Make the Most of Short Answer Essays about Extracurricular Activities or Work Experiences

“Missed opportunity to tell me something that would persuade me to admit.”  That was often my evaluation when I was an admissions officer reading applicants’ answers to questions, which invited them to discuss one of their extracurricular activities or work experiences.  Why?  Well, because applicants often simply provided a narrative description of what they did and I could get that from their activity lists.  E.g. “As student council president, I was responsible for organizing our meetings, leading school assemblies, and representing the school at community events.”  Blah, blah, blah.  I knew (and know) what student council presidents do.  What I wanted was a mini-essay that conveyed something more about you and your experience as student council president.  And that is what all admissions officers want.  So how you give admissions officers what they want?

Use the three I's -- interest, initiative, and impact -- that’s how to get the most from these type of short answer questions.  


Choose a topic for this essay that is something that genuinely interests you.  If you do that then you can convey your passion and let that interest come through in what you say and how you say it.  A few things to avoid:

  • Don’t try and game it by picking something that you think matters to the admissions officer – pick something that matters to you.  If bass fishing or knitting or some other pedestrian hobby is what you love most, write about that.  It will be far more persuasive than writing about your required community service activity. 
  • Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you have to choose the interest that has given you the most honors/awards.  The honors/awards are listed.  They speak for themselves.  What doesn’t speak for itself is where your heart is.  That is the opportunity.  Take it.
  • Don’t go for quirky/unusual/odd in a desperate attempt to announce your uniqueness.  Your interest should be authentic.  So what if your true interest is shared by millions?  Likewise, so what if your true interest really is quirky/unusual/odd?  What matters is that you have a true interest.  Beyond that, it is irrelevant.


Convey that what you did actually required some effort on your part.  Just signing up, paying your money, accepting the invitation, and/or fulfilling a requirement doesn’t count.  What admissions officers want to know about is what kind of action you take in response to an interest you have.  If you can’t translate your interest into action, then you aren’t the kind of go-getter or self-starter that they want.  Make the effort you took explicit.  If you desperately wanted to go on a trip to Africa with your school group, but your parents were reluctant and you had to sell them, say that.  If you had to find a part-time job in order to fund your participation in a sport or hobby, say that.  If you had to spend hours researching summer programs in order to find the one that focused on astrospace, say that.  Reveal your willingness and ability to take action. 


Answer the implied question, so what? Why did this activity or experience matter to you and why did it matter to others?  This is often the hardest “I” for applicants to address because they misunderstand what is expected.  They think these have to be “world altering” impacts.  If you didn’t discover a cure for cancer, weren’t the first person to summit Everest or didn’t lead your team to a national championship, then you don’t have impact worth reporting.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Reality check.  Very few people have this kind of impact, but that doesn’t mean what they do doesn’t matter.  In fact, if you check your own life experience, you are well aware that all actions have impact and that those impacts ripple beyond the actor to the actor’s communities and networks.  That is what admissions officers understand too and they know that they are assembling a learning community of which you will be a resident.  They want to know you appreciate that your actions matter.  They want to know that you will have a positive impact on the learning community.  That’s all.  So tell them.  First tell them what impact your actions had on you.  It is usually something along these lines – changed me, deepened my understanding of myself, gave me confidence, gave me a new set of skills or new knowledge, etc.  Then tell them what impact your actions had on others within your communities and networks.  It is usually something along these lines – got a new student lounge in our school which kept kids from leaving campus during study hall, set a school record in girl’s track and gave the team a new mark to beat, helped my mentee get through sixth grade math, beautified and cleaned a local river etc. 

Cover the three “Is” and you’ll write a mini-essay that impresses an admissions officer and increases your odds for admission.  Now that is the way to take advantage of the opportunity you’re given.  Get to work!


Comments or Questions?

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Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)