I just got into a PhD program and was asked to give a presentation to my juniors regarding grad school applications.

In my country (Asia region), people are fanatical about non-academic extra curricular activities that are totally not related to their topic (sports, debate team, run charities etc). E.g. A student with good grades and is the captain of the school's basket ball team can get picked for a mathematics PhD scholarship over the top mathematics student with zero non-academic activities. The belief is that scholars should be "all rounded".

I think the situation is different in the USA. I would like to encourage my juniors who have excellent academic records but without significant non-academic extra curricular activities to try for the USA because of this.

I understand there are scholarships like the Rhodes which do look at non-academic achievements. But is my general understanding of non-academic activities for USA PhD admissions correct?


2 Answers 2


In general. non-academic activities are not considered for admissions for schools and most fellowship programs in the US. The primary reason for this is that graduate programs are looking for people who will become excellent scholars and researchers (and sometimes even good teachers!). Success in sports and other highly non-academic activities is less likely to have significant influence in assessments of one's ability to do research, and therefore is not strongly considered.

However, there are exceptions. People can choose to fund activities however they choose, and can place whatever restrictions on the use of the money they donate. For instance, an alumnus could fund a fellowship for PhD students who play the tuba in a college marching band. While this doesn't happen often, it can be done. But typically admissions committees aren't concerned with such issues, and don't take them into account in making admissions decisions.

  • 11
    Success in sports...will have little standing on one's ability to do research — I'm not sure I agree. Successful researchers, like successful athletes, are persistent, competitive, and a bit obsessive. Those qualities aren't sufficient, of course, but they're arguably necessary. See also Matt Might's example of a 100km hike in the Himalayas. But yes, other factors are far more significant.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 19, 2013 at 17:11
  • aeismail - Thanks for the answer. I edited what I thought was a sentence structure error. Also, @JeffE - thanks for the additional input, as always.
    – Legendre
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 19:34
  • I would agree with JeffE. At my undergrad (a top 5 engineering school), of the best athletes on the cross-country team two graduated with 4.0s in engineering. A few more had 3.98. That's unheard of at this school. One went to Stanford for grad school, one received the TBP award, and one made millions in entrepreneurship before he even graduated. ...unfortunately, I on the other hand have done almost nothing noteworthy :(
    – James
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 21:46
  • Again, agreement with JeffE. A surprisingly high fraction of my students and collaborators have been world-class athletes. (Sadly, I am not in or near that category). I think that if if people have what it takes to be exceptional at one thing, they are more likely than average to have what it takes to be exceptional in another. This is not to say that we care about the typical extra-curriculars when doing grad admissions. Singing in an a cappella group or serving as social chair for your frat provides zero predictive signal regarding graduate success as best as I can tell.
    – Corvus
    Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 7:16

In my country (Asia region), people are fanatical about non-academic extra curricular activities that are totally not related to their topic (sports, debate team, run charities etc). ... I think the situation is different in the USA.

Its not actually that different. Universities are generally looking for engaged graduate students, so showing involvement outside of classes is generally a positive thing. Extra-curriculars should be noted in any application.

Holding a leadership role in a student organization is seen as positive, and should be especially noted in any graduate school application. This includes leadership positions in Fraternities or Sororities. See below for the one exception to this rule.

Think carefully before listing religious, political or fan clubs

Be careful listing activities that involve either religion or politics. Its a fact of life that some people are prejudice, and listing a republican, democratic, LGBT, or any other club that would imply a strong religious or social viewpoint opens you to attack. Do not give someone on the admittance committee reason to hate you.

Also be careful listing fan club activities like your Quiddich team, or presidency of the Star Trek club. These activities may make you appear immature to the admittance committee.

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