Why It’s Okay to Drop an Extracurricular Activity

A student holds up a sign that says "Help!" He's wondering "is it okay to drop an extracurricular activity?"

Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley / Shutterstock.com

Students often spread themselves thin, sometimes too thin. In addition to taking on heavy course loads—hey, just one AP course or 300-level is a lot of work!—many students work part-time jobs, play sports, maintain active memberships in clubs, volunteer, and study for standardized tests. No wonder finding time to get a good night’s sleep, hang out with friends and family, and plan for the future is a struggle.

If you’re totally overwhelmed, something’s gotta give, and you probably know it. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to drop an extracurricular activity or other commitment. You might feel pressure from your family, friends, coaches, and teachers to juggle a dozen activities—and make the juggling act look like a piece of cake—but I’m going to give you the opposite advice. If you think you have too much on your plate, trust your gut; it’s okay, perhaps wise, to drop a commitment. Here’s why:

Colleges, grad schools, and employers are interested in applicants who make the most of their commitments, not applicants who pad their résumés with filler activities.

If you were to look me up in the index of my high school’s 2008 yearbook, I’d be listed as a member of a dozen clubs. There I am with the honor society, the Spanish club, the literary magazine, a political club, the fellowship of student athletes, the environmental club, and the anime club, among others. Was I a member of all of those clubs? Obviously not; I was only committed to the first four. As for the rest? Well, I photobombed their group pictures. There is no way I could have participated in so many activities in a meaningful way, and if I had tried to list all 12 of those clubs on my college applications, admissions officers would have seen right through me.

If you’re worried that dropping one of your many commitments will make you a less competitive applicant, think again. When reviewing your extracurricular activities, admissions officers aren’t counting them; they’re looking for meaningful participation, dedication, and passion. Their favorite applicants to admit are dedicated to a realistic number of activities, and your résumé will raise eyebrows if you claim to have participated in more than six or so at once.

Note: While it’s wise to drop a commitment in which you “participate,” update your résumé when you do. Remove the laundry list of activities, and instead detail your real, honest commitments. Add bullet points under each commitment to explain any leadership positions you’ve held, the number of hours per week you’ve committed, etc. You can find an example here.

Dropping an extracurricular that doesn’t excite you gives you the time to take on more responsibility in your other extracurriculars.

Think about all the time you spend doodling during the young Democrats/Republicans/Independents meeting. Wouldn’t you rather apply it to setting up the art club exhibit?

Okay, so even if that’s not your particular situation, you get the idea. Freeing up some time by dropping a commitment that doesn’t excite you gives you the chance to step up elsewhere. Maybe it means taking on a leadership position in an activity you actually love, getting to travel with the jazz band, asking for more hours at work, or starting your own club. Taking initiative in one extracurricular is a more productive use of your time (and looks better to admissions officers) than being dead weight in two.

A school-work-life balance is important to your mental health.

Work-life balance is a phrase you’ll hear in the workplace that refers to maintaining a healthy balance between the professional and the personal. Students, especially those with jobs or work-study positions, have it harder because they have academic responsibilities as well. Unfortunately, juggling that many commitments is tricky. Plus, you’ve got a lot on the line: your grades, your test scores, your job, your workouts, your social life, your mental health.

I’m ashamed to say that back when I was a student, if you’d made me list those facets of my life in order of priority, mental health would have been bringing up the rear. Many ambitious students make the same sacrifice, but relaxation is crucial. It improves memory, mood, and concentration and helps manage stress. There is no shame in dropping one of your many commitments so that you have the “me time” you need to recover from one day and prepare for the next. Do it for your mental health.

Overexertion can lead to injury.

Listen up, student athletes; this one’s for you. Your priorities, especially if you plan to continue with your sport at the collegiate level or professionally, are to maintain certain GPAs to stay on the team, practice, train, compete, rest your muscles, and repeat. Of course, you might have time to work a part-time job or join a club or two, but if you add much more into the mix, your new commitments might cause you to overexert yourself. And overexertion is no good for the athlete.

If you take on a second athletic commitment, even if it’s just IM Frisbee, you could be exercising too much. That could translate to muscle pain, a drop-off in performance, and difficulty recovering from regular exercise. Additionally, if you sacrifice sleep to take on another commitment, you’re putting yourself at an increased risk of injury.

Dropping a commitment doesn’t mean you wasted your time; it means you recognized your priorities.

When I was a high school junior, a classmate invited me (read: begged me) to participate in a dance she was choreographing for her community’s dances of India festival. I showed up to practice three times, where I flailed, tripped, and generally embarrassed myself. It was clearly not the activity for me, and as soon as she recruited more rhythmic performers, I dropped out. But the whole ordeal wasn’t a waste of time. Sure, I could have spent those six hours working on a photography project, which I loved doing, and true, I didn’t get to list the dance on my high school résumé, but I learned from the experience. Dance wasn’t for me, and those rehearsals reaffirmed that I like to be in the darkroom, far from center stage.

A student plans out her day on a whiteboard and wonders if she should drop an extracurricular.

Undrey / Shutterstock.com

If you hesitate to drop a commitment because you’ve already attended a handful of meetings or contributed to a project, you’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t waste your time. At worst, you tried something new, you put yourself out there, you learned something about yourself, you found your limits, or you recognized your true priorities.

I’m not saying it’s okay to drop all of your commitments so that you can Netflix and chill every afternoon, but it’s a different story if you’re overwhelmed by your busy schedule or not getting much out of a certain extracurricular. Once you tie up loose ends (common courtesy: don’t quit a sport mid-season or an academic team the week before the tournament), drop that commitment like it’s hot. You owe it to your mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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