Writing About Extracurriculars in Your College Essays

Are you unsure how to effectively showcase your extracurricular activities in your college essays? Join us for an informative webinar designed to help you master the art of writing about your extracurriculars in your college applications!

Admissions expert Anna Vande Velde will delve into the importance of highlighting your extracurricular involvements and the significant role they play in your college admissions process. She will provide you with valuable insights and practical tips to ensure that your essays truly shine.

Key Learnings to Expect:

  • Understanding the role of extracurricular activities in college applications: Discover why extracurriculars matter beyond academics and how they can help you stand out among other applicants.
  • Identifying your unique story: Learn how to identify and articulate your most meaningful extracurricular experiences.
  • Showcasing impact and personal development: Gain insights into showcasing the impact you’ve made through your extracurricular involvements and how they have influenced your personal growth and character development.
  • Avoiding common pitfalls: We’ll provide you with strategies to ensure your essays are authentic and impactful.
  • Leveraging supplemental essays: Discover how to effectively utilize supplemental essays to delve deeper into your extracurricular experiences and provide additional context to your application.

Don’t miss this opportunity to gain invaluable insights into writing about extracurricular activities in your college essays!

Date 06/13/2024
Duration 1:01:29

Webinar Transcription

2024-06-13 – Writing About Extracurriculars in Your College Essays

Lydia: Hello, welcome everyone. This is, “Writing About Extracurriculars in Your College Essays.” My name is Lydia Hollon and I’m going to be your moderator tonight. I’m also a senior advisor here at CollegeAdvisor and I’ve been working here for about three years now. And in addition to advising students, I’m also a co-captain of our essay review team with Anna, who’s going to be doing our presentation for tonight.

And I am also a graduate of NYU. And outside of CollegeAdvisor, I am an education consultant as well as a former high school English teacher. So to orient everyone with the webinar timing for tonight, we’re going to start off with a presentation, then answer your questions in the live Q and A. And on the sidebar, you can download our slides and start submitting questions in the Q and A tab.

We will be recording this session so that you can review the webinar again later. So just keep that in mind if you have to step away for a minute. Now let’s meet our presenter.

Anna: Hi, everyone. I’m excited to be here with you and with Lydia. My name is Anna Vande Velde. I’ve been with the company for also about three years now.

In addition to advising students, as Lydia said, I’m a co captain on our essay review team. For my undergrad, I studied psychology at Carnegie Mellon. Really, really thought I was going to end up a clinical psychologist, but life had different plans. I ended up at Harvard Law School where I graduated about three years ago.

So in addition to my work with CollegeAdvisor, I’m a non profit defense attorney and I live in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m excited to be here and talk about my experience. essays, but I think Lydia has a question for you first.

Lydia: Yes, we’re going to do a quick poll. So what grade are you in? I’m going to go ahead and open it up now.

Uh, if you’re a student, just answer for yourself. If you’re a parent, if you could just choose that other option so we know, and to give you all some time to answer that question, uh, we’re going to do a quick question for you, Anna. So since we’re talking about writing about extracurriculars in your college essays, what was your favorite extracurricular in high school?

Anna: Oh, my favorite extracurricular in high school was definitely musical theater. Um, just something about being on stage, brought out. A new and exciting side of me because I was otherwise a bit shy. Um, so yeah, that would be mine. How

Lydia: about yours? Uh, for me, it was Model UN. I really, really loved it. I think that was a major reason why I ended up choosing it.

majoring in political science and going to NYU because they had, you know, such a vast study abroad program. So yeah, I really loved it. But you’re the second person that I’ve talked to this week during a webinar who said that musical theater was their big thing. So that’s funny to me.

Anna: That’s fine. I think I know who it was.

Lydia: Yeah. All right, then go ahead and close the poll. Now we’ve got 13 percent of people in 10th grade, 43 percent in 11th, 33 percent in 12th, and 10 percent are that other category or parents.

Anna: Awesome. Well, we’re happy you’re all here. Um, it’s the right time to be talking about your essays. So, I think, Lydia, if it’s okay with you, I’ll take over the screen.

Unless you have anything to add? Nope. Awesome. Um, alright. So, we’re here to talk about writing about extracurriculars in your, um, college essays. But I wanted to start first by zooming out a bit and talking about where in the whole application can you talk about your extracurricular experiences. The first one may be a bit obvious, but the application does have an activity section where you can list up to 10 activities that you have participated in throughout high school.

So that’s pretty straightforward. Then there is the personal statements. Um, I know we have some sophomores here. Maybe you’re just venturing into the college application process. Because if you haven’t heard A personal statement is the main essay that you will submit with your applications. It will go, the same essay will go to every college you apply to for the most part.

It’s around 650 words usually. And they’re pretty open ended questions, so really you can choose what you want to write about. An extracurricular experience might be a good option for you. Some applications will also have what we call supplemental essays, or college specific questions. Those are essays you’ll write that are going to go just to that college.

So, I know Harvard has some supplemental essays. The personal statement you write will go to Harvard and everywhere else you apply, but any supplemental essays you write for Harvard will go only to Harvard. Sometimes they might ask you very specifically to describe an extracurricular experience that matters to you.

They might be more open ended, but definitely there’s opportunity there to discuss your extracurriculars. The last one on here, I think it’s the one that people think of the least frequently and it’s your letters of recommendation. Those are not written by you. They are written usually by your teachers.

Um, and there’s a lot of opportunity there. If there’s something that you want explained or highlighted in your application, and for whatever reason you think it’s better coming from someone else, or maybe you’ve run out of space, uh, it is perfectly appropriate to ask your teacher to write about a few specific things.

So if there is an extracurricular experience that you want highlighted, it doesn’t fit anywhere else in your application, it would be appropriate to ask a teacher who has seen you really engage in that extracurricular to comment on it in their letter of recommendation. So, lot of opportunities to highlight extracurriculars in your application.

What I have on the screen now is a timeline that CollegeAdvisors suggest. I present it with the caveat that I don’t think anyone really follows it perfectly. Don’t want anyone to feel like they are behind. Um, you’re all here. That is wonderful. What we would recommend for a timeline for writing though, is in the spring of your junior year, To start brainstorming topics for your personal statement.

So, juniors, we have March to June here. If you haven’t started, you’re not behind yet on our, uh, suggested schedule. By brainstorming, really, I mean, just start thinking about it. As ideas come to you, write them down, store them somewhere. Uh, and just start being more mindful about what experiences have been meaningful to you.

Then, when it’s your junior summer, and you have hopefully a little more time than during the school year, you can start drafting and workshopping your personal statement. I’m telling you, if you get a draft for your personal statement written the summer before your, uh, senior year, you are going to thank yourself.

So much when you are a senior, um, a senior year gets so busy and it’s so exciting and I want you to be able to enjoy all of that. So draft it June your summer, then towards the end of summer, you can start getting feedback on your personal statement. Start getting that finalized and even start writing your supplemental essays.

That means you’re rolling into senior year ready to just, you know, put the, the finishing touches on them, make sure they’re polished, and get those applications out on time.

So why, why is this a webinar topic? Why do we think it’s so important to talk about how to write about your extracurriculars? It’s because they’re a really rich source of material that we think makes for a good essay. So writing about an extracurricular experience. If there’s something you’ve done that’s really important to you, meaningful, pivotal, it’s probably going to be hard to fully capture that in the activities description.

So if you remember on the first slide, I said the first most obvious place to talk about extracurriculars on your application is on the activities section. That said, you’re pretty limited there in what you can convey. There’s 150 character limits. That’s not a lot. It includes spaces, periods, it’s very short.

So you’re really not able to get into how it’s helped you become a better person, what you’ve learned from it. There’s no room for that. You can get into all that in an essay. And extracurriculars are really great sources of interesting stories. And something I know Lydia and I are always encouraging our, our writers to do is to to bring a narrative and a story to their essay.

So it’s more engaging, more interesting for the reader. So that’s why we think can be a good source of essay topics. I put this on the screen, um, because I, I think it’s important for students to sort of zoom out when they’re thinking about extracurriculars. I often have students who I start working with and they say, I don’t have any extracurriculars.

Um, and I think it’s easy to have a pretty narrow view of what we mean by it. Not even what we mean, what college applications mean, what the Common App means when they talk about the activity section. So there will be 10 slots where you can put in 10 activities, it’s okay if you don’t fill all 10. For each one that you enter though, you need to select the category that it falls into.

Not going to waste your time by reading all of these, you can Google it, uh, our slides will be available for download. The point of including them here is to hopefully emphasize that it’s a really broad list. So I think a lot of students hear extracurriculars and they think clubs at school. Yep, that’s an extracurricular, but there are a lot of others too that students may not think of.

So if you have a job, if you are involved in a religious community, if you have family responsibilities, And you will see the list goes on and on. Those all count. So, I like to describe it as anything you do outside of school, or you’re legally required to be, when you’re not in school, doing what you have to, how are you spending your time?

Probably not that interested in the time you spend Scroll and tick tock, but besides that, when you’re engaged in something that’s helping you learn about yourself, about the world, helping you form into a better human, any of that counts as an extracurricular. So it’s really broad.

Okay. I referenced this earlier. How do you write a meaningful essay about your extracurriculars? Tell a story, put the reader in your shoes. And instead of focusing on what you have to say. done, try answering what you have learned. Um, why, why is, why are you writing about this extracurricular? Probably because you want them to learn something unique about you.

So you’re gonna have to do that work, put it in a story so the reader can really see how you have experienced that extracurricular. There’s a lot of opportunities in these essays to connect. The activity you’re describing to your college and career interests, and I encourage you to think very, uh, creatively about that.

So the connection doesn’t need to be obvious on its face. Maybe you’re in a cooking club and you learned that you like deductive reasoning. So you want to study math. That’s not obvious on its face. But if you can make that connection. And do the next step of not showing not only where you’ve been, what you’ve done, but where you want to go.

Um, it can really help the reader get to know you more.

Okay. So getting started, I mentioned earlier the first step is to just brainstorm potential topics to write about. Please, as you think of them, record them somewhere on your phone, a Google Doc, a notebook. Write them down. Because I also mentioned earlier, your applications will involve more than one essay, so it’s good to have a running list of things that might be helpful to write about for your application.

When you’re brainstorming ideas, Some questions to ask yourself are, you know, what, what has happened in my life that has helped me learn and grow and develop as a person? Are there moments that stand out to me as being meaningful? I find for a lot of students are able to answer that first question like, yeah, this moment was really meaningful.

What’s harder to answer is the why. So that can require some, some real introspection. Also consider, you know, are there people who have helped you grow, who have shaped you as a person? And again, you got to get the why and the how in there. Um, please write them all down. Please also find someone you trust.

to help you talk out your options. I know it can be vulnerable, uh, to share ideas for essays, but it’s very helpful. As you’re doing this, as you’re brainstorming ideas, it’s important to also think about what we call your candidate profile. Sometimes we call it a personal narrative. Sometimes we call it a brand.

Um, I don’t know if it’s helpful that we use so many terms, but that’s our reality. So what we mean by this is put yourself for a second in the shoes of an admissions reader. Research shows us on average they’re spending 13 minutes per application. Applications are kind of long, which means they’re not getting into the nitty gritty of Um, they’re reading through and they’re moving on to the next.

So imagine doing that for 40, 50, 60 applications in a day, then you’re walking to your car, end of the day, you’re not going to remember every single detail about any given application. Best case scenario is they’re walking away and they’re remembering a few themes that tie your story together. Take care.

So we want to paint this sort of high level picture of who you are as a person. So by high level, I mean things like they’re an advocate, they’re determined, they’re altruistic. Things like that, um, that you’re going to convey by telling stories that show that. Uh, but the goal is to have them remember just a couple themes that tie your story together.

That’s going to be your brand, your candidate profile. So as you get a sense of what that is for you, which does require a lot of introspection, then that can inform your decision when you go back to your brainstorming list. And you can ask yourself, which, which of these stories are going to really help me tie that narrative together so that I have a coherent application.

Lydia and I say this all the time, what makes a good essay is showing, not telling. So I thought it wouldn’t be fair for me to tell you that and not show you what I mean. So as an example, uh, an early version of my student’s essay started with something like this. Sharing my writing with others has always scared me.

We workshopped it a bit. I asked them just to tell me more about that. What do you mean by always? Remember when it started? That sort of thing. And they, through talking, we came to the story from when they were in grade school. So they incorporated that into their essay and changed it so that it started with My second grade hands shook as I approached Mrs.

Sanchez’s desk with a handwritten essay. So what I want to highlight here is that both of these sentences convey a similar idea that for the student sharing their writing has been scary, but in the second one, I can, I can see that little kid. walking up to their teacher’s desk. In that one, I’m in their shoes.

In that one, I’m more engaged. I’m sort of following their journey along with them versus having to make all of these assumptions and inferences, um, that I would need to make in the sharing my writing with others has always scared me sentence. So that’s what we mean when we say, put us in your shoes. Um,

Lydia: Oh, go ahead,

Anna: Leah.

Lydia: Oh, yeah. I was just gonna add something to that because what you were saying about showing don’t telling I like that you gave an example. Um, and I think also what you were talking earlier about, um, in terms of admissions officers and how they’re reading, you know, 50 plus applications in a single day, something that I like to say to students when you’re trying when they’re trying to think about.

Well, how do I make this engaging? How do I stand out? Is imagine that when you’re an admissions officer, these personal statements are almost like reading like the first. page or two of a book. And a lot of books don’t start out that interesting. But when you have a book that like, really immerses you into the character’s life from the jump, it makes them interested and makes them want to read more.

So you’re almost like writing those first two pages of your story to get them engaged in who you are as a character. a person or as a brand, or even in their mind, you’re almost like a character that they’re trying to imagine in their head. So rather than just saying, oh, here are a list of things that define me, actually putting them into a situation that helps to exemplify those things is not only more convincing, but it makes them more interested as well, because You know, just reading a bunch of, here’s who I gammed, this is what I do, that, that’s not as memorable.

So you want to, you want to get them engaged and excited about what they’re reading.

Anna: Absolutely. I love that description. I think about it as the beginning of a book and really drawing your reader in. Uh, it also, what you were sharing Lydia made me remember this rule that I tell my students. I call it the copy and paste rule.

Um, so that first sentence, sharing my writing with others has always scared me. I think a lot of people could probably copy and paste that into their essay and it would be true for them. But that second sentence is only true for my student. They’re the only second grader who took that essay up to Mrs.

Sanchez’s desk in that moment You can’t copy and paste that. That is a good test, I think, of if something is really capturing a unique experience.

Lydia: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. And I think definitely students should use that. And I think it gets really at the idea that you can have an experience that is relatable, right?

Like, there are so many experiences that we all share with one another, but the way that you experience that thing is unique to you. And so that’s what you have to focus on, even if the themes of your story are things that may be true for you. a hundred different people.

Anna: Totally. Um, and I don’t want to spend too long on this slide, but I, I want to say that I think for the student, honestly, getting that first sentence, sharing my writing with others has always scared me, might have been more work for them than the second one.

Um, because for the first one, they’re sitting there on their own, they’re trying to just start writing and that’s really hard. So I don’t want anything Lydia and I are saying right now to sort of create writer’s block. Um, get the ideas out there first, don’t worry in your first draft about making it this super, like, engaging novel, right?

Like the most famous authors. go through a lot of editing and rewriting. Um, so I would, I would never say that their first sentence was bad. It was a great place to start because they started early. We had time to really dig into what that sentence meant and how to best convey it in their essay. Um, so I, I just don’t want this conversation to make anyone feel like they They can’t even start.

Okay, what else do I have here? Share things that can’t be captured easily elsewhere. Right, so things that won’t fit in that activity’s description. Um, making the most of every word. So 650 words. That might sound like a lot. In my experience, most students need help cutting down versus adding, uh, by the time they’ve really gotten their story out there.

So make sure you’re not using your essay to describe what an extracurricular club is about, especially if it’s something like model UN or musical theater, things that admissions readers just know what they are. And then this last point. What makes a good essay is you and your voice. So, of course, we’re not going to write our application essays the way we would write a text.

But, we want it to sound like you. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what, that’s what your application is all about. Um, so I think we’ll talk later on about tips for how to make sure your essay is really capturing your voice. Thanks.

Um, in terms of revising and refining your essays, I definitely think it’s important to take time away and come back. Maybe you’ve had this experience, I think a lot of writers have, where if you, if you read something you’ve written so many times in a row, It might stop making sense. If you’re reaching that point, you need a break.

So you need to take time away, go for a walk or come back the next day after you’re rested. Once you come back to refresh your eyes, some questions to ask yourself are, can I identify my theme? Like, can I point to in this essay, things that are speaking to what my, my candidate profile, my brand is. What unique and new information is it adding to my application?

Look out for things like passive language, especially if you are trying to cut down on word count. And then, this one, I, I get it. It’s hard for me, too. I think it’s really powerful to read it out loud. No one else needs to hear you. I know in your room, you can blast music, whatever. But read it out loud.

Because, one, it’s a great way to catch, um, grammatical errors. And two, something about the words coming out of your mouth. If they feel so, um, foreign, then you probably haven’t captured your voice. And that’s a good opportunity to ask yourself, how would I say this? Like, how would I actually tell this story to my friends?

And you might need to go back through and, and make sure the grammar and all the professionalism is there. But it’s really important that it sounds like you. This next point I know is also a difficult thing to do for a lot of us. Just ask others for feedback. Um, and it can be really valuable. That said, when I wrote my personal statement for law school, I sent it to, I think, like genuinely 20 people.

That was too many people. I was getting conflicting feedback because we’re humans and we all have different opinions. So I would say one to three really trusted people, a CollegeAdvisor, an educator, family member, friend. And when you give them your essay and you ask for feedback, it’s okay to be specific about what you’re looking for.

If there’s something you’re not sure, if you’re not sure if your theme is clear, ask them. They also can be a really great source, uh, to tell you if it sounds like you. Because presumably they know you pretty well, they know your voice. Those are some tips for refining your essay.

Lydia: Okay, so now we’re going to do another quick poll, which is where are you in the application process? Similar to the other question, if you’re a parent, you can just answer as you assume your student would respond. So Anna, I’m just curious, when you think back about when you were applying to undergrad, Would you say that you were a student that really like got ahead of the curb and was planning things out well in advance over the summer?

Or do you feel like you were more so of a procrastinator?

Anna: I wish I had planned things out a lot more. I, I missed a lot of important sleep and rest my senior fall, uh, because I was doing all of this, all of the application material, and I didn’t want to miss out on the. exciting parts of being a senior. So if you can learn anything from my story, it’s start earlier.

Um, you’ll, uh, you will thank yourself for it when you are a senior.

Lydia: Yeah, I definitely would say start sooner rather than later. I feel like I was the one that I felt like I was starting early because I was really thinking about it. Like, from the time that I got to high school, I was always thinking about college and thinking about where I wanted to go. But, When it came to actually writing the essays, I waited until the last minute and I was like, Oh, I’m a good English student.

So it’ll be fine. But don’t don’t be like me. It’s way more stressful when you wait till the last minute.

So I’m looking at the responses now. We got 16 percent who have not started, 47 percent who are researching schools, 31 percent who are working on their essays, and 7 percent who are getting their application materials together. So I’m glad to see that most of you have started doing at least some of the work.

That’s great, especially given the fact that it’s summertime. Yes,

Anna: and all of you are here. Which is wonderful shows, uh, you, you are really committed to learning about this process and getting started. So great.

So tips for describing your extracurriculars in the best light possible and divided this into two categories, because my advice is very different depending on where you’re describing your activities, if it’s in the activities section, I would think about it like a resume. If you haven’t built a resume yet, that makes sense.

I do not think I had built one at your age. Um, and it’s really easy to Google resume best resume writing practices. You want really lead in the activities section with action words. So focus on what you have done. You don’t need to write in full sentences. Obviously it needs to make sense. Um, but it’s okay to say something like, Organize 12 fundraisers and then period.

Next thing, um, highlight any leadership. Certainly, if you have a leadership title, you should include that. I think there’s a section. I don’t think that counts against your 150 character limit. Um, not having a leadership title doesn’t mean you don’t have leadership to emphasize or to, to highlight. So anything you’ve done for the organization that shows You’re taking on responsibility, uh, highlight that.

Please don’t use those 150 characters to describe what the club is, what it’s about. I understand there are some extracurriculars where from the name of the organization it’s just, really not clear what it is. If you feel you need to describe it at all, please be brief in that description and spend as much of that character limit as you can on what you have done.

And be as specific as you can. So instead of saying, like, helped at fundraisers, It’s more specific and stronger to say co organized 12 fundraisers leading to 1, 000 raised for X. Um, the more specific you can be, the more convincing, the stronger that description will be. Contrary, or just different really, in your essays, um, that’s not at all how I would write about your extracurriculars.

I would focus, as Niamh said earlier, about putting this in your shoes. Think of what Lydia said about that first page of a book, what sort of writing draws in the reader. And then, because you’re going to be telling a story in an essay, I would think about describing one or two things that you have accomplished or that you’ve learned in that extracurricular.

This does not need to be a comprehensive book. Description of everything you’ve accomplished in that club or extracurricular. Um, that would be a better fit in the actual activities section.

Things to avoid. So I already mentioned the first one. Please don’t use most of the space to describe the club or the organization. Um, in your essays, please avoid lists of any sort really. Um, it’s not the right place to list everything you’ve accomplished. I also have a bullet in here about negativity and unconstructive critique that I want to elaborate on because I’m not I’m not saying that you can’t describe some issues you’ve noticed, but framing is really important if you’re going to be sharing a negative experience you’ve had.

So let’s say you’ve joined the club and you, I don’t know, you’ve noticed that students aren’t really coming to the meetings and it’s just not, they’re not really accomplishing much as a group. I would advise against framing that as, like, no one cared at my school about X, like this. Instead, I’d focus on what you specifically saw.

So I went to this meeting hopeful, right, that there would be a big turnout when I saw there were only three people I felt this and then very importantly and very quickly you want to get to what you did about it to make things better. So how did you help improve attendance in that club? That’s the sort of framing that I think helps you stay out of sounding like you’re just complaining.

That’s not really fun to read and it’s not the message I think that you want to send about yourself in your application.

My experience reviewing essays about extracurriculars is that As I mentioned earlier, you really can relate almost anything back to your career, uh, or your academic interests. Any amount of impact can be meaningful. Um, so please don’t get caught up on, I didn’t, I didn’t do anything that flashy. I didn’t win a big award.

That’s okay. I guarantee you’ve done something that has helped you learn how to be a better version of yourself. Uh, that’s really interesting to admissions readers. And there are interesting stories So I, I use this example a lot because I think it’s a good one. I had a client who she wrote her whole essay about how one day they were just sitting around at home with her family and her mom was telling a story about someone and her dad said, ah, they just have no common sense.

So pretty like mundane, normal moments. But for my client, it was really meaningful because her reaction internally was, well, what even is common sense? And what even is sense? And what even is any of this? And she went down this internet rabbit hole, basically, and realized. That she wanted to be a philosopher, that she loved philosophy and asking these sorts of big unanswered questions.

Um, that’s an interesting story, but to anyone else in the room, like, if you didn’t know what she was thinking, It would look like a really boring, normal moment. Um, so please don’t feel the need to have, like, something flashy to talk about. Last advice to sum it all up, um, we can’t say this enough, show, tell, um, please don’t list accomplishments, things you’ve done in your essay, leave that for the activities section.

Um, be your authentic self. Genuine self, uh, admissions readers are good at detecting when you’re not being genuine. At some point, just start writing. So the juniors who are here, now’s a good time to just start writing. Don’t focus on perfection. Don’t, don’t worry about how it sounds right now. The first sentence you write, I think, is often the hardest.

So just get it on paper and then be open to editing and rewriting like all great authors do. Thank you. Last and certainly not least, I know it can be a stressful process, but when you can, please have fun. Um, at the end of the day, your applications are really a cool opportunity to introspect and learn about yourself.

Check in and make sure the path you’re on is the one you want to be on. And to, to talk about all the things you’re passionate about, um, which hopefully brings you a bit of joy. for listening. And with that, we are ready for your questions.

Lydia: All right. Thank you for that great segment of the presentation, Anna.

I hope that everyone found this information helpful. And remember that you can download the slides from the link in the handouts tab. Now we’re going to move into the live Q& A, where we’re I’ll ask some of the questions that you all have submitted in the Q& A tab. Just remember that you can still ask some of those questions.

So if you have anything in mind, now that the presentation portion of the webinar is done, you’re still free to ask those questions. Um, and if you’re not able to submit any, just double check that you joined the webinar through the custom link in your email and not from the webinar landing page. Um, and you can also try logging out and logging back in through that link if for some reason you’re having an issue.

Just as a reminder, we cannot give personalized admissions assessments, so please don’t share really specific details about your profile and the questions. Um, we can’t. Um, so we can’t just give you estimates on your chances of getting into any specific college, but we can definitely answer general questions about, well, if I have X amount of extracurriculars, how do I decide which ones to prioritize and general things like that?

So with that in mind, I’m actually going to ask a question similar to that, which is, when do you think is the right time to sort out and start writing descriptions? For. The extracurriculars on your common app and how do you decide which ones to prioritize if you have more than 10? Yeah, great questions.

Anna: Um, so whenever I start working with a student, regardless of what grade they’re in in high school, I suggest they start a running list of their extracurricular involvement. Um, I’m telling you, it’s really easy. By the time you get to senior year to forget, All the cool things you did as a freshman and a sophomore.

Um, so I would have a running list for yourself. Not like entered into the common app yet, but just in a Google Doc or somewhere for your purposes and To keep it updated. So maybe at the end of each semester or the end of each year you go in and you add You know things you accomplished that year and that org in terms of what is it time to start like Editing that down.

So it fits in the hundred and fifty character limit. I would say probably End of junior year, beginning of senior year. I’m curious what Lydia, what you think here too, but my thought is that you’re going to keep doing more things in those extracurriculars until You submit your applications and even after you’re still going to be involved with them.

So you don’t want to finalize those descriptions too soon. Um, but I think having the running list is really valuable.

Lydia: I definitely support what you just said about having a running list. And you can start that as soon as your freshman year. Because like you said, There may be things that you did your freshman year that you completely forgot about and you realize, Oh, that was really cool.

Or that was kind of impressive. I should bring that up later on. Um, but when, if you have more than 10 activities that you participate in, when you look back at that running list, I think you should think about two things when deciding what to keep versus what, what to cut. The first is. Once you identify kind of what your brand is or what kind of major you think you’re going to pursue Those extracurriculars that align with that I think are usually you want to prioritize and then the second component It’s kind of two pronged which is Doesn’t demonstrate depth and leadership.

So is this something that you can say you did? Three years out of high school or four years of high school, or maybe even before high school versus something that, oh, I just started doing this my senior year or the end of junior year. That’s something that from the perspective of an admissions officer, they may value more because you spent more time dedicated to it.

And similarly, if you have just a bunch of extracurriculars that you, all you did was participate. And then you cut the ones where maybe you were treasurer or vice president or a co founder. Those are things that they’re really looking for examples of leadership. So you usually want to try and hold on to those as well.

Anna: I would just add that, um, I think it’s good to be strategic in the order you put them on the common app. So the ones that you think really Speak to the like the traits of yours that you’re trying to highlight. I would listen first Presumably they’re going to also show more time spent on them than the others So do that and then I do think there is some room don’t go nuts on this one But let’s say you volunteered at three different places I personally think it’s okay to consolidate that under one activity, the activity being volunteer work, and then an activities description.

You can like put the number of hours and maybe what you did and where.

Lydia: Definitely, definitely. I do that with my students all the time. For example, sometimes a student, maybe they play club soccer and soccer for their school. That doesn’t need to be two separate things. You can lump it together. So if it falls in the same bucket like that, like volunteering, it’s all the same sport or something like that.

They don’t have to be separate. Um, I know sometimes students will list things out just by organization, but if they all kind of serve the same purpose, they usually can be combined and you can clarify it in the description. Um, but definitely like when thinking about. writing the descriptions. I think Anna’s advice to start doing it like end of junior year or beginning of senior year is a great time.

I would also base which one you decide on when your school normally does elections for leadership roles. I know some schools will do it at the end of the school year, so you would already know if You became president of that club or something like that. But then there are other clubs that do elections at the beginning of the school year, in which case you may not want to do it until you know, if you, you know, have a new leadership role in that organization.

So the next question is how diverse or narrow should our various activities that we mentioned be? Is it better to list a bunch of different things to show that you’re a jack of all trades? Or should they be more focused on your intended major?

Anna: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think I think my first reaction is, it should be a genuine reflection.

of the student’s interest and the time they’ve spent on things. So I, I tend not to advise students to go out and join clubs just because they think it’ll look good on their application. Um, that said, if you’re applying to be a STEM major and you have no STEM related activities, Uh, then admissions readers might question why you’re applying to be a STEM major.

So I don’t have like a number to give you or like a hard rule to follow. But if there, if there are activities that are super meaningful to you, like musical theater was to me. Not really that relevant to a psychology major, but I included it because I spent a lot of time and it was important and it showed that I could show up to things and, um, be like a dedicated team member.

And it is important, I think, to highlight some activities that are relevant to your interests. So, um, I feel like I’m not giving a great answer because I think it’s a hard question.

And that it really I’d love to have a conversation with the student who asked this because I think it’s a lot easier with with more specifics, but in general, please choose your activities based on your genuine interest. If you feel like, okay, I have all my activities here. I don’t see how on paper this makes sense given the major I’m applying to.

Then I think you want to do some work in your personal statement. To really tell a cohesive story. I felt like I had to do this with my law school application because I was on a path towards a PhD in clinical psych. All of my work experience, everything I did since I graduated and everything I did in college was about psychology and, and clinical work.

So, I was just honest about that in my personal statement and, and just did the work of telling the story of like, here’s how I, here’s how and why I’m pivoting, basically. So, if you, if you feel like your activities list doesn’t make sense with your major, especially if you’re like, a junior or senior and it’s too late to add like meaningful experiences and I would just tell your story in your

Lydia: essay.

Yeah, um, and I would, I would say simpler things like I think sometimes students get really caught up on there’s like a definite right way and there’s a definite wrong way. And I, I know it sounds unhelpful to say there’s not a clear answer like Anna said, but it really is true. But I would say definitely don’t feel like, Oh, I have to do a little bit of everything.

Sometimes students think I have to play at least one sport. I have to do something like. debate or model you in. I have to do, you know, some sort of volunteering. I have to do, you know, be student body president. Like you have to have something in every single category. And that certainly is not, not true.

Right. But like Anna said, you want to make sure that it makes sense and aligns with whatever it’s, you’re saying that you want to do and whoever you say that you are. But a good analogy that I like to make is let’s say that you’re speaking to your doctor, right? And it’s cool if your doctor says like, oh, yeah on the side I like to play pickleball or I like to do art and like paint you know, still life paintings or something like that.

That’s interesting, and it’s cool for them to talk to you about that thing that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. It makes them more unique as a doctor, but if they’re only talking to you about all these quirky things that they do on the side, but they can’t tell you very much about what they did to actually prepare themselves to be a doctor, Then you’re going to wonder, well, are they actually doing what they need to do to be good at what they’re doing?

So you want to make sure that when you’re doing that balance of what to talk about in your application, you have a good amount of examples of things that you did that line up with the program that you’re pursuing, but you can add a lot of depth and intrigue to your application. If you have a few things that may be a little bit unexpected and represent the quirks of your personality.

Anna: I love that

Lydia: analogy. So we’re going to take a short break just to remind you that CollegeAdvisors team of over 300 former admissions officers and admissions experts are ready to help you and your family navigate the college admissions process and one on one advising sessions. We’ve already helped over 6, 000 clients in their college journey and in our 2021 to 2023 data, we found that CollegeAdvisors students are two to four times more likely to get into colleges like Stanford, Vanderbilt and Harvard.

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And the end, you’ll also learn more about the premium packages that we offer that pair you with an expert who can support you in building your college list, adding your essays, and much more. So now we’re going to jump back into questions. And so something that I saw some people ask, and I know you’ve touched on this, But I think people wanted you to go a little bit deeper about whether or not it’s a good idea to talk about negative aspects of themselves or things that they did that maybe aren’t that great.

If they have the intent of talking about how they grew from that, or, you know, reflected on it. For example, I think one student said, I broke a rule at school, but it taught me a lot. Is it worth it for me to talk about that in my essay?

Anna: Yeah, I love that question. Um, yes, if it’s framed well. So, what I mean by that is, it’s, it’s fine, good, vulnerable to share something about yourself that you think, looking back, you could have done better, or you could have done differently.

Thank you. But I would frame it like that. I would frame it as here’s a thing I did. I broke this rule at school and I would very quickly get to here’s how I felt about it. Here’s how I reacted. Here’s, you know, when people told me this, I realized X, Y, and Z. And so I made these changes. I would really spend most of your essay.

on that latter part and what you did in response to this realization you had. I would not spend a whole bunch of time describing what you did and why it was bad. Um, the more positive things framing and the more forward looking you can be. I think, I think the better. And I think those can make for really great essay topics.

Lydia: Right. Yeah. I think there’s definitely a fine line. I think being able to talk about a weakness that you have or a place where you, you’ve realized you actually had a lot of opportunity for growth and you were open to learning from that can be great. Um, But also, even if you do get to the point very quickly, which I definitely would encourage in situations where you are revealing something that may not be very flattering, you want to get to that learning part sooner rather than later, be mindful of if it’s something that is really bad, sometimes if you’re leading with that, it can just be.

something that it just plants too negative of a seed for someone to be able to move on from it. Like if you say, yeah, I used to be really racist, or I used like I used to rob people or something like that, that could be something that it just sounds so negative, that even if they hear about how you changed, They may just have a really visceral reaction.

So use your common sense, as Anna was talking about earlier, to try and gauge if it’s something that you think might be too personal to share. Agreed. And so, um, let me look at another question that we’ve got. So, the last one that I want to ask is, I haven’t decided what my career path in college might be, so I’m trying to explore multiple things.

How could I talk about myself in, in my personal statement if I don’t really have a clear idea of what I’m trying to do? Maybe I’m undecided. Yeah,

Anna: um, I think you tell that story you, you say probably in an essay, um, this is what I have done. And when I, let’s see, I, I did math tutoring and it showed me that I really liked the analytical thinking, but I didn’t love the student interaction as much.

I didn’t like the teaching component. So then I went and I tried this and I realized, Oh, I like these two things, but not these other. And just tell us genuinely. How you’ve explored and what you’ve learned. I think that’s, I think that’s great. I think, frankly, that’s kind of the point of high school is to try different things.

Realize what you like, go do more of it. Realize what you don’t like, do less of it. And that’s kind of what we’re all doing as adults, figuring out our careers. Um, so I think it’s a really relatable story to tell. And I think it’s a smart one. So keep exploring. Um, Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do.

Also, admissions officers know and most students change their major in college anyways. And what they’re getting on your application is a snapshot. Where you are right now. And so if you can just tell the story of here’s where I am, here’s where I think I want to go. That’s, that’s kind of the, the whole point.

Don’t worry if it ends up taking

Lydia: a bunch of turns. Definitely. Um, that’s why I always tell students, even if you think you’re really sure, oh, I’m going to major in engineering or I’m going to do pre med. Follow your actual interest in your actual passions because nine times out of 10, a student that was always doing the things that they were genuinely interested in by the time they get to the point where they’re applying to colleges, it is so much easier for them to write a personal statement about those things or put together their activities list because they know that that genuinely reflects who they are versus, you know, someone who’s saying, Oh, I’m pursuing business.

a business major. So that means I can’t do math tutoring or I can’t list that on my application because it’s not strictly related to business. You may have some activities that feel more forced and it’s a little bit more difficult for you to talk about them. So pursue the things that particularly interest you.

And when it comes to students who are undecided, um, I heard this advice on a webinar yesterday, and I definitely agree with it, which is there’s a difference between being undecided and just like having no idea what interests you and just kind of being apathetic versus being someone who is undecided because there are so many things that you find interesting and you’re just still trying to figure out which one to pick.

And I would say usually admissions officers want to hear the latter. They want to hear about someone who they just have a lot of different interests. Maybe they think psychology is cool and they think law is cool and they think musical theater is cool and they want to explore all of those things together and they just need a little bit more time to figure out maybe how they blend them.

or which one that they really want to pursue versus someone who just writes an essay about, oh, I just tried all these different things and I didn’t like any of them.

All right. So thank you so much for this wonderful session, Anna. I know that I learned a lot and I hope that everyone else tonight learned a lot as well.

Anna: Thank you, Lydia, for your contributions also. Always appreciate it.

Lydia: Yes. And so as a reminder, if you enjoyed tonight’s webinar, we’re also doing a bunch of other webinars for the month of June.

So feel free to check out this calendar and put them on your calendar so that you can join us again later this month. Thanks for stopping by and I hope everyone enjoys the rest of their night.