How Involved Should You *Really* Be In College?

Clubs, organizations, and extracurriculars are often portrayed as enjoyable, low-stakes activities to facilitate social life and campus involvement, and to supplement one’s academics. They’re fun by design — so why do they stress me out so much? 

Should I be doing more? Am I involved in too much? How do I learn about all of the different opportunities?

Currently, as a junior in college, I serve as the President of Hillel, the Jewish student organization on campus and the co-founder and President of GlamourGals, a community service organization. I’m also involved with Her Campus Conn (duh), SafetyNet, and WCNI Radio — I have a radio show that airs every other week. I also have two on-campus jobs, one in the Office of Sexual Violence Prevention and Advocacy (which is about 5 hours per week) and one as a Student Advancement Officer (2 hours per week). I also am a Marketing Intern at Spark Makerspace in downtown New London. I’ve also previously been involved with the fashion magazine on campus, but it’s been tricky to fit into my schedule this semester.

This list might look extensive on paper, and when I rattle off my involvements to people, their eyes always widen. But it looks and sounds like more than it is; to me, it doesn’t feel like a lot and I certainly don’t feel too busy nor do I feel completely fulfilled by my schedule.

Why I Like Being Over-involved

I seem to have a different relationship to extracurriculars than my peers. In high school, it’s typical to overload on activities and prove yourself to be a jack of all trades during the college admissions process. For me, though, I spent most of my afternoons sitting at home during virtually nothing. I felt insecure about my lack of after-school involvement, and when I eventually did begin filling my time, it was with my job and volunteer work. While these experiences were really valuable, I never felt like I was building any skill or honing a talent. I was never the lead of the musical nor the star athlete.

So, while some college students may feel less of a need to get involved because there’s no set goal (i.e. college acceptance), or while others may feel burnt out from all of the stuff they did in high school, college for me has always been a way to find fulfillment outside of academics and binge-watching TV and a way to right my wrongs from high school. 

For me, I can’t quite tell if this pressure and motivation to be super involved is internal or external; part of it is due to my desire to achieve the personal satisfaction that I never had in high school and to outperform my high school self. Another factor is wanting to measure up to my peers. And I also feel the compulsion to do *everything* due to my need to compete with the hypothetical multi-talented students who attend more prestigious and cutthroat colleges than Conn. 

I’m also the kind of person who thrives on structure that’s created for me, or else I’d probably stay in bed all day and do nothing. So I need to over-schedule myself so at least I’ll get something done during the day. I’m also an overthinker and I will spend days on an assignment that might only take an hour. So, I try to limit my amount of free time, or break it up into smaller time blocks, so I don’t spend longer than I need to on homework.

What Other Student Have to Say

When I polled other students on instagram and asked them how many extracurriculars they were a part of, including clubs and jobs, the most common answers were three and five. Out of 55 respondents, 14 students said they spent 3-6 hours a week on extracurriculars, 18 students said 7-10, and 18 students said they spent 11 or more hours on outside involvements (please take these statistics with a grain of salt; they may be the result of someone just trying to tap to the next story). 46% said that they wished they were more involved with extracurriculars, and small majority of 54% seem satisfied with their level of involvement. Many of the college women I polled on Facebook worked at least one job in addition to being involved with clubs. 

A college advice book entitled The Naked Roommate suggests (at least as far as I can recall) to start off with one or two intellectual, career-related clubs or organizations, and one or two fun clubs purely for enjoyment. I think that for students struggling to find their niche, as I did my first year, start off by sampling a bunch of clubs, even ones you think you might not like. Go to a meeting or too for each, then see what ends up sticking. I’ve found that it’s much easier to quit an extracurricular activity midway through your college career than it is to join something late. 

Ultimately, though, how involved college students are often depends on the size of the school, because that may dictate the opportunities that are presented to them. Different schools also have different cultures surrounding out-of-class involvement, so there’s no “normal” and there’s no “correct” level of involvement.

The Implications of Being Too Busy

While some people begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed when they have too much on their plate, I get stressed out when I’m not busy and feel insecure when I’m not productive. Hofstra student Gabby explains exactly my sentiment, saying “I always feel like I can be busier, especially when I find myself watching Netflix or Hulu at night. I feel like if I have time to sit and watch TV I’m not doing enough!” This pressure to consistently be productive and use your time to create value does not just exist on a college campus; it’s part of a larger hustle culture, or the glamorization of workaholism, that is present in the workplace and largely impressed upon millennials. It can be characterized as an obsession with striving, and pressure to perpetually work hard and be productive, and to find enjoyment in doing so. Lili, a junior at Emerson, further exemplifies this idea, saying that “I think I would explode if I had more in my schedule. But I like it that way. I feel better (physically and emotionally) when being productive.” 

While a certain level of out-of-class involvement can provide enjoyment and personal fulfillment to your college experience, it is important to not do so at the sake of your grades or your mental health. Engaging in this “hustle culture” can take a huge mental and emotional toll. And, it’s far more enjoyable (and impressive) to be extremely dedicated to a handful of activities and do them really well, then to be ridiculously busy but half-ass everything. Not only will the accomplishments that come with your dedication look good on a resume, but being invested and consistently involved in a couple of clubs and organization will allow you to foster a community and make real connections with your peers.

How Much Do Extracurriculars Actually Matter, Anyway? 

Do I gain personal satisfaction from being busy? Yes. Is it necessary to be as involved as I am, and will my career outcomes be any different if I scaled back a bit? Probably not. 

If your major translates well to your intended career, you might only want to pursue chill extracurriculars that are purely for enjoyment. But if you’re like me and your major has nothing to do with what you want to do for a living, extracurriculars are a valuable way to get relevant experience that will bolster your resume. And, they may provide you with a sense of fulfillment that your academics do not. Don’t join a club or org for the sake of doing something or for the sake of being busy; join something because you are truly invested in it — you will feel happier, and people can see right through that BS anyway. As a Connecticut College junior advises, “Balance is key — don’t overload yourself with extra things but do all the things that interest you.” 

In terms of using your college extracurriculars as relevant experience on job applications, employers don’t care about the number of hours spent on activities or the exact clubs you were in like colleges do. The most important thing is not how much you are involved with, but the interpersonal and collaborative skills you gain from being part of a group, the contributions you made, and how it relates to the position you’re applying for. After all, a resume should only be one page, so it looks more impactful if you have a handful of experiences that you can really speak to. Employers or graduate school admissions officers will be far more impressed to see that you took on a leadership role in a club or too than to see that you were part of seven random clubs. 

To end on a cliche, there’s no right or wrong way to have a college experience.