This is a classic extracurricular activity essay. So you’ve been crushing it as an intern at a local tech startup, volunteering at an urban gardening nonprofit, and babysitting your neighbor’s insane twins for extra cash. Which one do you write about?
Your most impressive activity may not always make for the best essay. You could write an incredible essay about working at McDonald’s as a vegetarian and a totally boring essay about being ASB President or working on Wall Street.
Take a look at your Common App essay and make sure to avoid too much overlap. Remember that all of your activities will be in the activities list with descriptions.
Before you start, it’s a good idea to do some brainstorming (bonus: You can use your brainstorming results for all of your college essays, not just this one!).
Grab a glass of water (or caffeine if you need it), put on a soothing Spotify playlist (no lyrics), open a blank document (or pen and paper if you’re old school), and set a timer for 20 minutes.
Congrats! You’ve just started working on your college essays.
You’ll find a pretty in-depth, step-by-step guide to the extracurricular activity essay at this link, with specific advice for the 150-word format and some great examples near the end. We recommend using that post to guide you as you’re writing.
But if you want to see the short version, here’s what to do:
Go to your Common App activities list and pick 2-3 possible topics.
Then, go through the Best Extracurricular Activity Brainstorm I’ve Ever Seen (AKA BEABIES exercise), either mentally or by filling out the chart. This will help you decide which topic might yield the most content for your essay. If you’re unsure, maybe do a simple outline for two different topics.
Write a draft! To guide you, each of those columns could provide a sentence or two of your first draft that you can tweak later.
General tip: Be careful about writing about an activity you’ve already shared a lot about elsewhere in your application. If you’ve already written about your most important extracurricular activity in your main Common App personal statement, for example, you might consider writing about your second or third most important activity. This essay is your chance to say, “Hey, there’s this other cool thing I’ve spent some time doing that I haven’t told you guys about yet!”
Here’s a great Vanderbilt supplemental essay example:
Vanderbilt Supplemental Essay Example
I used to imagine my future as a pediatrician in an office decorated with bright posters and knick-knacks. Although I am still excited for that, lately, I also picture myself conducting research. I recently had the opportunity to intern at the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Lab at McLean Hospital, where I helped with studies focused on treating alcoholism.
On my first day, my mentor gave me a list of spreadsheets filled with data. Each study required multiple types of data, some of which was collected by sensors on wristwatches and some of which was handwritten in journals. My job was to process the raw data into something more readable. As the days went on, I became more familiar with my task until eventually, I was processing data for three of the four RAs in the lab.
A few days later, I was tasked with a new job: organizing potential subjects. I ranked them in order of most eligible to least, based on factors such as their alcohol and drug habits, body measurements, and proximity to our lab. One day I was invited to observe a study that was testing a drug that increased the effects of alcohol, with the idea that it might curb the subject’s desire for more. As I watched a research subject drink significantly less alcohol than before, I realized the impact that my spreadsheets might have. The experiment happening right in front of me could help people gain more control over their lives by relearning how to live without alcohol.
As a Neuroscience major at Vanderbilt, I can learn about the functions of the brain and the science behind the studies in classes such as “Psychopharmacology” and “Neurobiology of Addiction” while simultaneously fulfilling the pre-medicine curriculum. Additionally as a Medicine, Health and Society minor, “Ethics and Medicine” and “American Health Policy ” will help me pursue my interests in public health and expanding access to healthcare. Vanderbilt’s Institute of Medicine and Public Health Research has sections named “Child and Adolescent Health” and “Healthcare Research”, where I could pursue my interests in a research environment. At the Lamb Center for Pediatric Research, which focuses primarily on infectious diseases, I could gain more experience working with children and how diseases affect them differently.
At Vanderbilt, where academic opportunities are as plentiful as the trees, I will gain the exposure I need to help develop a better world for future generations.
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Tips + Analysis:
Be specific about the how and why. The admissions committee doesn’t just want to know what you did—they’re looking for why you pursued this opportunity, how you contributed to your team/boss/community, and what skills or insight you gained that you can bring to Vanderbilt. “Helped with studies focused on treating alcoholism” tells us a lot more than just “intern at the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Lab at McLean Hospital,” even though, whoa (that sounds super legit!).
Demonstrate your unique expertise and values. Starting off with a description of where she started (processing raw data) and upping the ante by showing how she quickly became an expert, exceeding the capabilities of others on the team (without being a jerk), reveals some impressive values: adaptability, critical thinking, diligence, and a willingness to learn. She takes it even further by leveling up (tasked with a new job a few days later) and realizing that her work has meaningful, real-world applications to “help people gain more control over their lives by relearning how to live without alcohol.” This shows even more insight and gives the essay a great “why this all matters” moment.
Sneak in a “Why Vanderbilt” conclusion. Because Vanderbilt doesn’t have a “Why us?” essay, y’all can be a bit sneaky. When you’re brainstorming this essay, look at your list of activities and pick which ones you could a) continue doing at Vanderbilt in a similar way, or b) take the experience/knowledge/skills and apply them to one specific part of the Vanderbilt community. This student shows she’s done her research by alluding to her future at “the Lamb Center for Pediatric Research” as an extension of the work she’s already done at her internship at the “McLean Hospital” in high school.
Question: Do you really need to include all these classes?
Why not! Show ‘em you’ve done your research. One of your goals here is to get the admissions reader to imagine you at Vanderbilt. Knowing that Vanderbilt has classes such as “Psychopharmacology” and “Neurobiology of Addiction” shows this student dove deep into the academic offerings available. And when she references a “Medicine, Health and Society minor” as well as an “Institute of Medicine and Public Health Research” and the “Lamb Center for Pediatric Research,” she’s connecting her internship, skills, and future career to her education. Adding details like these will make your essay that much more specific (and, hey, our #1 comment to students is to be more specific!).
Here’s another example that tackles this topic really well too:
Vanderbilt Supplemental Essay Example:
Despite my interest in pursuing a career in medicine, I secretly love marketing.
On my tour as a “shadow” of a Key Society volunteer, I loved the lush 370-acre grounds and unique teaching styles of St. Stephens, but failed to grasp authentic campus life in the short time I had to talk to my student host. Since I knew I’d be boarding my first two years, this almost turned me away, but my gut told me St. Stephens would have the close-knit community I craved. I scoured the school’s website and social media for depictions of genuine experiences only to find inactive accounts and stock photos of students.
I immediately joined Key Society to improve the tour for prospective students, but soon realized it was impossible to have real conversations in brief passing periods between classes. What if shadows had more meaningful time with students and could actually imagine themselves on campus from the photos online?
After interviewing with the admissions office to share these goals, I was appointed Key Society’s Director of External Marketing. I created student Q&A panels following tours so upperclassman could speak directly to shadows about their experience. Determined to share the reality of campus life, I took over the Instagram account, posting current students’ ambitions and hobbies and unique events, such as class hikes during theology.
While it’s difficult to measure the results of these initiatives, the positive feedback from shadows and staff makes me hopeful that they will have a lasting impact on recruitment. My connections with prospective students have certainly made a lasting impact on me, which is why I want to continue this type of work at Vanderbilt through joining the AmbassaDors program, where I can learn more about the university, meet members of the Vanderbilt community, and hone communication skills imperative not to my success as an AmbassaDor but also to my future career in public health.
Vanderbilt will give me the opportunity to become involved in organizations like Volunteers for Health, where I can use the leadership skills I have acquired through my work in Key Society to start working directly with people in the healthcare field and begin pursuing a career in Public Health. Moreover, Heal VU and Partners in Health Engage will allow me to marry my interests in health advocacy and marketing.
If medicine fails, I’ve got a backup plan.
— — —
Tips + Analysis:
Use an unexpected transition to engage the reader. Many essays discuss common activities (baseball) in common ways (learning the value of hard work). To stand out, consider using the element of surprise. That’s what this student has done in her introduction: “Despite my interest in pursuing a career in medicine, I secretly love marketing.” You think it’s going to be another essay about pursuing a career in medicine (we need doctors, but there are a lot of those essays, and they tend to sound similar), and then the surprise: marketing! Now, you’ve captured the reader’s attention (the goal of every college essay).
Explain how you solved a problem: Just like in the first essay example, this student tells us about joining Key Society and how she contributed. She “soon realized it was impossible to have real conversations in brief passing periods between classes,” so she came up with a solution, took it to the higher ups, and earned herself a fancy title “Director of External Marketing.” Nice. By demonstrating how she solved this problem, she shows a) core values of problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity, and b) implies (and then later explicitly states) that she’ll bring these skills to Vanderbilt.
Demonstrate that you’ve made an impact (small or big): You’re going to graduate high school and leave this position behind for bigger and more complicated projects and adventures. But what is your legacy? Even if you’re writing about a babysitting job, you’ll have left an impression on the lives you’ve touched. What is it? This student tells us what legacy she hopes to leave behind and the impact she’s already had on the Key Society: “the positive feedback from shadows and staff makes me hopeful that they will have a lasting impact on recruitment.” Demonstrating that the work you’ve done will create a positive ripple effect once you’ve left is pure essay gold (and life gold, ’cause you want to be a good human!).
Here are some more tips for your extracurricular activity essay, either for Vanderbilt or for other schools:
Try to tie the extracurricular activity or work experience of choice back to a specific value in your life. Rather than just state what you did point-blank, make it resonate for the reader by connecting it to some aspect of what makes you, well, you.
Use active verbs so that readers get a clear sense of what you’ve done. This just makes things more engaging and dynamic overall.
Consider starting your essay with the “problem.” In fact, probably name the problem in the first couple sentences. Then, tell us what you did about it. Then what you learned. Hey—that’s a simple structure you can use right now.
Write it long first, then cut it. In our experience, this tends to be easier than writing a very short version and then trying to figure out what to add.
Don’t forget to include specific impacts, even if they’re brief. You want to connect your time and energy to a meaningful outcome. You should be able to say, “I did X, and that resulted in Y.” The Y is just as important as the X because it shows your work paid off and (maybe even) inspired some kind of change.
Special thanks to Cathleen for contributing to this post.