How to write the “Extracurricular Activity” College Essay

Bonus Material: Examples of real supplemental essays that worked for schools like Princeton and Yale

If you’re in the process of applying to colleges, you likely already know that many universities (especially top-tier schools like Ivies) ask you to write essays in response to supplemental prompts. 

When it comes to selective schools, these supplemental essays make a huge difference! Some schools even prioritize your supplemental essays over your Common App personal statement. 

One of the most common supplemental essay prompts asks you to expand on an extracurricular activity you’ve been involved with. This is what we call, for obvious reasons, the Extracurricular Activity essay

While it might seem simple, many students misunderstand what colleges want when they ask this question. In this blog post, we’ll walk you through what you need to do to write this supplemental essay in a way that gets you to stand out to elite universities. 

As universities get more and more selective, you’ll want to make sure you do everything possible to ensure your admissions application is perfect. At PrepMaven, that’s exactly what we do: for years, our expert tutors have guided students through the college application process, helping them land acceptances at schools like Princeton, Harvard, and MIT. 

Read on for our guide–backed up by years of experience–on how to approach the Extracurricular Activity essay prompt. 

Jump to section:
What is the “Extracurricular Activity” essay?
Examples of “Extracurricular Activity” prompts
What are colleges looking for in this supplemental essay?
How to write the “Extracurricular Activity” essay
Example of a successful extracurricular essay
Analysis of a real extracurricular essay
How to choose the topic for the extracurricular essay
Next steps

What is the “Extracurricular” essay?

This is pretty much what it sounds like: many universities will, as one of their supplemental writing prompts, ask you to expand upon an extracurricular activity you’ve been involved with. 

But while the directions are pretty clear, what top colleges actually want from you here can be harder to figure out. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about the Extracurricular essay prompt: what the prompts look like, what admission officers want, and how to structure your essay. 

In addition, we’ll break down a real sample essay and analyze how it effectively checks all the boxes for an incredibly strong Extracurricular supplemental. 

After the “Why us?” prompts (on which we have a detailed guide here), this is one of the most common supplemental essay prompts you’ll encounter, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re ready for this one well ahead of the application deadlines. 

Below, we’ll walk you through what these prompts look like, and what you need to do to answer them effectively. 

Examples of “Extracurricular Activity” prompts

Lots of schools ask a version of this question, but each university has their own spin on it. Take a look below for some examples from the 2023-2024 application cycle: 

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. (Harvard)

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time – what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study? (300 words, Carnegie Mellon)

What academic areas are you interested in exploring in college? (200 words, Emory University)

As you can see, each of these looks a bit different, but really they all want to know the same thing: what interests you, and how have you gotten involved with it?

What are colleges looking for when they ask about extracurriculars?

Simply put, they want to see whether you’re really passionate about something. Almost nothing is as impressive to college admissions officers as real, demonstrated passion for some particular interest. 

In our broader guide on the college application process, we talk about the importance of highlighting your extracurricular profile for elite colleges’ admissions committees. While that happens in your Activities List, of course, the Extracurricular essay is your biggest opportunity to show them how you’ve engaged deeply with a particular activity. 

But admissions officers don’t just want to see you’ve been involved with something.

What they want to see in your extracurricular profile are: 

  1. Excellence
  2. Dedication
  3. Leadership
  4. Initiative 

These may feel like buzzwords (they are), but they really are how admissions committees evaluate your extracurricular profile. 

Did you just compete in a robotics activity, or did you win a state championship? The former is nice; the latter is excellence

Did you start volunteering at a local homeless shelter this year, for an hour a week? That’s good, and colleges will appreciate it. But compare that to someone who’s been volunteering for years, dedicating multiple hours a week to the same task: that’s dedication

Leadership is more or less self-explanatory: did you participate, or did you hold specific positions, with demonstrated (positive) effects on the club/team/organization you were a part of?

Initiative can be murkier, but it basically has to do with how much effort you had to put in to pursuing your extracurricular in the first place (this often intersects with the other three categories). For example: did you join an existing club, or found your own because of your intense desire to pursue what interests you?

In a nutshell, then, the extracurricular essay prompt gives you the rare and valuable opportunity to show admissions committees one or more of these traits. As you write your essay, think about it in those terms: how can you show your excellence, dedication, leadership, and/or initiative in whatever activity you choose to write on. 

Below, we’ll run down what one of these essays needs to have to wow admissions officers. Although this guide should give you the information you need, there’s never a substitute for a real college essay expert who can help you with your essay live–we always recommend reaching out to one of our essay coaches if you want to maximize your chances of admission.

How to structure an Extracurricular supplemental essay. 

Although every essay is different, there are certain things that the Extracurricular should always do, and there’s a straightforward structure to help you do it. Below, we’ll break down each step of the structure and analyze a real example. 

Generally, though, these Extracurricular essays follow a similar structure: 

  1. Start with a story
  2. Give an overview
  3. Show your passion
  4. Reflect on how the activity has shaped you

Below, we’ll get into each of these in detail, so that you can have a more precise understanding of what’s expected of you when it comes to this supplemental essay. 

  1. Start with a story

This is often the advice with all college essays, and it’s no less true here: you want to start with something that grabs the reader’s attention. The best way to do that is, more often than not, by throwing the reader right into the middle of a scene or moment. 

As you most likely did in your Common App essay, try to begin with a short paragraph recounting a moment that showcases you in action. Perhaps it’s you in the lab, working on a hypothesis about plant nutrition. Or maybe you’re an artist, and have just dragged your easel and canvas into the forest to paint a landscape. Whatever you do, don’t just tell us–show us you in action. 

  1. Give an overview

The story exists to hook us in, but it won’t tell us everything we need to know. Set aside a small part of the essay to give a broader background for the activity you’re describing so that admissions committees can understand more about the activity itself. 

This part of the essay won’t be the most exciting or flashy, but it will let you convey a lot of information very quickly–making it an excellent place to highlight things like your dedication or initiative when it comes to this extracurricular. 

What does the “overview” part of an extracurricular supplemental look like? We’ll actually take a look at a real sample essay later in the post, but we can describe it briefly here. 

Say you’re writing an essay about performing in musicals. 

The first section (the story) of your essay might describe you on stage, about to belt out some showtunes. 

The second section (the overview) might begin something like, “Since the age of 7, I’ve leaped at every chance to perform in musicals: at schools, in local productions, and even with a touring theater troupe.” In just one sentence, you can show us how long you’ve been engaged with the activity and what some of the highlights were. Then, you can continue on by describing more about what your involvement in this extracurricular entails: your role, how your involvement has changed, that kind of thing. 

A word of caution: don’t turn this into a list of your accomplishments and awards. That should already be reflected in the Activities Section of your Common App. But also, it won’t make for a very good essay, and it’ll sound like you’re bragging. Only include accomplishments if they naturally integrate with the story you’re telling. 

Not sure how to balance an overview so that it conveys the right information without becoming bloated or braggy? The best way to be sure is to work with someone who has experience wowing admissions committees themselves. That’s why we always recommend getting a bit of professional help from one of our many Ivy League essay tutors and checking out or collection of real supplemental essays from successful applicants below 

  1. Show your passion

We say it in almost all of our essay guides, but it’s true: nothing makes an essay stand out to admissions committees like a believable, personal description of the passion you feel for what you do. It’s human: we love people who really love what they do.

Whatever you choose to write about, the next section of your Extracurricular essay should focus on conveying the passion you feel for this activity or the satisfaction you gain from it. As always, specific details are key! 

Don’t just say “I love to ride dirt bikes.” It’s not specific, it’s not detailed, it’s not convincing: do you really believe that the person who has nothing more to say than that really loves what they do?

Connect the passion to specific details or moments that you’ve experienced while pursuing this extracurricular. Maybe it’s the specific sensation of dirt showering on you as you land the bike from a jump; maybe it’s the moment a student you tutor turns to you and says how much you’ve helped their confidence. 

Convey your passion by integrating it with the unique details that only you can recount. That’s what makes the difference between a generic, ChatGPT-style extracurricular essay and a compelling, personal one that can wow college admissions committees. 

  1. Reflect on how the activity has shaped you

As always, the extracurricular activity essay isn’t just about the extracurricular activity: it’s about showing how something you’re deeply involved with has affected who you are on the cusp of college. 

What does that look like? It could be a lot of things! Maybe your extracurricular activity actually shaped what you want to study, or how you live your life–if so, great. But it’s also no less important if your extracurricular activity is simply a source of peace or joy, something that takes you away from the stresses of school or other obligations. 

In any case, it’s important to show that you’re the kind of person who thinks about how the things in your life shape you. This section doesn’t have to be long–a sentence or two will do–but it should show the admissions officers what it is you’ve gained from the pursuit of this hobby, passion, or job. 

Example of a successful Extracurricular Essay

Below is an example of a really excellent response to an Extracurricular essay prompt. This sample actually comes from our guide on how to respond to the University of California’s supplemental prompts, but it’s the kind of essay that could easily be used to respond to any college’s Extracurricular supplemental essay prompt. 

The stall horn blares, and the plane sways under the control of my feet. Shoulders tense, I look outside to maintain balance: even a small tap of a foot or shift of the stick could throw the plane into a downwards roll. The plane begins to shake- my cue to recover. I pitch the nose down and push the throttle full forwards. Despite high-stress situations, piloting is my dream career. Whether airliners or navy jets, I know I will be happiest in the air.

I started out building model airplanes out of paper and pencils at Civil Air Patrol meetings, which first introduced me to basic aviation principles: pitch, roll, and yaw. From there, a presentation in my computer science class taught me about Joby Aviation, a local startup working on electric gyrocopters for everyday travel. Already knowing I wanted to fly, I felt inspired to work with aircraft as an engineer as well. I decided to enroll in flight lessons and subsequently took a job as a receptionist at my flight school.

When flying, time passes by as fast as the air around me. As warnings blare, pilots chatter over the radio and the plane’s glass bubble gets swelteringly hot. There’s a lot to be aware of, but I’ve learned to multitask and focus amidst distractions. Similarly, being at the airport quickly thrust me into the world of aviation. I found myself fascinated not only by aerodynamics but also by fuel chemistry, avionics, and materials. Sumping fuel from the fuel tanks, I wondered, how do different fuel textures affect planes’ engines? Running my hand along the propeller, I pondered: how would the aircraft fly if this were wood? Plastic? I became fascinated by the specificity and variability of aerospace materials and eager to learn more about them.

My love for aerospace is part of why I am eager to study engineering. I imagine myself designing new aircraft and optimizing the ones I fly. Whether I become a pilot or an engineer, the lessons I learn flying will be beneficial in any future paths I take.

Analysis of a real Extracurricular supplemental essay

Take another look at the above essay, and notice how it actually neatly follows the structure we’ve been talking about. 

  1. Story

The essay starts suddenly, and with a ton of detail: a stall horn (what’s that?), a plane swaying, a lot of tension. 

It’s important that the story is, itself, hooking and attention-grabbing. But that’s not the sole purpose of the story: the real key here is that it shows the writer in action. They’re not a passive observer or someone along for the ride. They’re making decisions and taking control of a situation, displaying both confidence and competence. 

Those elements together are the key to a successful opening for the extracurricular essay: get our attention, and show us you in action. 

  1. Overview

Notice how the second paragraph feels totally different. It’s no longer a pulse-raising story: it’s a quick but detailed overview of how the writer got involved with and pursued this extracurricular activity over a long period of time. 

What do we learn from this overview? The writer started simple, with models at Civic Air Patrol meetings; they continued pursuing this passion through a compsci course and a local internship; they took flight lessons and got practical work experience at a flight school. 

It’s all super quick, and super efficient. There’s some nice details in there (the models, the gyroscope), but the primary function of this section of the essay is just to put the story in context. Think about it as the background that explains how we got to the story in the first place. 

  1. Passion

The next paragraph immediately begins by conveying why this activity is so meaningful to the author. We learn that time (literally) flies, that the author learns how to multitask and stay focused under pressure, and that all this leads to a fascination with the science and engineering behind flight. 

Remember when we talked about specifics being the key to conveying passion? Here’s what we meant. The author doesn’t stop at saying what fascinated them. They go way further, posing multiple hyper-specific questions that convey the author’s real, sustained engagement with this activity. 

  1. Reflection/change

As you can see, this section can be super short! It really just needs to wrap up the essay by showing us how this extracurricular affects the writer. In this case, it has helped shape what the student wants to pursue, even if the student isn’t yet 100% certain about what that path will look like. 

But this essay could have worked just as well if this student wanted to be an English major. The essay would simply have ended with a different kind of reflection, one about the value or lessons that they’re able to take away from the experience of flying. 

At heart, these essays aren’t complicated. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Writing the perfect Extracurricular supplemental essay can be incredibly challenging: how do you balance the story, the overview, the passion, the lesson? And all within a very short word count! 

Taking the right approach can mean the difference between boring an admissions committee and stunning them, so it’s not the place to take risks. It’s why we recommend working with a one-on-one PrepMaven essay coach. Not only have our tutors been accepted to the most prestigious schools in the country, but they’ve helped countless students get their own acceptance letters. 

How to choose the topic for an Extracurricular essay

This is a crucial decision, and you don’t want to take it lightly. 

Many students simply pick the activity that they’ve excelled most in, or the one they spend the most time doing. 

That’s often the wrong choice. Not always, of course, but often!

The key consideration is what activity will add the most to your application when described in essay form, as opposed to merely being summarized in 150 characters on your Activities List. 

Sometimes, that really is the same thing as the one you’re most active in; sometimes it’s not. 

For example, let’s say you’re an absolutely amazing athlete who has won titles and awards and all sorts of stuff. Your activities list can, if you’re careful with word count, convey all of those titles, awards, etc. If you were to write a whole essay about your sport, would you really be able to add much that the admissions committee won’t already see?

On the other hand, let’s say that in addition to being an all-star athlete, you’re also a tutor or mentor for a younger student. On the activities list, that won’t look impressive: so many students do peer tutoring that an admission officer’s eyes will glaze right over. But what if you actually developed a strong relationship with a student you mentored? There’s no way to convey that in 150 characters, but it might make for a nice story in 150 words. 

Wherever you can tell the best story, that’s your topic for the extracurricular supplemental. 

Before writing, you should always spend time reading through sample essays. We’ve collected over 50 supplemental essays from our tutors in response to prompts from Ivies and other elite schools. They’re totally free, and you can download them below to see what worked for past applicants. 

Next Steps

Though the steps here might seem simple, they can be astoundingly hard to pull off in just 250 words or less, which is usually the word count for this kind of supplemental essay. But if you can thread the needle and do everything listed above on this kind of essay, it can make a huge difference for your application. 

Most people don’t treat the supplemental essays as if they were particularly important, but they absolutely are: each college has put time and resources into coming up with these supplemental essay prompts because they want to see what you have to say. 

If you’ve read this guide carefully, then it’s time to start drafting! If you want to ensure that you’re writing the kind of essay that can get you into a top tier school, however, it often pays to get a second opinion. Our college essay experts have helped thousands of students get admitted into their dream schools, and are ready to help you do the same as soon as you’re ready. 

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Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.