How to Write a Stellar Extracurricular Activity College Essay
In the college admissions process, one of the most common supplemental essays asks you to elaborate on an extracurricular activity. While it may seem straightforward, students often struggle with which extracurricular to pick, what details to include, and how to format the essay.
In this post, we’ll be going over just that, so you can write a strong essay response to this classic prompt.
What is the Extracurricular Activity Essay?
You’ll need to submit two main types of essays in the college admissions process: the personal statement and supplemental essays. The personal statement is your main application essay that goes to all the schools you apply to. It tends to be 500-650 words. This essay isn’t school-specific, and focuses on who you are and what you care about. This includes the Common App essay or Coalition Application essay, but also main application essays for regional platforms, like the University of California essays and ApplyTexas essays.
Supplemental essays are school-specific prompts that only go to the school that requests them. You often have to write 1-3 essays that are usually 100-400 words each. These essays are often used to assess your fit with a school, whether that’s in terms of academics or extracurriculars. Common prompts include “Why This College?”, “Why This Major?”, and the Extracurricular Activity essay.
As a supplemental essay, the Extracurricular Activity prompt asks you to describe a meaningful non-academic activity of yours. The goal of this essay is to better understand your passions and how you might contribute to the college community.
Examples of Extracurricular Activity Essay Prompts
If you’re applying to the recommended number of colleges (we recommend 7-10), you’ll likely encounter the extracurricular activity essay. Here are a couple examples of real prompts:
Georgetown: Briefly discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved. (1/2 page, single-spaced, or approximately 300-400 words depending on font size).
Vanderbilt: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences (150-400 words).
Harvard: Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences (150 words).
You can see that the Vanderbilt and Harvard prompt are basically verbatim, and that prompt is the most likely iteration of the extracurricular activity prompt. You might’ve also noticed that the word counts range from 150-400 words, and that does tend to be the suggested length for most extracurricular activity essays. It’s not a lot of space, so you have to approach this essay in a more strategic way.
How to Decide on an Extracurricular to Write about
Each school may phrase their prompt slightly differently, but for the most part, such prompts ask you to describe the extracurricular which was most meaningful to you or that you are the most proud of, and why it was so impactful.
Note that this prompt is specifically not asking you the extracurricular in which you received the highest number of accolades or in which you held the highest leadership position. You have the rest of your application to extol your various other accomplishments. Essays should be personal. Even if a prompt is asking you to speak about your accomplishments, you should speak on these accomplishments in terms of how they have shaped and motivated you, not how they’ve padded your resume.
Accordingly, when choosing an extracurricular to write on, think deeply about which of your activities has had the greatest impact on your growth or development. Writing about an extracurricular you’re truly passionate about will not only make the process of writing easier, but also ultimately make your essay stronger. It’s always better to write about the activity you care about most than to write about the activity you think “looks” best!
Here are some other ideas of activities to write about:
- The activity where you have shown the most commitment—commitment is an intersection of the amount of time you spend on this activity, how long you’ve been involved, and the intensity of your involvement. The more time and intensity, the better. For example, an activity in which you are a top-level performer, or on which you spend lots of time, is stronger than a job where you just go through the motions on the weekends.
- Clubs or groups you founded, or in which you held a leadership role—not only do they demonstrate ambition and leadership skills, they also show that you’re passionate enough about a certain pursuit or subject that you’re willing to take initiative to gain experience in the field.
- Activity that relates to a personal aspect of your life—describing how your participation helped shape who you are on a personal level can also give adcoms a unique perspective on your personality. For example, a student with a family member who suffered from cancer may choose to write on her leadership of a Relay for Life team.
- Experiences that relate to your future goals—any activities that set a foundation for your professional plans are also highly-relevant, as they show that you’re serious about those plans.
- Extracurricular that you haven’t had a chance to address in other parts of your application, or an activity that merits more discussion—this is especially helpful for activities that aren’t as common, like hosting a podcast or selling pottery online.
It’s important to remember that your essays should be a portfolio of the different aspects of who you are. You need to look at your essays not only individually, but as a whole. It can be helpful to ask yourself what personal qualities you want to highlight in your application, and think about which activities best embody those qualities. Just remember that you don’t want your application to be repetitive. For example, if you’ve already written about playing tennis in your Common App essay, don’t write about it again in the extracurricular activity essay. But, if you want to highlight your creative side and it isn’t really represented in your application, then you might choose to write an essay on one of your creative activities, like starting an art class for kids with disabilities.
Trips for Writing the Extracurricular Activity Essay
1. Make the essay about you and who you are.
The biggest mistake you can make is turning this essay into yet another extracurricular description like you’d include in your activities section. Rather than focusing purely on the extracurricular, use it as a platform upon which to speak more generally about your ambitions or personal experiences.
In balancing your description of the extracurricular with your explanation of why it’s important to you, we recommend aiming for a 1:2 ratio. For example, if your word limit is 300 words, try to spend 100 words describing the extracurricular, and 200 words tying your accomplishments in that activity to your personal goals and aspirations. This again places the focus on you, not the activity, and will ensure you’re allowing yourself to most effectively show who you are to admissions committees.
2. Share an anecdote.
To make your essay more vivid, take the reader to a specific experience that stands out in the arc of your extracurricular. Maybe it was auditioning for the lead role of a play for the first time and the nervous excitement you felt. You can also choose to narrate something more mundane but equally important, such as your daily soccer practice and the thoughts in your head as you dribble.
The vital thing to remember is to incorporate reflection into your writing, not just to tell a story. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of your anecdote without showing how the extracurricular shaped you. Let us know what skills you’ve developed because of the activity, what personality traits have been strengthened, and whether the activity impacts the way you live other parts of your life.
Here’s an example of an essay that balances out storytelling with substance. The writer brings us to a specific moment as they’re playing piano, but goes on to reflect on why the activity is important to them, and what it’s taught them:
My fingers raced across the keys, rapidly striking one after another. My body swayed with the music as my hands raced across the piano. Crashing onto the final chord, it was over as quickly as it had begun. My shoulders relaxed and I couldn’t help but break into a satisfied grin. I had just played the Moonlight Sonata’s third movement, a longtime dream of mine. Four short months ago, though, I had considered it impossible. The piece’s tempo was impossibly fast, its notes stretching between each end of the piano, forcing me to reach farther than I had ever dared. It was 17 pages of the most fragile and intricate melodies I had ever encountered. But that summer, I found myself ready to take on the challenge. With the end of the school year, I was released from my commitment to practicing for band and solo performances. I was now free to determine my own musical path: either succeed in learning the piece, or let it defeat me for the third summer in a row. Over those few months, I spent countless hours practicing the same notes until they burned a permanent place in my memory, creating a soundtrack for even my dreams. Some would say I’ve mastered the piece, but as a musician I know better. Now that I can play it, I am eager to take the next step and add in layers of musicality and expression to make the once-impossible piece even more beautiful.
3. Be mindful of essay length.
Since these essays tend to be short, you may not be able to actually share an anecdote. If the essay must be 100 words or fewer, you probably won’t have space. If the prompt requires 150 words, you should still have room to write about a specific moment in your extracurricular, but you’ll need to keep it very brief, and your reflections will also have to be fairly straightforward. That’s totally okay!
If the prompt allows more than 250 words, however, you’ll be able to get more creative. For these longer essays, consider incorporating 1-3 more anecdotes. If your relationship with your extracurricular has an interesting backstory, feel free to use a longitudinal approach to share how your involvement with the activity has developed over time. That being said, make sure that the bulk of your essay is still a reflection on how the activity has shaped you, rather than just a narrative of the activity.
4. Polish your writing.
Remember, essays aren’t just an opportunity for admissions committees to learn more about an applicant: they’re also a way to evaluate your writing skills and your ability to clearly and directly respond to a given prompt. We’ll say it again: be sure to address the prompt accurately and clearly!
Also always be aware of grammar and spelling conventions, vary your sentence structure, avoid the passive voice, and be creative (although not excessively gaudy) with your word choice.
You have an entire application to show colleges what you’ve accomplished. Personal essays are intended to bring out the applicant behind the accomplishments: what are you truly passionate about, and how has that passion manifested itself in your high school career? Answer that question, and you’ll be on track for an effective essay on your most meaningful extracurricular.
Want help on your college essays to get into your dream schools? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses, as well as our Essay Manager. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed, and improve your writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.