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How (and why) to Write a College Essay About Your Extracurricular Activities | Guide + Examples

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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😢 Won’t anyone think of the college admissions readers? 😢

In our work as college essay coaches, we’ve lately been delighted to learn that many people are in fact worried that college admission officers might be bored — specifically due to redundant college essays that rehash all the stuff that’s in the Activities List in prose-form.

Ugh! That would indeed be horribly boring. (And it does indeed happen.) 

[Shaking head.] Poor admissions readers.

But — little nuance — you don’t have to rehash what you put in your activities list. You could instead expand upon what’s there by either: 

  1. Talking more about the impact you had and the actions you took to achieve that impact ✨, or 
  2. Showing how the activity relates to your personal brand as an applicant who will succeed in college and beyond. ✨

Bottom line: writing a Common App Personal Statement (or supplemental essay) about a meaningful extracurricular activity is often a great idea. Read on for how to do it right.

In fact, many college applications specifically ask students to describe an activity or work experience — proof that colleges are interested in learning more about them. 

What you *don’t* want to do: Redundancy & the dreaded “it makes me feel alive” trap;What you *do* want to do: Show how your activity connects to your potential for success;Another thing you might want to do: Tell a fuller version of the impact you had and how you achieved it
What you *don’t* want to do: Redundancy & the dreaded “it makes me feel alive” trap;What you *do* want to do: Show how your activity connects to your potential for success;Another thing you might want to do: Tell a fuller version of the impact you had and how you achieved it

    What you *don’t* want to do: Redundancy & the dreaded “it makes me feel alive” trap 

    While the idea that you shouldn’t write about activities in college application essays is a pernicious rumor, as college essay coaches, we must admit that this territory does come with some real danger. 

    The danger is that, instead of writing an essay that sheds light on how you’ll succeed in college and beyond, you talk about the activity in a way that adds little to nothing over what’s already in your Activity List. 

    Here are some approaches that have been known to tempt those facing the terror of the blank page:

    • “I love soccer so much. The thrill of the game is my favorite thing. I feel so alive when I’m on the field. One time, I scored this amazing goal. [Brilliant writing describes this amazing goal in gorgeous detail.]”
    • [Same as above, except substitute “music” for “soccer” and “in front of an audience” for “on the field,” and so on.]
    • “Debate is my passion. I began in ninth grade knowing nothing. But I worked hard at it, and won my first award as a freshman, even though it was only 9th place. As a sophomore, my skills really improved. I came in 3rd in the Semi-All Around [editor’s note: does that sound like a believable award?]. Finally, my junior year, I came in first in the National Regionals!”

    Let’s analyze.

    In the first two types of essays (the “[activity] makes me feel alive!” essay) the problem isn’t necessarily writing style. You could write a beautiful piece of prose about that amazing, game-clinching goal, with drama and stakes, reveals and surprises, and soul-plumbing moments on par with something out of Squid Game

    But if the essay doesn’t say anything about your potential to succeed — elements we’ve boiled down to the 5 traits (more about them below) — it’s not going to matter to the college. 

    Lots of students love music. Lots of people are passionate about sports. 

    Those things aren’t enough (on their own) to make anyone stand out. 

    The last type of essay is more of an obvious clunker. This student may be brilliant at Debate, but they can’t write for their life! The issue here is that they’re just laying out everything they’ve done — the admissions officer isn’t learning anything new. All of it would fit better in their Activities List.  

    At least this example shows that college essays aren’t about “showing off.” You don’t need to have insane accomplishments to write a great essay. (Great accomplishments shine better in Activities Lists — although even there, it’s easy to undersell yourself. Here’s how to sell yourself in Activities Lists.)

    Rather, it’s perfectly possible to write a great essay about a smaller moment or experience, so long as the essay focuses on your character traits, and how they’ll help you succeed. 

    Speaking of which, let’s move on to ...

    What you *do* want to do: Show how your activity connects to your potential for success 

    Alright. Here’s the good stuff.

    Yes, you can absolutely write about your extracurricular activities (including paid work). You can do this to great effect either in your personal statement or in a shorter supplemental essay (or even both!). If you still don’t believe us, here’s an example of a student who got into Harvard by writing about an extracurricular activity. 

    Here are some reasons why activities make great essay topics:

    1. Fun! You probably enjoy these activities, so you might likewise have fun talking about them.
    2. Experience! Even if you don’t love the activity (maybe a job), you spend a lot of time at it, so you likely have lots of interesting experiences to choose from.
    3. Authenticity! Activities are usually something that can represent the “real you” easily.
    4. Potential!! Activities are great for showing off the 5 Traits that colleges look for in essays. 

    That brings us to the 5 traits.  

    If you’ve read almost any of our other articles, you know that the 5 traits that colleges look for in applicants are:

    1. Drive (aka Grit)
    2. Initiative
    3. Contribution
    4. Intellectual Curiosity
    5. Diversity of Experiences

    These traits show you’re someone who has it in them to succeed. They’re more important than any one success or achievement. Because, if we’re being honest, one success or achievement in high school isn’t that impressive. But having a trait within you that leads to success? That actually is impressive. 

    Let’s rewrite those essay types above with the 5 traits in mind:

    • “I couldn’t believe it. My soccer team was discussing whether or not to schedule an extra practice during the upcoming long weekend. “Of course, yes,” I was thinking. But, shockingly, the room was not with me. A quick consensus formed around no added practice. It was my tipping point — I finally saw that I needed to convey to this team that settling for mediocre was not an option, and that none of us would regret doing what it takes to win.”
    • “Nobody is musical in my family. Piano is something I made happen all by myself. I begged my mom for my first lessons as a freshman. The lessons soon got me fascinated by music theory, which I started studying on my own, since our school doesn’t teach it. Later, I found a Saturday class where I now study it.”
    • “I started Debate Club just because I thought I needed an extracurricular activity for my resume. It didn’t mean much to me. It was only at the end of freshman year when I delivered an unsurprisingly lackluster performance in our final trials — and saw the look of disappointment on my teammates’ faces — that I realized I was letting everybody down, most importantly myself. After that, I …”

    Let’s analyze. 

    These examples turn the admissions reader from outsiders to insiders. 

    Your Activities List was a teaser trailer, heavy on the special effects and with the greatest moments edited together to pack a wallop. Now, the college wants to know more. They’re metaphorically willing to cough up movie fare and schlep out to the theater (of course donning a covid mask) to learn the full story of what created this awesome list.

    In an essay centered on one or more activities, they want to see what actions you took that led to these accomplishments. They want to see what traits within you caused you to take those actions. They want to see if you have what it takes to succeed. 

    For the soccer example, we’ve tossed the game-clinching goal cliche out the window. Instead, we’re focused on rare, valuable traits — in this case Drive (aka Grit). This person gets things done. No matter what. Who would you rather have on campus? A student who’s great at soccer and has scored some extraordinary goals? Or … the person who rallied an apathetic team into adding work and improving their results? 

    In the musical example, you see both Initiative (challenging the status quo) as well as Intellectual Curiosity (being excited about learning). This person doesn’t just love music, they made that love of music happen, and they got deep into it. What a cool type of person to admit to a college!

    Finally, in our Debate Club example, you’re seeing some Contribution (giving back, helping others) in the form of a person wanting to do better by teammates, as well as perhaps some Drive and Intellectual Curiosity, both of which likely come into play later in the essay, as this person turns their performance around. 

    Another thing you might want to do: Tell a fuller version of the impact you had and how you achieved it   

    Another way we, as essay coaches, have seen students successfully discuss an activity is when the 150 characters allotted for each of your activities isn’t quite enough to tell its story. 

    Let’s take this Activities List description as an example:

    • Won a series of 6 deadly contests without losing my humanity. Subverted VIP expectations and made possible the redemption of a teammate gone evil. 

    (Yes, this is Squid Game, and no there are no spoilers up there. I mean, you know one of them is going to win, right? It’s a very mild spoiler. Email us if you’re upset.)

    Well, there might be a lot more to say here about this person’s participation in the Squid Games. About …

    • Drive — How they kept at it despite long odds (game #2 springs to mind).
    • Initiative — How they found new ways to defeat the odds (bringing in a welcome spirit of camaraderie in an otherwise dog-eat-dog atmosphere).
    • Contribution — so many examples.
    • Diversity of Experiences — if emerging victorious from the Squid Games doesn’t give you a unique outlook, I don’t know what does.

    If you’ve got some great accomplishments under your belt, why not elaborate beyond 150 characters? There’s almost certainly much more to explore that admissions officers would find impressive.

    Just make sure that you’re focusing on your actions and how they relate to one or more of the 5 traits. Avoid going on overly long about your deep feelings for the activity or simply recounting “facts,” such as awards or achievements (that clinching soccer goal) — the college wants to know what enduring traits are behind those fleeting achievements.

    More articles on Prompt.com’s admissions-boosting methods:

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