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How to Write A Standout Extracurricular Supplemental Essay

As we prepare for the official opening of the 2021-2022 Common Application on August 1, many students have taken advantage of the summer months to get a head start on their personal statements (aka Common App essays) as well as the numerous supplemental essays and short-answer questions. Historically, the supplemental essay prompts have ranged from straightforward to a little offbeat (University of Chicago, we’re looking at you!) You can find the confirmed essay prompts for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle on our website, which we are updating continually.

One of the more common supplemental essay questions revolves around a student’s activities. Vanderbilt and Georgetown are just two schools that ask students to elaborate on an activity or experience that is meaningful to them. Sounds straightforward enough, but this question can be tricky! Colleges ask this question to get a better idea of you and your interests and how you might contribute to the campus community. Below you will find our top tips for crafting a strong student activity essay that will not only answer the question, but will also demonstrate to the admissions committee why you are a good fit for their school and vice versa (a necessary piece for every admissions essay).

Read the prompt carefully.

Many students are eager to showcase all their many talents and activities in order to appear well-rounded. However, you should follow directions: be sure to answer the prompt. If a school asks you to highlight ONE activity or experience, do not provide an exhaustive list. Narrow your focus to just one activity or experience that will demonstrate aspects of your character that are otherwise not reflected in the application.

Pick your topic.

Choose an activity or experience that is meaningful to you. If you are passionate about something you did, you will have an easier time writing about it. Make sure this activity is not expanded upon elsewhere, such as in your personal statement. So, while you can mention the same activity twice, do not repeat the information about it. Make sure you reflect personal significance, your best character traits, and your potential to succeed at the college or university. Some ideas of activities to write about:

  • An activity in which you held an active leadership role.
  • An activity you were really committed to in terms of time and involvement.
  • An activity which is meaningful, e.g., one that reflects your heritage, or a challenge you or a family member faced.
  • An activity that relates to your future goals
  • An activity that is meaningful to you, but you were not able to share in another part of your application.

Structure your essay around a story.

Pick an anecdote that illustrates why the experience or activity is meaningful to you, how you made an impact, and what you got out of the experience. Perhaps you choose the time you were asked to spearhead a project at your internship, or when you presented your research after months in the lab. Whatever the story may be, do not try to cram your whole academic career into the word count allotted. Be judicious about the details you share—each detail should advance your story. The details should also demonstrate your positive traits such as initiative, leadership, problem solving, teamwork, or one or more of dozens of others.

Mention leadership positions and quantify your impact where applicable.

If you held a leadership position or were involved with the oversight of a major project, large group of people, etc., write about what you did, and as importantly, why you were motivated and how you were shaped by your actions. If your participation helped you grow or develop, let the college know. Moreover, if you can quantify your contributions, this will make your response really stand out. For instance, if you ran social media for a company over the summer and increased the following or brand exposure, try to put that into numbers, but only if the numbers are impressive. This helps to “prove” the contribution you made. Think of these details as the cherry on top.

Connect your activity to the school community.

While the “elaborate on an activity or experience” essay is not, on the surface, a “why” question, schools want to see how your activity and passion will lead to your participation in the school community once you arrive on campus. This is a great opportunity to mention student clubs and organizations that you would take advantage of and what you would bring to the table. This shows a school you want to be there!

As you write the supplemental essays, remember that this is your time to provide the admission readers with information that may not otherwise be reflected in your application. Omit details already shared in your personal statement. Demonstrate your dedication and commitment to your chosen activity or experience—and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Remember, if you need essay writing help, don’t hesitate to reach out to International College Counselors.


New ICC Staff Member Spotlight: Jon Megerian
Jon Megerian began his college advising career as a college admissions officer at Brandeis University. As an admissions officer, he read thousands of applications and traveled around the country to high schools and college fairs. After several years at Brandeis, Jon left to pursue a graduate degree at Johns Hopkins University. At Hopkins, he worked his way up from a teaching assistant to an instructor. Throughout this time, he also served on several editorial boards and privately counseled high school students on how to craft compelling applications. Jon’s nearly ten years of experience working in academia, as well as his experience in admissions at one of the most selective schools in the nation, has provided proven insight into what colleges are looking for in applicants.
To learn more about Jon and our other amazing advisors, click here.
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