It’s December and chances are you’re working on one (or several) short extracurricular statements. First, a quick FAQ:
Q: Why do so many schools ask for these?
A: The Common App used to require students that students write a 1,000 character (approx. 150-word) extracurricular statement. When in 2013 the Common App dropped the requirement, many colleges kept it as a supplement.
Q: Do I really have to write it?
A: When students ask me this my usual response is: “Really? You’d rather not talk about that thing you’ve devoted hundreds of hours of your life to? Okay, good idea.” (I’m not actually that sarcastic, but that’s what I’m thinking.)
Q: Which extracurricular activity should I write about?
A: I write about that here.
Q: What should I say? How should I structure it?
A: Keep it simple.
a. What did you literally do? What were your actual tasks?
b. What did you learn?
With 150 words, there’s not a lot of room for much more. And while your main statement is more “show” than “tell,” this one will probably be more “tell.” Value content and information over style.
Here’s a great example:
Example 1: Journalism
VIOLENCE IN EGYPT ESCALATES. FINANCIAL CRISIS LEAVES EUROPE IN TURMOIL. My quest to become a journalist began by writing for the international column of my school newspaper, The Log. My specialty is international affairs; I’m the messenger who delivers news from different continents to the doorsteps of my community. Late-night editing, researching and re-writing is customary, but seeing my articles in print makes it all worthwhile. I’m the editor for this section, responsible for brainstorming ideas and catching mistakes. Each spell-check I make, each sentence I type out, and each article I polish will remain within the pages of The Log. Leading a heated after-school brainstorming session, watching my abstract thoughts materialize onscreen, holding the freshly printed articles in my hand—I write for this joyous process of creation. One day I’ll look back, knowing this is where I began developing the scrutiny, precision and rigor necessary to become a writer.
Three techniques you should steal:
1. Use active verbsto give a clear sense of what you’ve done:
Check out his active verbs: writing, delivering, editing, researching, re-writing, brainstorming, catching, polishing, leading, holding, knowing.
2. Tell us in one good clear sentence what the activity meant to you.
“I’m the messenger who delivers news from different continents to the doorsteps of my community.”
“I write for this joyous process of creation.”
“One day I’ll look back, knowing that this is where I began to develop the scrutiny, precision and rigor necessary to become a writer.”
Okay, that’s three sentences. But notice how all three are different. (And if you’re gonna do three, they have to be different.)
3. You can “show” a little, but not too much.
In the first line:
“VIOLENCE IN EGYPT ESCALATES. FINANCIAL CRISIS LEAVES EUROPE IN TURMOIL.”
“Leading a heated after-school brainstorming session, watching my abstract thoughts materialize onscreen, holding the freshly printed articles in my hand…”
The first one grabs our attention; the second paints a clear and dynamic picture. Keep ‘em short!
Example 2: Hospital Internship
When I applied to West Kendall Baptist Hospital, I was told they weren’t accepting applications from high schoolers. However, with a couple teacher recommendations, the administration gave me a shot at aiding the secretaries: I delivered papers, answered phone calls, and took in patients’ packages. Sadly, inadequate funding shut down large sections of the hospital and caused hundreds of employees--myself included--to lose their jobs. But then Miami Children’s Hospital announced openings for inpatient medical volunteers. Again, I faced denial, but then I got a chance to speak to the lead inpatient medical physician and cited my previous experience. While working at MCH, I delivered samples, took down visitor information, administered questionnaires, and organized records. I helped ease the work of the nurses and doctors, while delivering medicine and smiles to dozens of patients. I may not have directly saved any lives, but I’d like to think I helped.
Three more techniques you can steal:
4. Start with a “problem to be solved.”
Did you initially face an obstacle? In the first sentence say what it was, then in another sentence say how you worked through it. That’ll show grit. Note that this essay has not one, but two obstacles. And each time the writer worked through it in just one sentence. Brevity ftw.
5. Focus on specific impact. (Say whom you helped and how.)
Read the ending again:
“I helped ease the work of the nurses and doctors, while delivering medicine and smiles to dozens of patients. I may not have directly saved any lives, but I’d like to think I helped.”
This applies to fundraisers too (say how much you raised and for whom) and sports (who’d you impact and how?).
6. Write it long first, then cut it.
Both these students started with 250-300 word statements (get all the content on the page first). Then trim ruthlessly, cutting any repetitive or unnecessary words.
After selecting an Activity type from the drop-down menu, your child should describe their position and organization name in the corresponding box. That way, your child can use the full 150-character limit for the activity description box.
For example, rather than writing “Student Council” or “President”, your child should write “President, Student Council”.
2. Do not repeat words from the position description box in the activity description box
Continuing with the student council president example: Instead of writing, “As president of the student body, I was responsible for…”, your child should write, “Responsible for meeting agendas, liaising with administration, and implementing school initiatives, such as free textbooks for low-income families.”
3. Focus on quantifiable and significant impact
Many applicants undersell their achievements because they don’t get specific enough about their contributions. For example, rather than write something like, “Organized food can drive for local families”, your child should write, “Collected over 10,000 cans and provided Thanksgiving meals for 500 families in greater Cleveland.” With details like that, your child’s impact will be unquestionable to admissions committees.
4. List tasks and avoid complete sentences to make room for more detail
Colleges understand that your child does not have enough space to provide in-depth descriptions of each activity. Therefore, rather than write, for example, “At the hospital, I transported patients with physical disabilities on wheelchairs…”, your child should write, “Transported patients on wheelchairs, provided meals and blankets, assembled gift baskets, and attended grand rounds.”
5. Describe current activities using present tense
For instance, rather than, “I tutored seventh graders in science”, your child should write, “I help seventh graders master challenging science concepts.”