Over the last month, the committee I’m on that developed a proposal to address the causes and consequences of grade inflation talked with many students.  In these conversa—tions, many Dartmouth students reported to us that they committed 35-40 hours per week to their extracurricular activities–the equivalent of full-time jobs.  They are essentially people who have full-time jobs and go to school part-time!

Moreover, many of them described these extracurricular activities as being much more important to them than their coursework.  The current student Editorial Board of The Dartmouth student newspaper seems to agree with this sentiment.

To be admitted to colleges today, students not only have to demonstrate academic success in high school, but they also seem to have to prove that they are super-human beings outside the classroom.  College and university admissions offices now require students to enumerate all the extracurricular activities in which a student participates, and write long essays about how these extracurricular activities have made them the persons they are today.  These lists and essays are then used as important factors in choosing who to admit and who to deny to build a diverse and well-rounded student body.  Consequently, high school students load up on extracurricular activities to make themselves competitive in this game.  Here again, the best of intentions have hugely detrimental unintended consequences.

Students carry this mania on extracurricular activities with them into college because they have been trained that these things are what make them succeed.  This causes students to be tremendously over-committed to activities that detract from their focus on coursework.

I am not arguing that extracurricular activities are not important.  Far from it.  However, many students now seem to see extracurricular activities as their education, with coursework being an afterthought.  Students have lost perspective on the importance and the various utilities of extracurricular activities in their overall educations and lives.  All extracurricular activities are not equal.

Some extracurricular activities are substantial enhancements to a student’s educational experience and future career goals.  Research under the guidance of a faculty member is clearly fundamental to many students’ educations in the sciences and social sciences, as is academic scholarship under the guidance of a faculty member in the humanities.  Extracurricular activities in music, theater production and creative writing all serve to intensify the education of students pursuing the arts.  Entrepreneurial networks and exchanges are critical educational activities for students interested in pursuing business careers.  Debating societies and participation in student governance are central to the educations of those interested in pursuing careers in government and the law.  Varsity athletics also clearly fall into this category for those who are interested in pursuing careers in professional athletics, coaching and sports administration.

For other students, many of these same extracurricular activities are simply things that exercise the mind and body and provide respites and diversions, but are not critical to their educations.  Participation in sports (varsity, club or intramural), in the arts (musical and theater groups) and in various other clubs give many students simple diversions that recharge their spirits, give them a sense of purpose, and exercise their bodies.

Finally, other types of extracurricular activities foster social bonding, community involvement and engagement, and personal interactions.  Fraternities and sororities clearly serve this purpose for some.  For others, simply getting together with friends serves the same purpose.  Volunteering for charitable community service is also an outstanding way students engage with and participate in their larger community.  However, being a member of a sorority or volunteering for charitable services is not critical to your education.

I, too, pursue “extracurricular activities” that also fit into these categories myself.  I read outside my scientific discipline to expand what I think about in my research and teaching.  Spending time with my family and friends keeps me sane.  I dabble in activities (e.g., woodworking and homebrewing) which are full-time occupations to others, but for me are simply enjoyable diversions that add to the richness of my life.  I engage in a number of sports (biking, golf, hiking, shooting, fishing, and I used to run but no more) that provide me with exercise and fulfill a need for athletic engagement.  I volunteer (working with the Jonestown, Mississippi Habitat for Humanity, coaching sports teams on which my offspring participated, helping build sets with my offspring in their theater productions, working in projects at church, building furniture for the library) to help my community.  Other than spending time with my family, these are all secondary to my job–being a faculty member at Dartmouth.

So I say to all my students, your “job” is your coursework while you are at Dartmouth.  Pick one or at most two extracurricular activity that foster your educational and career goals, and think of all the rest as hobbies, respites and brief diversions that are necessary to your well being but not essential to your education.