In a former life, the Common Application required all applicants to provide two writing samples—a personal statement of about 500 words and a 150-word short answer focused on a single extracurricular activity or work experience.
Many writing coaches liked the extracurricular question because it basically served as a “warm-up” for reluctant writers or students who had little or no experience in expository writing. In other words, it was a good place to start, especially for students nervous about their writing abilities, by asking them to describe one activity they cared about.
And colleges seemed to like the question. In fact, the Universal College Application (UCA) still asks applicants to “Tell us more about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities (100-150 words).”
"We promote the philosophy of ‘asking the customer’ which we do several times throughout the year," explained Joshua Reiter, president of ApplicationsOnline. "Our college/university members provide us with their requirements on the types of information they need in order to craft their incoming classes. This question has remained because it’s what our members have told us they want.”
Two years ago, the new Common App (CA4) dropped the short answer in favor of a much longer, 650-word single writing sample. The extracurricular essay was relegated to one of a series of possibilities provided in a bank of questions from which colleges could choose as additions to the basic application.
But despite the demotion, it appears the question lives on, as no less than 40 Common App member institutions continue to ask students to “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you” (Princeton) or to “briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience of particular significance to you” (Amherst). Included on this list are:
- Amherst College (175 words)
- Bentley University (250 words)
- Brown University (150 words)
- Christian Brothers University*
- Columbia University (150 words)
- Davidson College (200 words)
- Guilford College (250 words)
- Harvard University (150 words)*
- Princeton University (150 words)*
- Purdue University (25 word minimum)
- Rice University (150 words)*
- Seattle University (50 to 100 words)
- Stanford University (150 words)
- Tulane University (250 words)
- University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (250 words)
- University of Southern California (250 words)
- Vanderbilt University*
- Vassar College (350 words)
- Washington and Lee University (250 words)
Students tackling this question, or some variation, should embrace the opportunity to write about an activity that they actually care passionately about. Here are some tips:
- The Activity: Don’t pick an activity because you think it needs further explanation or because you think it will impress an admissions reader. Colleges want to know what’s important to you. Use this opportunity to write about your greatest passion whether it’s playing the violin, swimming, or working at the local thrift shop.
- Show Importance: You want to do more than simply describe the activity. You want to provide some context in your narrative that will illustrate or otherwise surface its importance. This can be in the form of analysis or a brief anecdote. The purpose of the essay isn’t for readers to learn more about the activity; it’s for them to learn about you.
- Provide Details: Vague language and generic detail inevitably fail to convey passion. Be colorful and specific in your descriptions, while avoiding clichés and tired language. If you can imagine thousands of other applicants using the same ideas and phrases, you need to try another approach.
- Be Precise: Short answers need to be concise and substantive especially if the word count is very limited. There’s no space for flowery language, wordiness, or repetition when you’re working with 150 words. On the other hand, don’t come up short on your word count. Take full advantage of the opportunity to show your passion using compelling descriptions.
- Avoid Bragging: When elaborating on an extracurricular activity, be careful not to come across as an insufferable braggart with an ego as big as all outdoors. Again, it’s more about passion and not individual awards or accomplishments. Don’t use the essay as a vehicle for self-promotion.
- Be Real: Resist the temptation to create a false reality in an effort to sound impressive. Don’t write about the one time you walked for hunger if your real passion is marching band. Colleges won’t admit based on a single good deed. They want students who reveal motivation, persistence, passion and honesty.
*Also members of the Universal College Application