Advising the Involved Student: When Extracurricular Involvement Compromises Academic Achievement

Heather Andring, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Involvement in extracurricular activities provides college students with opportunities to meet and connect with other students, explore areas of interest, and contribute to the campus and community. The number of programs available is staggering, with some campuses boasting over 1,000 student organizations from which to choose. With so many choices available and the pressure to succeed seemingly increasing, students can easily become overwhelmed with their involvement outside of the classroom to the extent that it compromises their academic success.

With Collison (1990) reporting that students spend only 30 percent of their waking hours inside of the college classroom, students have a number of options for spending their out-of-classroom time. Institutionally sponsored student activities can serve to enhance students' experiences in the classroom. Astin (1984), as reported by Evans, Forney, & DiBrito (1998), argued that “for student learning and growth to take place, students need to actively engage in their environment” (p. 27). Student activities do indeed provide opportunities for students to become more engaged in their college environment. Students involved in extracurricular activities report developing higher confidence, intimacy, mature interpersonal relationships, and purpose (Hood et al., 1986; Hunt & Rentz, 1994; Williams & Winston, 1985; as reported by Evans, Forney, & DiBrito, 1998). Pascarella & Terenzini (1991) report that many studies have shown the correlation between involvement and its positive relationship to persistence, educational attainment, subsequent earnings, social self-concept, and women's choice of sex-atypical careers. Developing skills such as budgeting, planning, setting timelines, and developing communities and interpersonal communication can all be positive outcomes for students engaged in activities. Schein and Laff (1997) argued that extracurricular involvement can also serve as one tool in helping undecided students narrow their choice of major.

Students may become overextended in their extracurricular endeavors for a number of reasons. Choices are plentiful for the student looking for an opportunity to get involved. One current trend within student activities is the growth in the number of student organizations available to students, many of which are smaller groups that are splintering from larger, broader organizations as students try to find their niche (Reisberg, 2000). Many students feel pressure to become extensively involved in activities in order to demonstrate leadership experience to potential employers or to build their résumé for further academic applications, as some graduate and professional programs require a set number of hours or experiences for admission. Additionally, some universities are requiring service involvement for graduation. Other students may ascertain more enjoyment from their out-of-classroom experiences than from those inside, suggesting a curriculum or career path mismatch. Finally, some students look to student organizations to develop social and emotional connections and can easily decide to devote more time to these relationships, and thus to the student organization, by neglecting academic work.

So what is an adviser to do when a disproportionate involvement in extracurricular activities impedes a student's ability to do well in academic work? As a student organization adviser who has seen students struggle with the balance of academics and extracurricular activities, I offer the following suggested advising practices, which may be helpful in dealing with students in this predicament:
  1. Modify, but continue, student involvement. Obviously a student has devoted a great deal of time and energy to these activities and has received some sort of reward for this involvement (personal relationships, organizational accomplishments, etc.). To ask a student to completely withdraw from all of his or her current undertakings will only frustrate and disappoint the student and deplete his or her motivation. The merits of involvement in extracurricular activities are worthy, and advisers should focus on balance. Advisers can play a key role in helping students to evaluate the extent of involvement they can manage.

  2. Encourage quality involvement. Advisers should counsel the student to give thought to his or her involvement and to carefully select which organizations to join. Students are often “involved” in a number of organizations; however, their membership may be limited to attending meetings for each organization infrequently. For a student looking for a résumé builder, encourage him or her to focus on one or two organizations and seek more leadership opportunities within them. If a student is involved in separate social, service, academic, ethnic, interest, and recreational organizations, advise that he or she seek a limited number of opportunities that would encompass more than one of the qualities that he or she would like to find in extracurricular involvement.

  3. Create balance between academics and extracurricular programs. Advisers should work with students not only to create a curriculum plan but also to develop a comprehensive plan that includes course work, extracurricular involvement, and work experiences that reflect students' career and personal goals. This plan may be particularly relevant in helping undecided students to narrow their many interests (Schein & Laff, 1997).

  4. Blend extracurricular interests with the curriculum. Experiential education is a pedagogy coordinating practical experiences and learning. Many colleges and universities offer service learning, leadership programs, apprenticeships, or internships as a part of their curricula. Students may be able to receive academic credit while participating in the activities that they enjoy.

  5. Provide tools to manage the practicalities. A student may not have undertaken an unmanageable load with regard to course work and activities but may instead have difficulty managing his or her time. Advisers should help students to develop skills to budget their time wisely and to set priorities.

  6. Revisit career and major choice. If a student is devoting more time to activities than to academics, it may very well be that there is a curriculum and career choice mismatch that may not be obvious to the student. Revisit the student's goals and career path to determine if he or she is actually more in sync with his or her chosen extracurricular activities.

  7. Know campus resources. Students may benefit from referrals to such departments as the counseling center with regard to their over-commitment or the career center regarding career choice. The campus student activities office will be sure to have a wealth of information regarding student organization opportunities. The personnel working within this office may very well be counseling the student with the same emphasis in regard to their organization, so collaboration would ensure a comprehensive approach. Academic advisers should look to the student affairs office to find advisers working with student activities or volunteer involvement.
In closing, there are many opportunities on campuses today for student involvement, and the rewards for students who seize these opportunities are great. However, for the student who is over-involved or over-committed, the academic adviser can use the steps outlined above to ensure that the student learns how to maintain a healthy balance between activities and academics.


Collison, M. N. K. (1990, March 28). Colleges pay attention to time students spend outside the classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved July 21, 2002, from

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., & DiBrito, F. G. (1998). Student development in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reisberg, L. (2000, September 29). Proliferation of campus clubs: Too much of a good thing? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved July 21, 2002, from

Schein, H. K., & Laff, N. S. (1997). Working with undecided students: A hands-on strategy. NACADA Journal, 17(1), 42–48.

Other Resources

Association of College Unions International

Dunkel, N. W., & Schuh, J. H. (1998). Advising student groups and organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Campus Activities

National Society for Experiential Education

About the Author

Heather Andring is Illini Union Program Adviser, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at

Published in The Mentor on September 9, 2002, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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