Students will write a number of essays during the college application process. Last time we talked about the personal statement for the Common Application. Now let’s look at various prompts students are given to discuss their activities outside of school. Colleges want to know what is important to the student as well as how they spend their time. They want to know if the student will bring a unique skill to the freshman class.
The most common prompt is found in many of the individual college supplements that are a part of the Common Application:
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)
150 words doesn’t seem like much, but you would be amazed at what can be said in a short space. Remember, even little answers like this need to be treated with the same care as the main essay, vetted carefully, and should function as a part of the whole story we want to tell the colleges.
Sometimes a school will ask a very similar question and give a student 250 words or more to describe their most important activity. Thus, they can take the 150-word statement and expand it to meet the new limit.
Other schools want much more information. Berkeley, for example asks three different questions about a consuming activity that has taken a student to the national level: 1. In your application you referred to an extracurricular activity in which you participate at a national or international level.
1. Please describe this special talent you included on the UC application. (Art, music, dance, debate, athletics, etc.)
2. Please help us evaluate your skills by providing us with information about the level of your achievement in your talent area. Describe any awards/honors received, positions attained or prizes won in competition as a result of your talent (for example, concertmistress of state-wide orchestra, participation in Junior Olympics for a particular sport, placing in a national debate competition).
3. How many hours per day and how many days per week do you devote to your special skill/talent? How do you manage your time and how has your special talent/skill positively or negatively impacted your academic achievement?
The University of California schools ask several activity questions and give a student up to 750 words for the two prompts. Here is one of them:
Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
Another way of finding out about how the student spends their time is to ask questions about summer:
Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held, if not already detailed on the Common Application.
As you can see, there are multiple ways for schools to figure out how a student uses their time. In many cases, a single essay (or essay topic) can be refined to fit numerous prompts and various essay lengths. I have found it most helpful to list all prompts in one place so you can see how many actual essays need to be written and how many can just be massaged for various schools.
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