Sep 3, 2019

The ‘extracurricular’ question lives on

Harvard asks the 'extracurricular' question on 3 applications.
Harvard and Princeton both ask the ‘extracurricular’ question on each of their three applications:
  1. Common Application: “Please briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience of particular significance to you.
  2. Coalition Application: “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you.”
  3. Universal College Application (UCA): “Tell us more about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities (100-150 words).”
And they are not alone. At least 85 Common App members, or about 10 percent of the colleges currently posting applications, ask the exact same question or some near variation on the same theme. While the allowable word count ranges from 50 to 800 (the latter is an outlier), the intention is the same: focus on one item on your resume and tell us about it.

In a 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 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 an activity they cared about.

But several years ago, the new Common App (CA4) dropped the short answer in favor of a much longer, 650-word single writing sample (the subject of some controversy from institutions quietly objecting to the artificially-increased length of the personal statement). 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. Among the colleges asking the extracurricular question are:
  • Amherst College (175 words)1
  • Brown University (150 words)1
  • Bryn Mawr College (word count varies by application) 1 and 2
  • Christian Brothers University (500 words)1
  • Colorado College (250 words)1
  • Cornell University (150 words)3
  • Davidson College (200 words)1 and 2
  • Fisk University (250 words)1
  • Guilford College (250 words)1
  • Harvard University (150 words) 1, 2 and 3
  • Howard University (250 words)1
  • Princeton University (150 words)1, 2 and 3
  • Purdue University (250 words) 1 and 2
  • RPI (300 words)1
  • Stanford University (150 words)1 and 2
  • Tulane University (250 words)1
  • University of Central Florida (250 words)1
  • Vanderbilt University (150–400)1 and 2
  • Washington and Lee University (250 words)1
1 Common Application
2 Coalition Application
3 Universal College Application

Students tackling this question should embrace the opportunity to write about an activity they actually care passionately about or one which provides an insight into character. 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 a passion or interest 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—keep that to a minimum. Instead, 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. Consider an activity that shows personal growth and development or possibly reflects career-related or personal ambitions.
  • Provide Details: Vague 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.
  • Avoid 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.

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