For the sake of argument, let’s say there are four types of extracurricular activities:
Passion Projects (something you love and would do for free even if it didn’t help your chances of getting into college)
Rockstar Achievements (those in which you’ve won something or held a leadership position)
One Hit Wonders (things you did once)
I’ve Played Piano for 14 Years But I Hate It (something your parents have made you do since you were a kid and you’re either too nice or too afraid to tell them you don’t want to do it anymore)
So which one should you write about?
Okay, ideally, your passion project is the one you you’ve turned into a Rockstar Achievement. If so, write about that.
But what if you have to choose? What if you’ve been a part of both:
something very personal that has a strong WHY component (passion project), and
something less personal that has an impressive WOW (rockstar achievement)
Which do you write about?
In general, if your rockstar achievement has...
a. earned you recognition
b. demonstrated your leadership potential, and
c. required you to shoulder some real responsibilities.
...then I’d say write about your rockstar achievement.
Why? A couple reasons:
The first, kind of superficial reason is this:
Readers are zipping through your application at a pretty good clip and while they are somewhat interested in who you are (which is what I think your main personal statement is for) they’re also interested in what you’ve done. Don’t leave out that second part.
The second reason, based on my experience working with lots of students is this:
I think it tends to be easier to explain the “why” behind an impressive activity than to generate a significant “wow” for a personal project if no such “wow” actually exists.
Here’s an example:
If you’re choosing between your passion for listening to different kinds of music, for example, and the time you won Nationals in ACADECA, write about winning ACADECA.
Why else should you do this?
If you’ve put in hours and hours of work prepping for and winning ACADECA and you don’t write about it, that’s what in the college admissions world we call a missed opportunity. Or, what they call in Vegas, leaving money on the table.
Here’s an exception:
What if you have to choose between either:
a.) that time you won a small award in something you didn’t care a whole lot about, or
b.) a passion project that’s really cool and that makes you stand out?
What if, for example, you won a Certificate of Merit in the 9th grade for playing violin and you’re still in the orchestra but it’s not a really big deal to you because your REAL passion--the thing that keeps you up ‘til 3am is your passion for constructed languages--that’s right, making up your own language. (This is a real example, btw.)
WRITE ABOUT CONSTRUCTED LANGUAGES
For reals. That’s ‘cause constructed languages are the bomb. Actually, I never really knew there was such a thing as ConLang, as the cool kids (read: the nerdy kids) call it, until one of my students wrote an awesome essay about his passion for constructed languages.
So, in short, opt for the passion project if it’s something really cool and geeky. And by geeky I mean something that you know so much about that when someone mentions it you start talking really fast and start using arcane vocabulary that makes people go, “Wha?”
And no, your 1000 hrs spent building up three Level 90 Warriors in WOW doesn’t count as a “wow” project. Unless you started a WOW club that held a fundraiser for victims of epilepsy and donated the money. (You like it, don’t steal it.)
Finally, here’s a question I get a lot:
Student: But what if I’ve already written about my most impressive extracurricular activity in my main personal statement or in another essay the school is receiving?
Me: Then write about your second most impressive extracurricular activity.
See, you could write for this blog.