Colleges around the country rolled out their applications for the new admissions season at the beginning of August. Many made adjustments to their essay prompts, given that students are still free to discuss their experiences with race even under the Supreme Court ruling. Others made announcements around dropping early decision policies (Virginia Tech) and legacy admissions (Occidental College).
In a unique move, Lafayette College announced that they would only consider up to six extracurricular activities, versus the maximum of ten that the Common Application allows students to list. In explaining the decision, Lafayette’s president Nicole Hurd noted that first-generation and low-income students often have challenges amassing a high number of activities, and are unaware that valuable experiences like caregiving or working can be listed. Hurd was the founder and leader of the College Advising Corps before coming to Lafayette, giving her deep insight into the barriers affecting the admissions process.
Extracurricular activities were not mentioned in the Supreme Court opinion, nor were they discussed at length during trial. However, like the essay, extracurricular activities are a way for students to showcase their experiences beyond academics. Both are highly relevant as SAT/ACT scores are not required at over 1,800 institutions.
At surface level, activities seem like a way to level the playing field. In theory, anyone can sign up for a club or join the band. However, many are “pay to play,” requiring significant investments of time, money, and resources from an early age, from music lessons to travel sports. A recent study found that activities like athletics are a key part of the admissions advantage experienced by the most wealthy students.
Inequality is pervasive in extracurricular activities, but how does it actually show up on college applications? Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our research team studied extracurricular activities listed in 6 million college applications. We were curious to see if some students listed more activities than others, as well as how students described their involvement. For example, do more affluent students describe themselves as leaders more often? Do they list more prizes, honors, and awards?
Overall, we found that white, Asian American, private school, and more affluent students listed more activities and top-level leadership positions like president, founder, and CEO. They also reported more activities listing awards, honors, and distinctions. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students reported fewer activities, but they had similar levels of top-level leadership roles as their white and Asian American peers. These students often have less opportunity to try (and pay for) extracurriculars. When they are able to join, they often excel. Inequality was especially prominent in sports, where public school, Black, Asian American, and low-income students reported notably fewer leadership roles.
Our study echoes many of the themes informing Lafayette’s decision to look at fewer extracurricular activities. Activities can still play some role in admissions, but greater dialogue is needed to re-assess how they are evaluated. Students should be encouraged to report activities like working, caregiving, and community involvement, which provide important insights. Community or culturally-based activities may be a platform where students showcase traits like activism, leadership, and creativity valued by colleges.
Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, being able to consider race/ethnicity in a limited way was a vital tool to contextualize extracurricular participation. Many students are still affected by the historic legacy of exclusion in activities, like swimming for generations of Black youth. Fully understanding a student’s context for opportunity is relevant not just to test scores and high school curriculum, but also the activities that students engage in outside of the classroom.
Absent that tool, we have several recommendations. First, like Lafayette, institutions and application platforms may consider reducing the number of activities that a student can list on applications. This move would have multiple benefits, such as reducing stress on students and encouraging quality over quantity. Students should continue to be involved in what excites them, but lowering the number they need to list could lessen the influence of disparities in extracurricular access.
Second, admissions readers need sustained training on how inequality—both disadvantage and privilege—shape extracurricular involvement, from the number of activities students list to how they write about them. This is important because only a minority of admissions officers consider the full context of a student’s life opportunities when reading applications. Our research does not suggest that institutions should return to required standardized testing (which is even more rife with inequality), but admissions professionals need support to understand the different contexts for opportunity that students experience.
Third, elite institutions should stop over-favoring athletics in admissions. Our work highlights key inequities in athletic participation, but institutions give considerable preferences to athletes, both recruited and non-recruited. Rosters for sports like lacrosse and rowing are disproportionately white and wealthy. In the Harvard class of 2025, about 83% of first-year recruited athletes were white. Privileging athletics is basically affirmative action for white and upper-SES students.
As campuses weigh options following the Supreme Court ruling, it is critical to examine how college applications can facilitate or limit equity. While inequality in extracurriculars is less obvious than disparities in test scores, both require critical context in order to understand who an applicant is and their potential to contribute to the campus community.
Dr. Julie J. Park is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park and Co-Director at the College Admissions Futures Co-Laborative, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She is the author of Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data.