One of the questions that pops up most often on college applications is “Which extracurricular activity listed on your application is most meaningful to you, and why?”
For instance, Columbia…
“In 150 words or fewer, please briefly describe which single activity listed in the Activity section of your application are you most proud of and why.”
“Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.”
…and more ask some variation of this question. While it may seem fairly straightforward compared to the more open-ended prompts, it can still give you quite a bit of grief if you’re not sure which activity to write on, on how to write on it. Thankfully, we at Admissions Hero are here to save the day! We’ve broken things down into a step-by-step process below to get you writing in no time!
Step One: Deciding on an Extracurricular
The most important thing to consider when faced with a prompt like this is which extracurricular to write on. 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, but as we’ve stated before, a personal statement should be personal.
Even if a prompt is asking you to speak about your accomplishments, you should speak on these accomplishments from the standpoint 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, or which is most reflective of your career-related and personal ambitions. 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.
If you’ve founded any clubs, programs, or other organizations, writing about these can make for great essays. 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. Demonstrating that degree of interest in a subject suggests to a college that you will show similar drive and dedication in your program if admitted.
After all, colleges are always looking for students who can bring energy, passion, and dedication to their various academic departments. Short of being a founder, extracurriculars in which you’ve served in a leadership role can be effective as well, for many of the same reasons – they allow you to work in evidence of your leadership ability as well as personal motivations and passion.
If you participated in an extracurricular 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. Sometimes, showing a more personal side of yourself in an application can be a great complement to a lengthy list of activities.
Step Two: Writing the Essay
While writing your essay, you should always keep the prompt itself in mind. 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. Unlike your other, more open-ended personal statements, essays in response to this prompt need not rely so heavily on figurative language or rhetorical devices. They’re typically fairly restricted in terms of word count (usually around 100-300 words), so it’s in your best interest to be concise.
Word count restrictions, especially for small, supplementary essays like these typically are, are designed to encourage brevity and directness in language, so don’t squander so few words on complex metaphors or analogies. 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.
Beyond these specific recommendations, many of the same guidelines for writing other personal statements still apply; 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.
Remember, essays aren’t just an opportunity for admissions committees to learn more about an applicant: they’re also intended as 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!
When written effectively, essays on extracurriculars are yet another way you can present a personal side to your applications that allows admissions committees to better understand you as an applicant.
Choosing the right extracurricular is crucial; if you’re able to draw a direct link between the activity in question and your personal, professional, or academic development, your essay will stand out among the myriad of essays boasting about high honors at a speech tournament or presidency of National Honor Society.
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.
Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.