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.
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Extracurriculars are a great way to participate in an activity you enjoy and meet new people, and they can also be an important part of your college application.
What makes an extracurricular activity particularly impressive to colleges? How do your extracurriculars measure up?
Read this guide to see four amazing extracurricular activities examples. I'll discuss why they're exceptional and how you can participate in similar activities to boost your own college application.
What Are Extracurricular Activities and How Are They Useful?
An extracurricular is any activity you participate in outside of class. It can be associated with your school, such as a sports team or club, or completely separate. They also include any jobs or internships you have had, as well as volunteer work you have performed. Extracurriculars cover a wide range of activities and interests, from painting to science to helping the homeless and more.
Why would you want to participate in an extracurricular? There are several ways they can benefit you:
Let You Do Something You Enjoy
Extracurriculars let you participate in an activity you enjoy, whether that’s playing football, painting, or another activity. Practicing this activity regularly will help you get better at it, and you may be able to develop new skills that you find useful in the future. Doing something you enjoy not only makes you happier but can also give you a much-needed break from schoolwork.
Introduce You to New Friends
Students often make many friends through their extracurriculars because they see other members regularly and have a shared interest.
Are Important for College Applications
Extracurriculars can also be included in your college applications to show your interests and talents. Read on to learn more about the importance of extracurriculars when applying to college.
How Are Extracurriculars Important for College Applications?
Extracurriculars can be a key part of your college application. Most applications have a section where you can list all the extracurriculars you were involved in. If a certain extracurricular is particularly important to you, you can also write about it in your personal statement and have the people writing you letters of recommendation discuss it so that it is a more prominent part of your college application.
Why do colleges care about extracurriculars? Colleges like to admit students who are involved in their communities, interact well with others, and work to develop their talents and passions. A student who participates in extracurriculars is more likely to do each of those things than a student who has no extracurriculars.
Also, there is more to college than simply going to class; colleges are full of opportunities to be active, interact with others, and give back, and schools want to admit students who will keep their campuses connected and interesting. Great extracurriculars can also help you stand out from the thousands of applications colleges receive by highlighting a particular skill or interest of yours that makes you unique and memorable.
How competitive your extracurriculars need to depends on how selective the colleges you're applying to are. For Ivy League and other top schools, strong extracurriculars are usually required. For more information, check out our guide that explains how to develop extracurriculars that will help you get into Harvard and other top schools. If you're applying to your state school, you likely don't need your extracurriculars to be exceptional, but if you do have awesome extracurriculars and decent grades, then you have an excellent chance of being accepted.
What Makes an Extracurricular Activity Great?
While colleges like to see a student with extracurriculars, not all extracurriculars are considered equal. There are specific qualities that colleges look for in extracurriculars that will make them more impressive and boost the applicant’s resume. Having one amazing extracurricular on your college application is more impressive than a list of activities you had little interest in or impact on. One great extracurricular can give your college application a significant boost.
However, getting an amazing extracurricular is not as simple as choosing a particular sport or club you think colleges will find impressive. When applying to college, what activity you do is not nearly as important as why you are doing it or the effort you put into it. There are three qualities admissions look for in particular when they review extracurriculars:
Leadership experience includes any time that you have been responsible for leading a project or guiding, motivating, or instructing others. Colleges want to admit students who have a history of leadership experience because they are hoping those students will continue to be leaders and have a significant impact on the world in the future.
You don’t have to be team captain or club president in order to get leadership experience. You can show your leadership skills by helping to organize an event, mentoring younger members, or developing a fundraiser.
Are you participating in that activity because you truly want to or just because you want to include it on your college application? For colleges, there is a huge difference between the two. Admissions officers want to see you doing activities you are interested in and passionate about, not just as a way to impress others. Passion is a critical contributor to success, and colleges see genuine passion as an indicator that you are more likely to succeed than someone who's just going through the motions.
Great extracurriculars show what your passion is. This can be accomplished by having multiple similar extracurriculars (such as being part of multiple science clubs), or showing a deep commitment to a particular extracurricular, often by pursuing it for many years and spending a significant amount of time on it.
Colleges measure impact by looking at how you influenced the activity you participated in and how it influenced you. The strongest extracurricular examples clearly show that you have changed and improved as a result of participating and that you also had a lasting impact on the activity as well.
Colleges want to admit people who will have a positive and lasting impact on their school, so they look for students who already have a history of this in their extracurriculars. Having an impact on an extracurricular can include recruiting new members, expanding a club’s focus, or developing a way for the club to reach more people. Colleges also want to see that your extracurriculars made you a better person. Are you more responsible? A better team player? More confident?
Colleges love to see confident applicants.
To get a better idea of what good extracurricular activities are, read on to see examples of outstanding extracurricular activities.
Great Extracurricular Activity Examples
Below are four fictional examples of great extracurricular activities. For each, a paragraph is written from the student’s perspective. Most college applications don't allow much space to discuss your extracurriculars, but you will likely want to include a more condensed version of the same kind of information. For a more in-depth take on this topic, take a look at our guide on how to write about extracurriculars on your college application.
Each example also includes a breakdown of what makes it a great extracurricular, as well as ways for you to pursue similar activities.
Example 1: Elizabeth the Ballerina
I took my first ballet class when I was three years old, and ever since then I have known that I want to be a ballerina. During the school year, I would take ballet classes six days a week, and beginning in middle school I spent summers at intensive ballet camps. When I was 14, I was accepted into the Joffrey Ballet’s pre-professional program, one of the most competitive youth ballet troupes in the country. I have now spent three years in the pre-professional program, which involves practicing and performing roughly 30 hours a week. I have also auditioned and been selected for roles in 8 company productions that are seen by hundreds of audience members each night. I have loved ballet nearly my entire life, and I plan to continue working as a ballerina and mentoring children and teenagers who are interested in ballet.
Why It Stands Out
The main thing that causes this extracurricular to stand out is Elizabeth’s clear passion for and dedication to ballet. Elizabeth has been practicing ballet since she was a toddler, and she practices many hours each week. She gives specific numbers (30 hours a week, 8 company productions), to help admissions officers get a clear idea of her work and the impact it had.
She makes her talents clear by stating that she was accepted into a competitive program and was chosen to perform in company performances. This helps show that she is exceptionally skilled ballerina and helps her stand out from other applicants who may just pursue dance as a fun hobby.
Finally, Elizabeth states that she would like to teach others about ballet and act as a mentor. This both shows her leadership abilities and lets schools know that she would like to continue her extracurricular as a college student.
How to Have a Similar Extracurricular
Is there a hobby or activity you have practiced for multiple years? You don’t need to have practiced it as long as Elizabeth has, but sticking with one extracurricular for a long time can show colleges you have a deep interest in it.
This activity doesn’t necessarily have to be an official club or sport either, having a hobby you are passionate about and practice regularly also counts as an extracurricular. If you’ve been interested in art since you were young, you can expand that into a strong extracurricular by taking art classes, getting your work displayed in your community, and developing a program or class that introduces kids to art.
Example 2: Scott the Volunteer Leader
I have been a member of my high school’s volunteer club since my freshman year. During my first year, I enjoyed tutoring elementary students and painting houses with the club, but I thought students should have more options for volunteering. As a sophomore, I spoke to club leaders and proposed five new locations where students could volunteer including a hospital, animal shelter, and homeless shelter. After getting my suggestions approved, I contacted the organizations and arranged for them to form volunteer partnerships with the school. This included developing activities volunteers could do, getting the organizations approved by the school, and arranging volunteer times and transportation. Other students in the volunteer club were excited about having a bigger impact, so I continued to look for new opportunities for volunteers. I am currently president of the volunteer club and in charge of developing new volunteer activities. Under my direction, the volunteer club has grown from 30 to over 100 members and quadrupled the number of places where students can volunteer. I’m proud that our club is continuing to grow and help more people each year.
Why It Stands Out
This extracurricular clearly shows that Scott is a leader who knows how to take initiative and get things done. Scott clearly describes the work he did to expand and improve the volunteer club, from proposing ideas to club leaders to working with organizations to establish volunteer programs.
Like Elizabeth, he gives concrete numbers to show his impact on the volunteer club and how he contributed to its growth. The fact that he worked to expand the volunteer club and provide more volunteer opportunities for other club members also shows that he cares about volunteering and believes it can have a positive impact on both volunteers and the people they help.
How to Have a Similar Extracurricular
Scott’s extracurricular is great because he took initiative and worked to improve it, even before he had a leadership position. You can do the same thing with any of your extracurriculars. Is there a club you enjoy but think could be better? Perhaps you are part of an art club but wish members had more opportunities to showcase their work.
You could contact a local library or cafe and organize a display of artists’ work for the community to enjoy. Perhaps you’re on an academic bowl team and wish there were more competitions. You could contact other schools and set up an invitational tournament to help teams get more practice competing. The main point is to take initiative and lead a project that will improve your extracurricular, no matter what that activity is.
Example 3: Jessica the Scientist
When I was 15 years old, I decided to get a part-time job to help pay for college and have some spending money. Because I was already part of my school’s Science Olympiad team and plan on majoring in microbiology, I applied to be a lab technician at a local science lab. My work primarily consisted of preparing chemicals and cleaning equipment, but after speaking to my supervisor about my interest in microbiology, I was able to begin conducting some simple experiments for the lab. This past summer I became a full-time intern at the lab and took on additional responsibilities. I asked to work with a team doing a microbiology project that studies self-assembly properties of polypeptides. During my internship, I ran different chemical tests and analyzed data results for potential use in cancer research, and I have continued that work into the school year.
Why It Stands Out
From the above paragraph, it’s clear that Jessica’s passion is science. She is a member of science clubs, she plans on majoring in biology, and she applied for a job in a science lab. Jessica took a not-too-exciting job, where she mostly cleaned lab equipment, and was able to grow it into an internship where she contributes to cancer research. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for a high school student. She took initiative to increase the responsibility of her part-time job and turn it into something that has a meaningful impact and gives her useful experience for her future.
How to Have a Similar Extracurricular
Jessica’s part-time job didn’t start off all that impressive; she worked to increase her responsibilities and impact. You can do the same with any job or activity you have. Think of ways to expand your role, or ask your boss or club leader if they have any ideas. For example, if you’re a lifeguard, you could start a program that teaches kids basic first-aid safety at the pool.
I have a friend who worked at a grocery store in high school and planned on being a dietitian. She created a monthly group where kids whose parents were grocery shopping could stop by a part of the grocery store, have some snacks, and learn about which healthy foods they should eat. That’s a great way to take a typical high school job and turn it into an extracurricular that shows motivation, hard-work, and leadership skills.
Example 4: James the Soccer Player
When I started high school I thought it would be a good idea to join a sports team since my family had just moved to the area. One of my classmates suggested I try out for the soccer team. I made the junior varsity team and stayed on it for two years until I joined the varsity team as a junior. I love playing soccer and the feeling I get knowing I’m a member of a team. Being part of the soccer team helped me make friends and feel like I was part of the school’s community. Because my soccer team helped me so much, as a junior I proposed a mentoring program where experienced team members helped freshman players adjust to high school. The mentors would make sure the freshman weren’t feeling overwhelmed, had people to talk to, and found activities and classes they liked. The program was a great success, with many members commenting on how much they enjoyed it. This year, I helped three other sports teams implement the program. Doing this has helped me become more confident and better at public speaking. My high school dean has also asked that I speak to other teams in the hopes that, eventually, each of my school’s sports teams will have a similar mentoring program.
Why It Stands Out
Unlike Elizabeth, the highly-skilled ballerina, James is not one of the top high school soccer players in the country. While making varsity team does show he's talented at playing soccer, there are thousands of high school varsity players across the country, and unless you are playing at a national level, simply being a varsity athlete is not enough to make an extracurricular outstanding. What makes James’ extracurricular exceptional is not his soccer skills but the mentoring program he started for athletes.
James took his experience of being the new kid and used it to help others avoid feeling lonely and isolated in high school. He decided to create a program that helps new students and bonds the team together. This shows leadership, as well as consideration for others. Colleges want students foster a positive atmosphere by working well as part of a team and being the kind of person other students want to be around. James’ commitment to his mentoring program makes him seem like that kind of person. He also states how working on the mentoring program made him a more confident person. Similar to previous examples, James took initiative to start a new project, and he continues to lead and expand it.
How to Have a Similar Extracurricular
James’ extracurricular shows that you don’t have to be the best at a certain activity to have it be a strong extracurricular. James wasn’t team captain and didn’t make the varsity team until he was a junior, but he still had a significant impact on improving the soccer team and helping out other students at his school.
If you aren’t the top athlete or best science student at your school, you can have a strong impact in another way. A great way to do this is to foster relationships among your classmates. If your school has several science clubs that don’t often interact with each other, you can suggest hosting a science event together that can include cool science demonstrations for kids and help the science clubs become more connected. You can also start a mentoring program similar to the one James created.
How to Create Your Own Great Extracurriculars
In none of the above examples was a student handed an amazing internship or club membership; they each had to put in time and effort to create exceptional extracurriculars. It will likely be the same for you. By following the steps below, you can develop great extracurriculars that will show the passion, impact, and leadership abilities that colleges love to see. If you have already chosen your extracurriculars and simply want to strengthen then, you can begin at step #4, although you may still find reading the previous steps useful.
1. List Your Interests
Colleges want to see you participate in extracurriculars that you are passionate about, not ones you are only doing to impress others. Doing an extracurricular you are interested in will also make it more enjoyable (which is really the point of an extracurricular) and will likely also make you more willing to pursue leadership opportunities and increase your impact.
Make a list of all your interests. This can include your favorite classes, hobbies you enjoy, sports you’ve wanted to try, or what you plan on studying in college, basically anything you think you would enjoy spending more time doing.
2. Research Extracurriculars
Once you have your list of interests, find extracurriculars that relate to them. Look at clubs and sports your school offers, local jobs and internships for teens, and volunteer opportunities, and make a list of extracurricular activities you might be interested in. If you need ideas, we have a complete list of extracurriculars that includes hundreds of different options.
If you need more help, ask your guidance counselor, classmates, or local community members. You can also try doing an internet search for “your interest" + "your hometown” to find nearby activities you can get involved with. If your school doesn't offer an extracurricular you're interested in, you can start a club yourself, which is a great way to show initiative and leadership.
3. Choose and Narrow Your Extracurriculars
If you are able to, choose several extracurriculars that you think you will enjoy. After participating in them for a few weeks or months, you can narrow them down to one or a few that you feel particularly passionate about and want to devote more time to. Colleges are more interested in depth than breadth, so having a few extracurriculars that you put a lot of time into and have a significant impact on is more impressive than a laundry list of clubs and sports you don’t really care about.
Narrow down your interests in order to choose the best extracurriculars
4. Increase Your Impact
Now that you’ve chosen your extracurriculars, it’s time to strengthen them to help your college application stand out. First, look for ways to increase your impact. Like the examples mentioned above, this can include recruiting more members, creating new events, expanding the club’s focus, and more. Try to leave your extracurricular better than it was when you joined it.
5. Gain Leadership Skills
After you have started to have a larger impact, work to become a leader in your extracurricular. This doesn’t always mean being club president or team captain. You can gain leadership skills by mentoring other members, leading a project, or developing a new activity.
Once you've started applying these five rules, you'll be well on your way to developing a great extracurricular to include on your college applications.
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