How to Write the Supplemental College Essay on Your Activities

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This blog is part of our series on how to write the college application supplemental essays. Check out our blogs on some of the other commonly asked questions, including those about “why us?,” diversity, creativity, and community.

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities. Discuss its significance or why it’s been meaningful to you. The blank screen stares back at you, and all those years of playing soccer or practicing violin or running the environmental club seem impossible to lasso into just 150 words. Alternatively, not a single thing you’ve done over the last four years seems meaningful enough.

Why do colleges ask about extracurriculars?

It helps to understand the motive behind the question. Aren’t my resume and activities list enough? Why do colleges require essays in the first place? Why are extracurriculars such a big deal?

Colleges are building a community with students who will share their values, engage, and be happy there. They are putting together a puzzle and looking for just the right pieces. Your transcript may help you fill a spot in the puzzle, but if the picture doesn’t match up, no one will be happy. Essays are your opportunity to assemble the numbers and letters in your transcript into a colorful person, someone alive with feelings, value, and a vision. Asking about your extracurriculars is a great way for colleges to get to know the real you better — that is, if you show them the real you.

The best advice for how to answer any college essay prompt is to stop worrying about what you think colleges want to hear, and just be you. But that can be easier said than done. Here are some pointers to help you overcome that blank screen.

Which activity do I write about?

Honestly, the specific activity doesn’t matter. Focus instead on providing a window into how you manage your time, what your passions are, and how you reflect on and analyze your experiences.

It’s easy to think of sports, academic clubs, hobbies, religious, community service, or music and arts-related extracurriculars, but not all activities fit nicely into these categories. Think outside the box. Ask yourself what you spend your time outside of school doing. What will you enjoy writing about? What are you passionate about? If you love doing something, it will be easier to write, and your authenticity will be evident. 

What if you haven’t had time for traditional activities? Never discredit having a job or spending significant time helping at home—that is, what the Common App refers to as family responsibilities, such as household tasks or caring for younger siblings or family with special or medical needs. All of these show maturity and require time management.

How do I write about or describe my activity?

Most prompts include a request to elaborate, which means you’re going to have to give details. Spend some time brainstorming and journaling about your activity. After you write, review for phrases or sentences that best capture your experience, feelings, and thoughts. Here are a few ideas to help you explore and reflect.

Describe your role.  What are your responsibilities? Pay particular attention to note tasks that show transferable skills like leadership, initiative, organization, creativity, and time-management. Remember, you don’t have to have a title to be a leader. Leaders go first, set examples, and serve others. 

Show passion for the activity.  Colleges want to know what you do that makes you happy, which often translates into the depth of your involvement in an activity. On your resume, this could translate as time spent per week or the longevity of your participation, but passion is hard to convey on a resume. What if you just found an activity that resonates with you, or maybe the activity was a short-term opportunity for a season or over a summer?

The best way to show your passion or depth of involvement is to tell a story. Let the reader step inside you and participate in the activity with you. It’s okay to focus on the ordinary: life is made up mostly of the ordinary, and it’s what you do with the ordinary that can become extraordinary. Visualize what it was like to relive a key moment. Take a sensory inventory. What’s your setting, what do you see around you, hear, touch, feel, smell, even taste? If you still participate in the activity, take time at your next opportunity to be mindful of the details so you can better describe your experience. 

Most prompts qualify that your answer be brief. Once you’ve brainstormed, be selective. What aspects show you the most? Spend less time on the facts, and listing out awards, accomplishments, and duties, and spend more time on what makes your experience unique — namely, your thoughts and feelings.

How do I convey meaning and significance?

The quality of your answer will depend on how you reflect on your experiences. Millions of students play soccer; your challenge is to show what soccer means to you, not what you think it should mean to admissions, or to your friends, or even to your parents. Once again, it’s critical to be true to you. 

If the significance of your activity is still elusive, it helps to ask yourself some questions. Consider your past, present, and future. Think back to the beginning: why did you start? What sparked your curiosity about the activity? What was missing in your life that the activity filled? Perspectives change over time. How does the activity benefit you now? What skills are you developing that are being transferred to other areas of your life? How would your life be different if you didn’t participate in the activity?

And finally, consider who you are becoming. After all, that’s what colleges are investing in by welcoming you to their community. Certainly, your accomplishments, grades, and scores are significant, and what you will do with your life is important. However, what truly matters is your character, your integrity, and how you will engage in community. Think about, and then share, how your involvement in whatever activity you’ve chosen will benefit a bigger vision for who you want to become in the future. How has your involvement grown you to be a better person? How is this a stepping stone for a greater purpose?

Daphne Birdsinger

Essay Specialist

Daphne Birdsinger holds a Master of Teaching in English Education from the University of Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and Psychology from the College of William and Mary.

Until recently, Daphne taught English and writing in Arlington Public Schools. Before finding her calling as a teacher, Daphne worked as a producer with a multimedia communications company. In that positio...

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