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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Silbernagel

The Extracurricular Pivot

Updated: Dec 20, 2020


A Rare Opportunity

As we settle into the on-line, at-home learning schedule, you may be considering your teen's sudden extracurricular "inactivity" and its impact on college preparation as we shelter in place.

Take solace in the knowledge that this pause has happened to every single teen. That said, your teen has the chance to respond to this global experience in a way that is unique to them and their particular interests.

While constrained in some key physical ways, teens have been liberated from conventional expectations of achievement.

Students whose hours would normally have been filled with traditional sports, volunteering and club activities now have the chance to go off-script.

A New Mindset

This is uncharted territory, so students have carte blanche to create their own paths.

  • Deemphasize the old notion of trying to look good on paper.

  • Stress engagement over achievement.

  • Encourage the idea of connecting with others in new ways.

Give your teen the freedom to explore things that genuinely pique their interest. Try to avoid the idea that they need to be filling a hole in their college application activity list.


How to Start

Here are some suggestions to help get your teen started. Some activities are novel, "one-offs" that will help them get out of their heads during these stressful times. Others may stem from latent interests and lead to ongoing involvement. Many of these suggestions apply to all ages -- you can lead by example or do a project together!


Use Previous Activities as a Launchpad

Reboot school clubs virtually. For example, organize the Key Club to make masks.

Athletes and aspiring athletes can workout together virtually.

Track and Field athletes who miss the thrill of competition can participate in a newly launched Virtual Track & Field Meet created by

Start a daily Yoga Practice or experience guided mediation.

The musically talented can create their own version of a Tiny Desk Concert and invite friends to join in. Share your talents on Instagram Live or YouTube.

Learn how to make and produce music and create an at-home music studio class with Full Sail's free class.

Spread some musical cheer with Live Note. Volunteer musicians provide virtual, musical connections to those who are alone right now (e.g., in a hospital, nursing home, etc.),

French (and other foreign language) students can create “conversation” calls with classmates or participate in these online chats.

Improve your listening comprehension by listening to Slow News in French or learn Spanish while streaming news and culture.

The super linguistically curious can learn indigenous languages with 7000 Languages.

Already fluent in a non-native language? Use your skills for good and volunteer with Translators Without Borders. TWB is in need of volunteers to help translate words for medical texts, crisis response, and other humanitarian projects.


Be Inspired by Current Events

Find calm in the midst of chaos by creating order. Channel Marie Kondo and purge the pantry, organize the hall closet, or sort out the garage.

Start a journal. We are in the midst of an event that will someday be taught in World History classes. Record your version of it. For inspiration, check out these writing prompts.

Take a step further and start a blog or even a vlog to share thoughts more widely.


Build Connection Through Creative Expression

Connect with friends by “co-writing” fiction -- one person writes a paragraph, sends it to a friend or share a Google Doc and they write another paragraph, etc.

Create an online or virtual book club. Goodreads has a great “if you like this, then read this” feature to help teens find interesting reads. Combine reading and writing and start a blog reviewing books. Invite friends to be co-reviewers. Express and share thoughts about "life in place." A number of online publications are soliciting creative work in many forms, including film, art, poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction). Submittable is keeping a running list of organizations seeking content.

For writing inspiration, check out these writing prompts by Underlined.

Get published. Students can submit their work to these online journals.

Need some guidance on the art of writing engaging non-fiction? The OpEd Project provides tips and lists of where to submit.

Check out One Teen Story for more story ideas, interesting reads, and resources.

Writers who work best under a deadline can select a goal from among these Young Writer Contests.


More Ways to Express Creatively

Be inspired to create with these crafty projects at Tate.

Paint Through These Times with watercolors.

Make something for the love of it!

Visual, literary or performing artists can get started on creating a piece for the 2021 National Young Arts Competition. Applications open in June.

Join the Getty Museum Quarantine Challenge to create famous works of art.

Begin your graphic design education by learning how to use Canva.

Go to Dance Church - a movement class that offers a fun and inclusive approach to dancing. Live, streaming classes are offered regularly, at no cost. Sign up here to be notified of the next virtual class.


Join a Movement or Start Your Own

Girls can join the virtual Girl Empowerment Network.

EventBrite has tons of virtual events to participate including, virtual charities, live-streamed classes and webinars. As a family, you can find a charity to support. Or you can create your own event and invite your friends. Check out the Virtual Day Party events and see if you can come up with your own version.

Teens can participate in or create their own Spread Joy activities like this Redmond Arts’ Pots of Joy Project or the ChalkWalk movement and I’ve even followed Rock Walks (a trail of small, cheerfully painted rocks) in my neighborhood.

Do something with Students can join a campaign or start their own.

Teens can share their smarts by becoming an online tutor. Check out Quarantutors and or students can start their own service, like the students behind First Degree Aid.


Help Others

VolunteerMatch has a great site where teens can search for virtual volunteer opportunities. Do an advanced search and click on Great for Teen.

Tech-savvy teens can offer to share their skills via their neighborhood Nextdoor group or social media. Website design and social media instruction come to mind. (I know I could use a student ambassador to help me out).

Visit Seniors Virtually and share your story to brighten their days.

Be a Chemo Angel and send letters of encouragement to cancer patients undergoing treatment.

Help foster kids celebrate their birthdays. Make birthday cards for Pop-Up Birthday, which distributes the cards to teens in Texas. The cards can be simple or embellished. Write a small message inside and when you're finished, mail them to Pop-Up Birthday at 101 Westlake Dr. Ste. 210, Austin, TX 78746.

Help people with reading disabilities by volunteering as a reader with Bookshare.

Lend your eyes via the BeMyEyes community and help blind or low vision people navigate daily challenges.

Become an online volunteer listener with 7 Cups, which provides free online emotional support via chat. Teens who are 15 and older may volunteer.

Join the Red Cross relief efforts. They have a wide range of remote opportunities. Type “NHQ” or “virtual” in the search bar to find volunteer-from-home positions.


Become A Citizen Scientist

Explore the projects they need crowd-sourced research assistance on Zooniverse, like counting penguins!

Help NOAA identify Sea Lions in images.

Conduct human rights research online with Amnesty Decoders

Transcribe manuscripts with FromthePage or be a Smithsonian Digital Volunteer and help make historical documents and biodiversity data more accessible.

Find more projects that rely on crowdsourced citizen research by searching the projects at


Dabble in Future Career Possibilities

Explore world affairs through The Experiment Digital. Learn and discuss world affairs with peers in Algeria, Iraq, the U.S., and Yemen—all without leaving your living room.

Fans of Criminal Minds or future FBI agents can study Forensic Psychology: Witness Investigation through the Open University's free course.

Want to be a singer/songwriter? Learn how to write your first song with FutureLearn.

And this four-week primer will help you develop a fashion collection from inspiration to the final sketches.


Pursue Intellectual Curiosity

Tinker with 3D design, electronics and coding at Tinkercad.

Take a free-online game design class.

Explore the COVID-19 curated lists of free classes offered at: Futurelearn and Coursera. This course offered by Yale on the Science of Well Being receives rave reviews.

Explore this huge list of free Ivy League courses.

OpenCulture has a list of 1500 online free online college courses.

LinkedIn Learning offers one free month of business-oriented lessons of all sorts. After the first month, they charge $40/month but you can learn a lot in a month.

Or learn to learn better with this free course on how to improve study techniques.

Binge watch the Ted Talks. I recommend this one by Peter Gray.

For more listening ideas, click here.


About that Activities List

Engaging and connecting in non-traditional ways, even small ones, demonstrate character and personality. This is the real reason colleges ask about a student’s activities. It’s not so much the activity itself, but the motivation, curiosity, and character behind the activity that provides the application readers insight into the student behind the application. Rest assured, your teen’s unique personal characteristics can still shine during times of physical distancing.

Important Note - Record It! Be sure to have your teen keep track of all these new interests and pursuits as they do them. Both the Common Application and the Coalition Application currently provide space in the Activities Section for students to include informal projects and hobbies, as well as family responsibilities, like caring for siblings. It’s not a stretch to expect that a COVID-19 related information section will be added to this application season.


We all have the chance to pause, pivot and explore. Do you have activities to add to the list? I'd love to hear how you've responded to this opportunity. Let me know at

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