When Did Hobbies Become Extracurriculars?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

As a teenager, my sister-in-law used her savings to buy a classic 1950s Chevy, which she parked in the driveway and rebuilt herself. She worked on it in the afternoons and on weekends, in and around her school and sports schedule. My other siblings-in-law had similarly passionate interests, like playing the guitar or piano. These kinds of activities used to be called “hobbies,” and their hobbies were largely self-directed—things they did on their own or with friends. Their parents, aside from perhaps offering advice on engine repair or playing a song with them on the piano, were pretty much hands-off.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have hobbies. I had “extracurriculars.” I took music lessons in high school, which were duly noted on my college applications. I endured participation in various sports teams, which I disliked, for the sake of still more line items on the college aps. I did participate in the drama club, which I loved, and I would have done so no matter what it meant for college. But all of these activities I thought of primarily as part of a resume-building exercise, hopefully making me a more attractive candidate for selective schools. I didn’t have any “hobbies,” the way kids of previous generations did. Even the kids who did have passions they followed were encouraged to frame them as a “hook,” the one unique thing about themselves that they could offer a particular institution.

I wonder if this is generational: My husband, who’s a little older than I am, is the youngest of a large family, so he and his siblings went to college in the 1970s and ’80s. By the early 90s, when I was applying, what you wanted to do with your free time was subsumed by what you had to do (at least, according to the college counselors). “Hook” entered the college-counseling parlance. Now, college applications, from what I hear from friends with teenage kids, have become a four- or five-year quest in which children hone their resumes, grades and activities to present their best selves to Harvard and Yale.

When I was an SAT tutor in the early aughts, I had a student who enjoyed playing the piano and took a weekly lesson. We met two or three times a week, prepping her for the SAT, SAT II and the English AP exam. To make time for my sessions with her, her parents canceled the piano lesson. To make time for the practice tests as well as her homework, she voluntarily gave up her piano practice time. I met with her for all of her junior year and half of her senior year, during which time I don’t think she did much of anything purely for fun. Her piano skills weren’t good enough to get her a spot at a conservatory, she told me, so it wasn’t really “worth” it to prioritize the music over the SATs.

Today’s overscheduled, stressed-out kid gets a lot of air time, for good reason. Teens don’t get enough sleep or exercise. Parents push them, or they push themselves, to study a little more for a test, hoping to yank a B+ average up to an A. The activity called “getting into a good college” is now a multiyear slog in which kids set aside what they really want to be doing—what brings them joy—to tick off another box on the “well-rounded applicant” list. While there are many other good reasons for dialing back this high-intensity high school experience, I’d like to offer this modest benefit: Hobbies might make a comeback.

I do have a hobby now. I play the guitar. It doesn’t matter that I suck. I wish I had more time to devote to it, because I really love it. If my kids show any interest in stuff like drawing comics or building model planes, I’ll totally support that. I hope that by the time they’re in high school I’m not pushing them to prioritize something like SAT tutoring over something they love, but who knows? Maybe I’ll succumb to the fever too.

Hey, restoring a classic car is something that might look good on a college application.

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