|Harvard asks the question on 3 different applications.|
In its previous 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 writing essays, particularly those that required a bit of reflection. 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, Ed.D., 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 remains because our member colleges and universities want it.”
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 writing supplements or additions to the basic application.
But despite the demotion, the question apparently lives on, as nearly 60 Common App member institutions continue to ask students variations on the question such as “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you” (Princeton) or “briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience of particular significance to you” (Amherst). Included on this list are:
· Amherst College (175 words)
· Brown University (150 words)
· Christian Brothers University
· Davidson College (200 words)
· Guilford College
· Harvard University *#
· Princeton University (150 words)*
· Purdue University
· Rice University (150 words)*#
· Seattle University (50 to 100 words)
· Stanford University
· Tulane University
· University of Wisconsin—Madison (50-100 words)
· Vanderbilt University (150-400)*#
· Vassar College (350 words)
· Washington and Lee University
Students tackling this question, or some variation, should embrace the opportunity to write about an activity 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
- Show Importance:
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. Or you can focus on specific impact—what you did and why. 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:
language and generic detail inevitably fail to convey passion. If you can
imagine thousands of other applicants using the same ideas and phrases,
you need to try another approach. Be colorful and specific in your
descriptions, while avoiding clichés and tired language. Write in the
active (not passive) tense—those helper verbs not only slow the action but
they also add unnecessary words to your narrative.
Repetition. If you related an anecdote about one of
your most important extracurricular activities in your personal statement,
don’t go back over the same ground. Go for the next most important
activity or one that sets you apart from the pack.
- Be Precise: Short answers
need to be concise and substantive especially if the word count is very
limited. Unlike the personal statement, you may be actually “telling” as
much as “showing” to get the point across that this is a meaningful
activity for you. 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 asks the question on the Universal College Application
# Also asks the question on the Coalition Application