For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Thomas Sloan. I am a senior here at Pueblo West High School, and I have been writing (somewhat sporadically) with the CyChron over the past year.
After having been through high school and the college/scholarship application process that follows it, I would like to offer incoming and current students some advice about participation in extracurricular activities.
Let me start with what you will find—or may have already found—about the situation regarding extracurricular involvement in high school. There is a multitude of extracurricular variety at Pueblo West. This multitude includes several competitive varsity sports and their junior varsity or freshman-oriented fledglings. There are dozens of clubs that range from mountain biking to community service, chess-playing to science education, and literary journaling to cultural engagement. There are also activities with their own classes, like Speech and Debate and Student Council, which also require a great deal of commitment outside of school time. Each of these categories alone generates an extensive list of opportunities.
The atmosphere that seems to surround these options, especially as you enter high school, is one that urges as much involvement and participation in extracurricular groups as possible. Every year, we host a club fair, and students are encouraged to (and often do) sign up for everything on the table. “Get involved” is the motto, repeated countlessly.
I have found that this mindset even exists upon exiting high school. On college and scholarship applications, many of the form fields presented under the “Extracurricular Involvement” section seem to imply that it’s reasonable for high school applicants to have participated, meaningfully, in 15-20 separate activities throughout high school. This attitude of widespread involvement runs through the subconscious of parents, students, and staff alike.
Now, if you can humanly handle this expectation to the depth with which I now understand it, then lead the way—and here’s your Guinness prize. I, on the other hand, think that an emphasis on quantity of activities diminishes the expectation of serious commitment—quality—found within each activity.
A friend and I have settled on an accurate way to visualize the conflict I am talking about. Lo, Graph #1:
What you see here is the visualization of “Involvement” (AEUI=Arbitrarily Established Units of Involvement) for a hypothetical Pueblo West High School student’s (we’ll call him Johnny) concurrent participation in three activities, all of which are available here at the school. As you can see, this student is managing to put in between nine and twelve units of involvement for each activity at a given time.
What’s important about this chart is the red line I have superimposed at about the “6” level of involvement. (Microsoft Word wouldn’t let me put the red line right on the graph line, if you were wondering.) This red line represents the level of commitment, or “involvement,” that teachers and student leaders within each of these activities expect from our friend Johnny.
For Debate, this involvement level originates in attending weekly tournaments, preparing research, and writing cases. For Journalism, it may come from writing articles or producing live-streamed broadcasts, and in Mock Trial it would likely be preparing examination questions and statements and memorizing witness statements. These things all take time and effort—and that’s not even counting additional effort that is required to develop relationships with the people involved in each of these activities or to hold leadership positions.
If this graph were a bit more realistic, that red bar would actually be three bars set at different levels, depending on the varying expectations of different organizations. For simplicity’s sake, though, I’m just going to make it one line—it shouldn’t take away from the main idea too much.
One more important thing to note is that the number of AEUI—depicted here as bluish graph matter—is very finite; there is only so much time and effort in the world. For Johnny, total available Involvement adds up to about 31 AEUI. At this point, Johnny’s involvement is pretty well balanced, and he’s distributing the AEUI well. One more activity could push him over the edge, however.
With this in mind, brace yourself now for Graph #2:
Johnny’s situation has changed somewhat. As you can see, he followed up on many of his interests and is trying to be very involved.
But what does that get him? Two important variables have not changed: time-effort, aka AEUI, and the red-line commitment expectations for high school activities. What did change is the fact that by joining so many activities, Johnny has spread himself thin, and is forsaking quality for quantity.
I put this question to you: Which graph would you rather be your life?
Chew on that while I bring you my perspective. My high school experience rapidly developed into something like Graph #2. I don’t know how many other people go down this track, or if I’m a special kind of crazy, but I did it, and I can tell you that I wish I hadn’t.
There are multiple reasons for my regret. First of all, as I touched on a little bit in describing the graphs, one person has only so much time and effort to dedicate at a given point. By spreading thin on the activities, no activity sees as much time and attention as it needs. This means that not only are you not contributing adequately to the group, but that you are also not getting out of the activity what you should. I’ll be touching on that more in a bit.
Secondly, being involved in so many activities at once is intellectually overwhelming—or at least is has been for me. The mass of activities, meetings, and service dates generated by all of these commitments work mutually to generate a kind of exhausting fog. This constant presence can lead to frustrating lapses in memory and organization. It’s challenging. For some it may be a personal problem of organization, but it is worth noting, because nobody is superhuman.
On the whole, being so scattered all the time can lead to a desire for a greater focus, and smaller scope. For me it has, and I’ve learned a lesson that I will be taking with me when I move on to college. The same friend I mentioned regarding the graphs was talking with me a while back about scaling back the number of our commitments in college to two or three at a time, one of those commitments being school work itself.
The vision was and remains inviting: preoccupied with only one or two activities, we could completely submerge ourselves in the subject. We could develop a strong understanding of our interests, become skilled in the abilities required to participate, and essentially become as active and in-tune with that one area as possible. This is the vision I would encourage you to pursue now.
There are two major ways to achieve this vision. The first of these is discovering and respecting your limits—finding out exactly how much AEUI you really have. This may require an exploratory period in high school, where you are momentarily involved in many activities to get a taste of each before honing in on the ones you really want to develop. Or, you may just find something you like right off the bat—and that’s awesome.
You will also need to “learn how,” as one of my teachers put it recently, “to say no” when pressed or urged to join some activity. I have found that people within any activity, regardless of what kind of activity it is, tend to be very active in expanding membership and involvement—which makes sense. But that means that there can be a lot of pressure on some students to branch out, despite previous commitments. Be wary of overcommitting just to make a friend or mentor happy, and be able to decline offers when necessary.
The ultimate message you should take from this is that no matter what extracurricular activity you join, you will find common lessons and values: the importance of community, the strength of commitment and teamwork, and the benefits of working hard at something you truly enjoy. This is what your high school career should be all about. Make the right decisions to ensure that it is all that it can, and should, be.