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Last updated June 21, 2023

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“Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities”: Tips and Tricks

Key Takeaway

Focus on showing both the impact and personal significance of your extracurricular. Consider aligning your activity with the values of the school you're applying to, and choose activities that demonstrate magnitude, reach, and impact. Finally, remember to quantify your accomplishments using numbers to effectively convey your contributions.

You’ve probably seen this prompt again and again: “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities.” It’s a popular supplemental essay among schools like Harvard, Colorado College, and Amherst.

But it’s also one of the trickier prompts. What does it mean to “briefly elaborate” anyway?

We break it all down for you in this post.

The Prompt

As you may have guessed, all versions of the “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities” prompt are extracurricular activities essay prompts.

Here are two real examples:

  • Harvard:
    Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)

  • Vanderbilt:
    Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. Please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you.

Because your response will be an extracurricular activities essay, you should have two goals in mind:

1: Show the impact of your activity.

If you’ve read any of our other posts, there’s a good chance you’ve come across our philosophy about communicating extracurricular accomplishments. We use a framework that draws on factors of magnitude, reach, and impact to communicate the importance of your extracurriculars.

The higher the magnitude, reach, and impact, the more impressive the extracurricular is to an admissions officer. Focusing on these factors keeps your attention on what matters most.

2: Show the personal significance of your activity.

We also know that your extracurriculars aren’t just about how you impact other people. You participate in them because they’re personally meaningful to you.

In addition to showing the magnitude, reach, and impact of your activities, you can also use your essay to describe why they’re important to your values, beliefs, goals, strengths—anything that will vulnerably tell an admissions officer more about who you are.

Bonus goal: Show alignment with the school you’re applying to.

This final goal is a bonus goal because it’s not necessarily a requirement for a good answer. But where appropriate, sprinkling it in can help you make your case.

If you see any extracurricular alignment with the school you’re applying to, or if you can show that your values align with the school’s because of your extracurriculars, then you’re free to mention those connections. If you’re applying to a school that values community service, for example, and you’ve organized a food drive through your local library, then you can absolutely draw out the similarities between your activity and the school’s values.

With those goals in mind, let’s go over what kinds of extracurriculars you can write about in the first place.

What extracurricular activities can you write about?

When you think about extracurricular activities, the first things that come to mind might be sports, music, and school clubs. Those are all great extracurricular activities, and you can absolutely write about them in the “please briefly elaborate” style of prompts.

But anything you do outside of the classroom can count as an extracurricular activity, even home responsibilities, a job, hobbies, volunteer work, and activism. Let’s say that you watch your siblings and make dinner for your family every day after school, even though you also have a part-time job. Your magnitude, reach, and impact may not look exactly like someone who won a robotics competition, but your activity is impressive nonetheless. What matters is that the activity takes up a significant amount of your time, dedication, and energy.

As you’re selecting from all your activities, remember the goals from the previous section. Which has the greatest magnitude, reach, and impact? How do your activities align with your application narrative?

How to “Briefly Elaborate”

Ah, to “briefly elaborate.” It’s the vaguest part of the prompt. How briefly you elaborate will, of course, depend on the word limit of the supplemental essay. The longer you have, the more you can elaborate. Seems simple enough.

But there’s an art to selecting what to focus on and what to skim over. Where should your story linger? Where should you explain the details of your extracurricular, and where should you cut back?

I can’t give blanket advice that will apply to every single extracurricular essay. There are, however, a couple of general guidelines you can follow.

  • Avoid the urge to go on and on about the details of your extracurricular. It’s easy to get bogged down in a topic that you’re passionate about, but often students spend too much time explaining details that don’t matter to the overall essay. Give your admissions officers only the information they need to understand what your activity is and why it’s important.
  • Spend at least a third of your essay on meaning. In this kind of essay, it can be easy to get so caught up in writing about your activity that you forget to write about its significance. Remember to draw out the most important points for your admissions officer and highlight why your activity has been significant to you and to others.
  • Use numbers to quantify your impact. Just like your activities list or a job resume, the fastest and easiest way to show your impact is by using numbers. You can say, “I helped a lot of people with the food drive I organized.” But that doesn’t actually tell me much. How many people did you help? How did you help them? Something like, “Our efforts stocked the pantries of five hundred of our community members” communicates a whole lot more in the same number of words.

Final Thoughts

You’ll probably encounter this prompt during your college applications. You may even encounter it more than once.

When schools have to sort through tens of thousands of applications ****from the most highly-qualified candidates in the country, you need all the help you can get. Your response to this type of question can do crucial work for setting your application apart. Hopefully now you feel prepared to tackle it.

If you want to learn more about all kinds of supplemental essays and personal statements, consider joining the Essay Academy, our comprehensive digital college essay course.

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