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Caution: Extra-curricular Activities Ahead

It’s starting already: deciding what extra-curricular activities my son will participate in this year. It’s only August, and he’s only 11, but the pressure is on to start choosing how he will spend his time outside of school.

I'll try not to lament the “good old days” when kids played on their street with their friends after school, and Saturday mornings were spent lying around in flannel pyjamas watching cartoons. Those days are gone for most of us. They’ve been replaced with piano lessons, hockey tournaments and dance practice.

Extra-curricular activities are great for kids. They learn teamwork, discipline, time management and other skills. But I can’t help but flash back to the times I had students in my office who were near tears because they’d been so wrapped up in part-time work, volunteering and sports that their schoolwork had become an afterthought (or an inconvenience) and their grades were in tatters. For these students, a few Cs and Ds on their transcript was usually enough to wake them up. Unfortunately, by that time, some opportunities were already lost.

We want our kids to have a good balance between academics and extra-curriculars. But there is so much pressure to participate, and the time commitments can be staggering. Kids want to take part in activities, and there’s nothing wrong with that -- unless your child is over-extended and his or her grades are suffering.

(I’m writing this blog with the assumption that your child is going to be applying for university and that he or she would like to win a university and/or external scholarship. If that’s not the case then there may not be a problem with over-extending.)

For students who are looking to enter university and be competitive for scholarships, you need to plan your time outside schoolwork carefully. For students who want to win a major scholarship, you need to plan carefully and strategically.

Many universities in Canada offer scholarships starting at 80 - 85% average range. These scholarships are minimal, usually $500. To become competitive for the larger scholarships (the renewable ones) averages tend to be at least 90%, and usually more in the 95-100% range. Note: some students will get extra points for going way above and beyond (extra courses, higher level courses, university level courses, etc.) and can actually have averages exceeding 100%. So the competition is tough!

Most universities still put the most weight for admission and scholarships on grades. Although some universities are now putting some weight on extra-curriculars, grades are still the most important factor for admission and entrance scholarships. So if it’s academic scholarships you want, you must have top grades in both Grade 12 and Grade 11. Yes, grade 11 too. Admissions will consider Grade 11 grades in the admission and scholarship average so that’s why you must plan carefully--and well in advance of Grade 12.

For other scholarships, e.g. those that consider grades but also leadership and other experience, again the student often must be exceptional to win top scholarships. This means a history of commitment to a specific cause or activity, often with a senior leadership role. Or it could be that the student started a program or club at school or in the community, and through their leadership were able to make a change or contribution in some way. The student will need to demonstrate a commitment to the activity, which takes up a lot of time. Quality is better than quantity here, so find something you like and stick with it for a while.

Of course, along with all of the time pressures of school work and extra-curriculars, Grade 12 students will have the extra time sucking task of researching programs and applying to university, researching and applying for scholarships, going on campus tours and attending open houses, etc. They will also want to take part in all of the fun grad activities, and they need to have time to relax and just enjoy a bit of down time with friends and family. Oh, and some might have a part-time job too. Starting to see the problem?

The moral of the story: if you want to get into university and win scholarships, you may not be able to take part in all of the activities you want. But if you plan ahead and manage your time well, you can participate in many, if not all.

Plan your grade 11 and grade 12 extra-curriculars carefully, making sure you have enough time allotted first for school work, and then fit in activities as time allows. Build in time to eat, sleep and relax. Cut back if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, or if things are getting out of your control. It’s OK to let something go, either for a while or forever.

Your future self may thank you for it.

Need help planning for university? Here are some services you might find useful.

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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