The Common Application asks you to “elaborate” on one of you extracurricular activities in 150 words. This short paragraph is an important one on your application. In just a few sentences, you must convey something personal, meaningful, and interesting about yourself.
Seems impossible, right? “How can I sum up my experience in my favorite extracurricular activities in just a few sentences?”
Well, it’s time to tackle the impossible. These tips may help you decide which activity to focus upon, and how to write a well-structured paragraph that gives the reader a deeper understanding of your motivations and your priorities.
Choosing the Right Activity
- Don’t necessarily pick the activity that looms largest on your resume or activity list. If you are a star tennis player and possible recruit for a college team, that fact will be clear on your activity list. If you are the best clarinetist in the city, then your activity list should reflect that fact. Remember, the prompt asks you to “elaborate” on the activity. It doesn’t say you have to choose the one that takes up the most time, nor does it say that it must be the one that is your primary extracurricular focus. More specifically, it may be that the activity in which you have achieved or excelled the most is not the activity that will be the best to elaborate upon in this short essay. Consider the other activities that may help to round out your application and present another view of what motivates and interests you.
- Consider which activities carry the most personal meaning to you. Look back over your resume or activities list and ask yourself, “Which of these would I miss the most if I could no longer do it?” Perhaps it’s that annual scouting trip, or the weekends skiing with your family. Or maybe it’s that concert you organize at the nursing home twice a year that brings you particular joy.
- Consider elaborating on an activity that is not on the activities list or resume. For example, perhaps your extended family shares Sunday dinner together regularly, and this ritual has had a big influence on you and helped to shape your feelings about family. Maybe you actually enjoy mowing your lawn every week, making it look nice by paying attention to details. Perhaps you ride your bike to school every morning, and you use that time to notice details on your route, and get your head together before and after your workday.
- Consider taking one of your activities and giving it greater specificity and detail. As you know, the space on the application in which to elaborate on your activities is very, very limited. So use this short paragraph to pull out some details. For example, perhaps you mention on your activity sheet that you have done volunteer work at a hospital, and that you have several responsibilities. But there is one responsibility, in particular, that you most enjoy. To take another example, perhaps you are a guitar player, and your activity list indicates that you’re fairly good, but not great. However, there I some particular aspect of playing the guitar that you enjoy: you don’t mind playing scales over and over in order to improve your technique; you go to a music store on Saturdays where a bunch of bluegrass players get together and jam, and you join in, despite the fact you aren’t the best player; or you are a huge fan of Andre Segovia and have listened to every piece he has ever recorded. These sorts of details can say a lot about the depth of your interest in an activity, even if it is not where your greatest accomplishments lie.
The Focus: “Why?”
- Your activity list or resume should address the questions of “What, When, and Where?” (the “who” should be apparent: you!). This list explains your accomplishments and the range of your commitments. But it doesn’t explain your motivations or your priorities. This short essay-ette gives you an opportunity do some explaining.
- As with your primary college essay and with the supplements, the aim here is to give the admissions officer reading your file a bit more information about yourself. What you convey in this short paragraph is something that they won’t find in the essays, and that they won’t really know from reading your activity list. This is another opportunity for you to present another interesting and important facet of your personality. All the essays give your application depth and dimension. Don’t throw away this opportunity to tell the reader more about yourself.
Tips for Writing
- Start with a list of reasons you participate in this activity. What do you get out of it? Why do you enjoy it? Why would you miss it if you suddenly were unable to do it anymore?
- Remember that not every aspect of your participation may be enjoyable. Are there reasons you participate in this activity that actually help you accomplish something else that is, in fact, even more enjoyable? For example, weigh training may not always be fun, but it can make you stronger. Practicing the flute may be enjoyable in some respects, and not so much in others—but practicing makes you a better player.
- Once your list of reasons why you participate in this activity, pick the top three. Write your essay in 5 sentences. One to introduce the activity, three to explain why you do it, and 1 to spare, either as a conclusion or as an elaboration on your introduction.
- If you are having trouble, try completing these sentence prompts to get you going.
- When I participate in this activity, I feel ___________.
- I originally got involved in this activity because ____________ . And now I continue this activity because ____________ .
- My favorite aspect of this activity is ____________ .
- My friends think this activity is ___________ .
- I take the most pride in this aspect of the activity: ___________ .
College Essay Expert
Filed Under: Application TipsTagged With: college, Common Application, essay
It’s December and chances are you’re working on one (or several) short extracurricular statements. First, a quick FAQ:
Q: Why do so many schools ask for these?
A: The Common App used to require students that students write a 1,000 character (approx. 150-word) extracurricular statement. When in 2013 the Common App dropped the requirement, many colleges kept it as a supplement.
Q: Do I really have to write it?
A: When students ask me this my usual response is: “Really? You’d rather not talk about that thing you’ve devoted hundreds of hours of your life to? Okay, good idea.” (I’m not actually that sarcastic, but that’s what I’m thinking.)
Q: Which extracurricular activity should I write about?
A: I write about that here.
Q: What should I say? How should I structure it?
A: Keep it simple.
a. What did you literally do? What were your actual tasks?
b. What did you learn?
With 150 words, there’s not a lot of room for much more. And while your main statement is more “show” than “tell,” this one will probably be more “tell.” Value content and information over style.
Here’s a great example:
Example 1: Journalism
VIOLENCE IN EGYPT ESCALATES. FINANCIAL CRISIS LEAVES EUROPE IN TURMOIL. My quest to become a journalist began by writing for the international column of my school newspaper, The Log. My specialty is international affairs; I’m the messenger who delivers news from different continents to the doorsteps of my community. Late-night editing, researching and re-writing is customary, but seeing my articles in print makes it all worthwhile. I’m the editor for this section, responsible for brainstorming ideas and catching mistakes. Each spell-check I make, each sentence I type out, and each article I polish will remain within the pages of The Log. Leading a heated after-school brainstorming session, watching my abstract thoughts materialize onscreen, holding the freshly printed articles in my hand—I write for this joyous process of creation. One day I’ll look back, knowing this is where I began developing the scrutiny, precision and rigor necessary to become a writer.
Three techniques you should steal:
1. Use active verbsto give a clear sense of what you’ve done:
Check out his active verbs: writing, delivering, editing, researching, re-writing, brainstorming, catching, polishing, leading, holding, knowing.
2. Tell us in one good clear sentence what the activity meant to you.
“I’m the messenger who delivers news from different continents to the doorsteps of my community.”
“I write for this joyous process of creation.”
“One day I’ll look back, knowing that this is where I began to develop the scrutiny, precision and rigor necessary to become a writer.”
Okay, that’s three sentences. But notice how all three are different. (And if you’re gonna do three, they have to be different.)
3. You can “show” a little, but not too much.
In the first line:
“VIOLENCE IN EGYPT ESCALATES. FINANCIAL CRISIS LEAVES EUROPE IN TURMOIL.”
“Leading a heated after-school brainstorming session, watching my abstract thoughts materialize onscreen, holding the freshly printed articles in my hand…”
The first one grabs our attention; the second paints a clear and dynamic picture. Keep ‘em short!
Example 2: Hospital Internship
When I applied to West Kendall Baptist Hospital, I was told they weren’t accepting applications from high schoolers. However, with a couple teacher recommendations, the administration gave me a shot at aiding the secretaries: I delivered papers, answered phone calls, and took in patients’ packages. Sadly, inadequate funding shut down large sections of the hospital and caused hundreds of employees--myself included--to lose their jobs. But then Miami Children’s Hospital announced openings for inpatient medical volunteers. Again, I faced denial, but then I got a chance to speak to the lead inpatient medical physician and cited my previous experience. While working at MCH, I delivered samples, took down visitor information, administered questionnaires, and organized records. I helped ease the work of the nurses and doctors, while delivering medicine and smiles to dozens of patients. I may not have directly saved any lives, but I’d like to think I helped.
Three more techniques you can steal:
4. Start with a “problem to be solved.”
Did you initially face an obstacle? In the first sentence say what it was, then in another sentence say how you worked through it. That’ll show grit. Note that this essay has not one, but two obstacles. And each time the writer worked through it in just one sentence. Brevity ftw.
5. Focus on specific impact. (Say whom you helped and how.)
Read the ending again:
“I helped ease the work of the nurses and doctors, while delivering medicine and smiles to dozens of patients. I may not have directly saved any lives, but I’d like to think I helped.”
This applies to fundraisers too (say how much you raised and for whom) and sports (who’d you impact and how?).
6. Write it long first, then cut it.
Both these students started with 250-300 word statements (get all the content on the page first). Then trim ruthlessly, cutting any repetitive or unnecessary words.