Extra-curricular activities have been an integral part of school for a long time. As well as helping children develop life-long interests in the activities themselves, they also foster important soft skills, for example, taking part in sports may promote perseverance, resilience and grit as well as team-work. These soft skills are highly prized by businesses and also by universities, as exemplified by the selection criteria to study Medicine at the University of Oxford, which includes “ability to work with others”, “communication” and “empathy” as personal characteristics that are sought in applicants. These activities and skills should be showcased in the Personal Statement and Reference, parts of the university application, as well as your CV or, perhaps, an e-portfolio.

Different university courses require different skills, as well as specific grades in A-level subjects. The non-academic requirements for undergraduate Law at King’s College London state that the admissions tutors are looking for “applicants who have participated as fully as possible in school, college or community life, making the most of the opportunities available to them and also demonstrated some experience of society beyond their immediate environment”. There are many reasons why universities like to recruit students who excel in the extra-curricular: they hope that the candidate will contribute to the life of the university, the student has already demonstrated commitment and tenacity – skills that can be transferred to their course and they make for more interesting students to teach.

From a school’s perspective, a child’s whole education is important and extra-curricular activities are a way of allowing students of all abilities to develop and explore their interests: a vital part of their personal growth. It is during their formative years, that children’s inner template of the world develops, and encouraging students to volunteer in the community during their school years, for example, will imbue them with the value of such activities in later life. At the more instrumental part of the spectrum, in this competitive world, if two candidates have the same grades at A-level or degree level, extra-curricular involvement can be a way to distinguish between the two candidates and can also contribute to the student’s USP (Unique Selling Point) i.e. why they should be chosen and how they can add value to the organisation.

There are many activities in which students can get involved, both in and out of school: the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Young Enterprise, volunteering (there are numerous organisations that can facilitate this such as the Jewish Volunteering Network and Do-it) at local old age homes, St John Ambulance, work experience, mentoring younger students, language exchanges, school clubs and societies, such as Debating, and youth groups to name but a few. Furthermore, to demonstrate initiative, the student can set up their own club or society, such as starting a school newspaper or organising a fundraising event.

Of course, there is a danger in taking on too much – it is just as important not to “burn out” and to make time for leisure. Also, make sure enough time is made for academic studies, the results of which also open the doors to employment and university. In order to get the balance right, it may be a good idea to have “personal development” conversations with your children to both encourage them to participate but also to prioritise which skills they would like to develop, so that their extra-curricular engagement is focussed. Possible skills to develop include initiative, creativity, interpersonal and organisational skills, leadership, sense of responsibility, teamwork, public speaking, time management and research.  You might want to work backwards and consider which skills are vital to demonstrate for a particular university or employment route.  Alternatively, if career plans are vague, just encourage your child to try out a variety of activities to find out where their strengths lie, which may result in clearer career ideas.

Students are at an exploratory stage of their life, and they might find that the activity they start does not suit them. It is then possible to discuss either stopping this activity or finding a way to persevere in a positive way, if there is good reason to do so. You may find it difficult to speak to your teenager about their personal development, in which case, call in the services of a professional.

Natalie Lancer is a personal development expert and founder of NatalieLancer.com and MyUniApplication. She can give you expert guidance on extra-curricular activities, A-level choice, university applications and the Personal Statement. She also offers personal development sessions for adults. For more information, contact Natalie Lancer on 07747 612 513 or at natalie@natalielancer.com. www.natalielancer.com

Natalie’s top tips on extra-curricular activities

  • Decide what skills you would like to develop and think about which extra-curricular activities would strengthen these
  • If an activity doesn’t work out, consider if there is a different way to approach it or whether you should stop that one, and take up something else
  • Make time for leisure and studies as well as your extra-curricular activities
  • Start researching universities courses/employment routes early to give yourself enough time to make an informed decision about which skills to evidence
  • Speak to a personal development professional for impartial and current advice