tend to move in tandem.  Other than legacy admissions, I wonder what other features of applications predict future donations?  Might extra-curricular activities be one candidate here?

1 jn April 13, 2010 at 9:00 am

Yes, but at the same time, the top colleges want to maintain reputations for drawing academically top students. So a “diverse” college will have two classes of students — those primarily picked for pure academic ability and those where social criteria (whether in diversity of subject matter or sports or legacy or contacts) outweigh purely scholarly criteria. Furthermore, grade inflation and majors of differing levels of rigor will make it possible for both groups to coexist while still graduating. The question is why employers do not punish schools that dilute their student body.

Unless you believe all employers want the **exact** mix of nerds and jocks that schools pick such decisions should favor some schools more than others. If pure smarts are the criteria, those schools which have tighter standards should get a boost. If it’s primarily about reaching a smartness/diligence threshold and then being social those schools which increasingly skew that way should be rewarded. But in either case, the current mix should not be in equilibrium.

2 someguy April 13, 2010 at 9:17 am

I’m surprised no one is going for a simple signaling explanation. It’s a cost-discriminating signal. Only high types can take on additional activities and still do well in school. Those additional activities take time.

3 charlie April 13, 2010 at 9:19 am

why don’t higher education admission types discriminate based on attractiveness — which would seem to be a better determinant of future success than anything else?

4 liberalarts April 13, 2010 at 9:23 am

People who are involved in a lot of things are usually (but not always) more interesting to have in class. As a professor, I would prefer students who have multiple interests other than grades, and if that means selecting a class with a slightly lower high school GPA/SAT, then I would take the trade. The super smart, introverted kids who sit in class but can’t or won’t participate are not really a joy to teach, and they are less likely to have done other extracurriculars. I also suspect that the more active students are more active in dating too, which probably helps keep students happier too.

5 Skip Intro April 13, 2010 at 9:24 am

Isn’t it also probably fair to say that a (large?) majority of colleges & universities don’t care about extracurricular activities?

6 eitan April 13, 2010 at 9:25 am

I agree about the cost-discriminating signal of finding students who are capable of juggling academics and extraurriculars.

But also, isn’t a simpler explanation that colleges are not just looking for the top students, but also want to have strong extracurricular activities on their campus as well. Presumably, having a good student government and student newspaper helps the overall campus reputation and college experience for the students. They could be willing to trade some level of academic achievement for achievement in these other areas.

7 r4i sdhc April 13, 2010 at 9:31 am

I personally believe colleges do give consideration to activities students engage in outside the classroom. Furthermore, quality of activities is considered more favorably than quantity of activates…

8 mike@pvl April 13, 2010 at 9:35 am

I work in Advancement at a regional, private University. Part of my job is predictive modeling to determine which prospects are more likely to give. Athletes in particular give more to the school and have higher engagement after graduation. However, people involved with other social groups (music, theater, ect.) also give more than those with no activities on their records. A university might expect that a high school student with a high number of activities will be a college student with a high number of activities, and the associated high affinity for the institution. And that means endowment and annual fund giving. In other words, what Tyler said, “maximizing the number of future donors.”

That being said, the so-called science behind prospect data mining is a shocking. I’ve seen people get excited over an R-squared of 0.05, saying it shows that variable X means higher likelihood of giving. No, that’s not a typos, and yes, obvious causation issues. I’ve never once heard anyone mention a confidence interval. So yes, I’m a fraud. But I get free tuition and to read MR at work, so that’s nice.

9 RWBoyd April 13, 2010 at 9:37 am

Might participation in extracurricular activities signal useful but non-academic qualities that colleges desire, such as leadership, teamwork, and community participation?

As for Caplan’s notion that employers don’t care about your extracurricular activities, I think this blanket statement simply isn’t true. They might not, on average, care much about your hobbies or club memberships (that said, I was asked about them in my most recent job interview–and I got hired). But membership in certain clubs or organizations might be what connects you with an employer. Being in a fraternity or sorority is often useful in connecting you with future employers. In business school, the various clubs were intentionally designed for this purpose. In short, many extracurricular activities, while not adding anything to your resume, do add social capital and connections that help employers connect with you.

10 mike@pvl April 13, 2010 at 9:39 am

I should say that future donations are likely not the *only* reason colleges look to this signal. Many of the answers in the comments ring true. Prehaps increased donative intent is just a nice side affect. My guess is that tradition and shared scripts play a large role (“We’re going to ask for this because Harvard asks for it.”) and the particular mix of reasons would vary from school to school or even department to department.

11 mike April 13, 2010 at 9:43 am

Active students add to the consumption value of the university to other current and prospective students. Isn’t that obvious? I want to go to a place with active social networks, etc., so finding people who are likely to participate in the community increases demand for my college, strengthens the pool of applicants, reduces transfers, etc.

12 Delsol April 13, 2010 at 9:49 am

I don’t know what you’re talking about. I work for a major management consulting firm and we definitely do care about job applicants’ extracurricular activities – they are often relatively good signals of commitment, leadership, work ethic, and sometimes other marketable job skills.

13 Marc Roston April 13, 2010 at 9:54 am

I like Charlie’s comment: Why not select for attractiveness, as that’s a sign of future success?

Since it would be really ugly to select for attractiveness in an obvious way, why not select for attractiveness indirectly through proven social success? (which, as Charlie notes, depends on attractiveness!)

President of chess club? Well, you are probably tallest and best looking guy in chess club. Cheerleader? Reasonably likely better than average attractiveness at your high school.

14 Ignoto Fiorentino April 13, 2010 at 10:02 am

What is the basis for Bryan’s premise? Does he offer empirical evidence for it, or is it just your and his anecdotal observation? If the latter, no theoretical explanation is needed.

15 Matthew Yglesias April 13, 2010 at 10:04 am

There’s something to Tyler’s theory, but I completely disagree that employers don’t care about extra-curricular activities. When we look at applicants for jobs at ThinkProgress we definitely look to see if they’ve been involved in campus publications and/or political groups as well as their summer jobs or internships. This kind of thing is much more relevant than whether they got an A- or a B+ in some required biology class.

16 Matthew Yglesias April 13, 2010 at 10:07 am

And of course I assume I got hired largely on the strength of my extra-curricular blog-writing rather than my so-so grades as a philosophy major.

17 lexington April 13, 2010 at 10:10 am

“The question is why employers do not punish schools that dilute their student body.”

Employers care about their criteria for job performance, not your criteria for academic performance, and the correlation is far from perfect. School administrators know this too: what strengthens their brand in the long run is having people do interesting and impactful things in the world at large. Beyond a point, grades and test scores are a weak predictor of this.

18 Geoge McCandless April 13, 2010 at 10:14 am

This paragraph is a new low for Caplan: trite, narrow minded, downright stupid. Of course firms don’t care about your outside activities once you are hired but for a first hire they do care a lot about what you chose to do while you were in college. It’s called signaling, my boy. One signals personality traits by the activities one chooses and since different (interesting) jobs require different personality traits, they are important in the hiring process. What sport you played and what position you played in that sport says a lot about you. In addition, these outside activities serve as practice runs: reporters practice in the school newspaper and politicians practice in the university (student) senate. Ignorance about the range of possibilities in the world is one of the clearest characteristics of students. Extra-curricular activities are a chance to try some things out. Seems obvious, but not everyone looks at what is going on around them.

19 liberalarts April 13, 2010 at 10:34 am

With online applications, which 95%+ of students use, I doubt that anyone includes a photo. Photos used to be standard, but even before online apps, my college dropped them as part of the application.

By the way, have you taken a gander at a college faculty lately? We aren’t really an attractive lot, so maybe not selecting for appearance is a move to lower the average attractiveness of successful people so as to improve our relative position. 😉

20 Deziani April 13, 2010 at 10:43 am

Grades are not a perfect signal of ability and high school grades are even weaker. I will take an SAT score of 1400 with lots of extracurricular over a score of 1600 with nothing but the score. Being a well-rounded individual is a better predictor of success, even in academia!

In my opinion, it is nothing other than schools looking to improve the amount of successes they produce. Of what use is admitting students with top SAT scores who end up becoming duds in the labour market?

21 Gabe April 13, 2010 at 10:47 am

A lot of the sports are also subtle filters for attractiveness. Sure you can’t just turn someone down on looks alone, but if you favor girls who were cheerleading captains and had math SAT scores above 670…that is the way to get er done.

HS soccer captain plus 700 math score…maybe they will be ugly but the odds of attractiveness are improved, they are definitely fit.

22 Gabriel Rossman April 13, 2010 at 11:03 am

following ted’s comment that it was originally about keeping out Jews, the historical origins of “well-roundedness” and other aspects of elite college admissions are the focus of Karabel’s The Chosen

23 cournot April 13, 2010 at 11:07 am

Deziani says being a well rounded individual is a better predictor even in academia. But in fact, the top Phd programs pay no attention to extracurriculars. In fact, economics recognizes that the GRE is only a valid negative not a positive signal. But this means that anyone scoring below a 780 in the Quants is usually discarded by the top schools without a glance. Given that the SAT has become a weaker signal (especially after the 1990s recentering grade inflated SATs), why don’t schools pay even more attention to stronger academic signals?

That is, grad schools simply throw out low scores. Undergrad schools do a weird mix where they look at some students who only score near 2400 on the SAT and then they admit some students who are clearly below this standard and will clearly underperform in academically rigorous classes but who are admitted for non-academic reasons (I am not talking about the sort of kid of gets only a 700 on the SAT Math but still ends up on the USAMO Math team and therefore signals that he really is a top math student). Indeed, if the tests and grades are such weak signals, this argues for LESS grade inflation in college to weed out those who were mistakenly admitted. But as grade inflation and falling dropout rates even at Caltech and MIT show the trend is towards making it easier to graduate from college than ever before.

24 Andrew April 13, 2010 at 11:35 am

A lot of benefit of the doubt granting so far.

I can tolerate more nefarious theories but my hypothesis is mainly that in extracurricular activities the students do the work of the university for free. The benefit of this theory is that it explains both the people who don’t care about extracurricular activities as well as those that do.

25 Dan H. April 13, 2010 at 11:55 am

I work for one of the largest companies in the world, and do my share of prospective employee evaluations. Every employee hiring process I’ve participated in has considered the candidate’s extra-curricular activities. In fact, after I was hired by this company I asked my new boss what the determining factor was in getting to an interview, and he said it was the fact that I had a pilot’s license, which indicated the ability to see projects through and a good amount of self-determination and personal drive.

I’d really like to see Caplan’s evidence that companies don’t consider extra-curricular activities. If you had asked me for my my offhand opinion, I would have said that companies weight them more heavily than does academia – especially regarding new grads.

26 Jake April 13, 2010 at 12:32 pm

My guess, per the comment I left at Caplan’s blog:

Colleges and universities (at least of the “liberal arts and sciences” types you implicitly refer to) aren’t that interested in employers; they’re more interested in either a) knowledge (if you’re friendly to them) or b) reproducing themselves (if you’re less so).

In addition, it’s possible that employers don’t care about extracurriculars per se, but they do care about the kinds of traits that extracurriculars bring with them. Here’s a post on that subject from Penelope Trunk’s blog.

Although this bit of evidence is a stretch, the Atlantic reports in What Makes a Great Teacher? that tenacity and the willingness to engage in significant projects outside of school matter much more than, say, GPA:

Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

If it’s true for teachers, it might be true for others—including employers. Or colleges who want students disproportionately likely to change the world in some novel way.

(My distinction between liberal arts and sciences colleges versus ones that focus on business comes from Louis Menand’s Problems in the Academy: Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, which I write about at the link. One of his points: talking about “colleges” or “universities” as if they were all the same lacks precision because of the heterogeneity of institutions.)

27 Bernard Yomtov April 13, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Gee, it sounds like a lot of people disagree with the basic assertion. Maybe there should be some evidence before anyone wastes time trying to figure out the reasons.

28 Sam April 13, 2010 at 2:11 pm

As a (UK) school pupil, I was repeatedly told of the importance of extra-curricular activities for university admission, and we were encouraged by our school to have an interesting interest or two, and preferably some charitable service, to discuss at interview.

I was quite surprised when I showed up at my world-renowned UK university for interview, and the questions were all about physics.

With my interviewer’s hat on, I’m not terribly interested in whether you were captain of your high school soccer team, or social secretary of its chess club – high schools form a small enough pond that the size of your fish doesn’t mean much.

Show me significant time-management skills at university, though (where I can be more certain that they really are your skills and not the result of Mummy’s apron strings) and I might be interested.

29 Cliff April 13, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Anyone who says extracurriculars are a good gauge of success in life/school and are rightly used by employers and colleges is nuts. IQ is the #1 predictor of success in just about any job. ANY JOB. We would be better off giving IQ tests than tricking ourselves into thinking some guy’s pilot’s license means he will do well. Of course, IQ tests are banned for hiring- great!

30 tosh April 13, 2010 at 2:46 pm

The problem elite universities have is not who to take, but who not to take. I’ve worked in admissions at one of them and the difference between the class taken, and what would be the next two classes IN TERMS OF MEASURABLES is almost zilch. In fact, where I worked the second class we didn’t take consistently outperformed the class for GPA and test scores. Not by much, but they did. With the measurables so close, extracuriculars, teacher recs, and especially the quality (both form and content) of the writing samples held a great deal of weight.

31 Jesse April 13, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I love Tyler’s explanation. I have always wondered how I’d limit the size of the Asian student body if I were ever in charge of admissions at a good college.

32 Jim April 13, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Really? This response from a blog on such a data-driven field like economics? Okay, I’ll cut you a break because maybe, to an outsider, College Admissions may seem a bit mystical. I work in the field, so I’ll break it down a little. This will be slightly over generalized, but still fairly accurate without going into unnecessary and complicated detail.

Sure, very highly selective institutions are in fact looking for a heterogeneous population, along with a population that “gets” the idea of giving back as alumni. In this you are correct, but such schoools comprise perhaps 5% to 10% of the bunch.

The further down you go on the selectivity list, and especially in publics, the less heterogeneity and potential donor status matters on the admissions side. Instead, the concern is more the basics of hitting an enrollment target and net revenue generation. Like maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, colleges and universities must first worry about their survival, and only when that is assured do we look at other factors such as those mentioned above.

So, most schools are not highly selective, and are first concerned with meeting enrollment and revenue targets, and only secondly with heterogeneity et al., but we all look favorably on applicants with extracurriculars. Why would this be? For the very simple reason that juggling a half-way decent high school record along with extracurriculars predicts well for success in college, where success is measured in the form of retention and graduation rates.

Good rates in these areas have the triple benefits of contributing well to external ratings/prestige, ensuring a steadier stream of tuition revenue, and ensuring that your your alumni association has that very necessary group of people to reach out to for donations: alumni.

33 Jim April 13, 2010 at 7:01 pm

As a general response and point of information for anyone commenting on SAT and GPA issues– I work in college admissions on exactly this sort of data-driven issue. SAT is predictive in the statistically significant sense only for the first year of college success. High School GPA is similarly most significant only for that first year, with some very small predictive ability further out. Further, GPA in general and certain courses in particular with GPA are quite a bit more predictive than SAT.

The degree to which colleges focus on SAT more than GPA is the degree to which they are concerned with external perception of quality instead of (or in some cases along with) actual quality. In the higher education industry, such external perceptions, regardless of their accuracy or fairness, have Very. Very. Large. Impacts.

34 Jim April 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm

@concerned parent: working in this field, I have never heard of this practice, except in the general sense of schools trying to have a generally well balanced population. See my comments above about how such concerns break down among more and less selective schools.

Only the very most selective of schools such as the ivy leagues and perhaps a few others do this in any way that could be even close to being called discriminatory, and even then they are not doing something that I would classify as discrimination.

35 John Skookum April 13, 2010 at 8:36 pm

It’s to keep the elite universities from being 60% Asian and 30% Jewish. Nothing more nothing less.

36 Jennifer April 13, 2010 at 8:49 pm
37 Cliff April 13, 2010 at 9:33 pm

The “Asian problem” is most pronounced in engineering/science grad school. Anyone will tell you your odds of getting in are much better if you are white, let alone a “real” minority.

38 Doru Cojoc April 13, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I don’t buy the signalling explanations. A kid who got 1600 on his SAT while being the captain of the football team and learning to play harmonica was probably smarter four years ago than the kid who got 1600 focusing exclusively on school work. But if this kind of signalling is what drives the result, Harvard should be full of 1600-SAT students who got a lobotomy. Besides, what really matters is who is smarter now, not four years ago: since both got the maximum possible test score, and lots of people do that save for small testing errors, we cannot really tell.

We could tell precisely who is relatively smarter if we blew the lid on the testing scores. If one could score more and more on the SAT by doing more school work, fewer real smart students would waste their time on the debate team or model UN. But we do not want to do that. If anything, the movement is towards grade compression and more meaningless of the test scores. What we do is like measuring the time for the 100 m dash in hours, but requiring athletes to run backwards, doing backflips, and translating Rabelais from French to Uzbek and then back to French. I mean, it’s gotta be that the guy who takes the fewest hours doing this absurd exercise would be the fastest in the 100 m dash as well.

I think employers really care about the extracurricular activities. Somebody talked here about somebody’s future boss who shares the newly hired jock’s interest in a specific sport. As we spend more and more time at the office, these extracurricular activities become important, as well as looks, having done something interesting, conversation skills, things that we usually look for in a spouse and friends. This theory has testable implications: extracurricular activities should matter more in countries/sectors where people spend more time at the office. Google, investment banking and US, yes, USPS and Romania, not so much. Do we see this pattern? I believe we do.

39 Ricardo April 13, 2010 at 11:32 pm

I would guess extracurricular activities tend to be correlated with holding leadership positions in the future. The correlation might not be high but it seems that most CEOs, politicians and other such prominent people were involved with extracurricular activities early in life.

This may translate into more direct donations but there is also a long-term benefit with being associated with prestigious alumni. Every university prominently displays a list of famous alumni and tries to brag about it at every possible opportunity. The people with extracurricular activities are probably a bit more likely to show up on that list in 20 years than people with no activities.

40 belts April 14, 2010 at 4:36 am

In fact, after I was hired by this company I asked my new boss what the determining factor was in getting to an interview, and he said it was the fact that I had a pilot’s license, which indicated the ability to see projects through and a good amount of self-determination and personal drive.

This ia a nice post.

41 m3 ds real April 14, 2010 at 7:48 am

Because these activities give them work experience that can help them to identify career interests and goals,gain work experience and apply classroom learning to the real world also.I think extra curricular activities must be there in colleges.

42 william April 14, 2010 at 9:52 am

I guess its ok to be discriminated against if you are Asian?

43 aaron April 14, 2010 at 10:59 am

1) People who can afford extracurricular activities are wealthier and more likely to have connections that will allow them to maintian high incomes, making them likely donars.

2) People involved in extracurricular activities are likely to form more ties and be more loyal to the institution.

44 Sbard April 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Top students don’t want to go to a school where all of their peers are boring bookworms, and if they do, there’s always the University of Chicago.

45 WCU 0936 April 15, 2010 at 10:28 am

I have never thought about it that way. I always thought you needed extracurricular to prove to the school you didnt just go through the motions of high school to show. But i understand why they would want to maximize the number of donations they receive from alumni. For example I love the marching band in college so when I graduate I might be willing to donate some of my money to that program. Very good observation.

46 ryan April 15, 2010 at 10:36 pm

i think it’s because succeeding in high school is too easy. succeeding in college is harder. the extracurriculars show your ability to carry a real workload of some kind, and also give a bit of a window into what kind of thinker you are. this last bit, your major in college helps to show employers.

47 Dean Peters April 22, 2010 at 8:51 am

I think the history of this is actually pretty well known – and it’s mostly to do with racial discrimination. At the beginning 20th century, most colleges had pretty much solely academic criteria for entry. However, in the years preceding and following WWII, a large number of Jewish immigrants entered the US, and their children were often qualified to enter these universities on academic grounds. Some pretext had to be found for excluding them, and extracuricular activities was the solution. I can’t say why these requirements still exist, except that they now serve a similar function of excluding on the basis of class.

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