Not everyone has had a chance to speak at a UN conference.
Or play in Carnegie hall.
When your most valuable experiences aren’t tied to big name titles (like State Champion, National Scholar, First Place, Founder and CEO), that doesn’t mean your experiences won’t bring value to a university campus.
This article gives three tips for shedding light on some of the things that are harder to put into words.
But first: These tips piggyback off of one of another article, which offers six techniques for writing your 150-word extracurricular essay, which you should totally check out first.
Ready? Here we go:
Tip #1: Quantify your experience.
This is crucial. While you may not have a job title, a well-recognized company, or dollar signs (like money raised) that can make an activities list pop, quantifying how you spent your unstructured time shows you’ve burned the midnight oil, you’ve put in hard work, in short--you've done great stuff. Here’s an example:
I’ve read every book by Paul Farmer and 50+ books and 20+ films on Global Health and social justice to better understand social health care inequity.
This isn’t just for STEM folks. If you're an artist, consider writing down all the hours spent and projects you’ve worked on, even if you didn’t get a chance to finish all of them. Here’s an example:
I’ve created ten short films, worked as an actor in seven (nominated best actor--see add'l info), and have written over 200+ pages of script.
Only you know how much time and energy you’ve put into your passions. While society values well-recognized names (“Fulbright Scholar”), competition winners, and large numbers (“$5,000 for cancer research”), things that people tend to focus less on are the endless hours of unstructured time, unfinished projects, and unrecognized work required to learn skills, develop yourself, and affect change in your community. Give yourself a chance to be proud of this time well-spent. Here’s one more example:
I’ve spent 80+ hours coding 10K+ lines of code for a natural language processing program that correlates the gender of historical figures with the number of verbs performed by each gender in the text of middle school history books (unpublished study).
Tip #2: Briefly mention what roadblocks stopped you from pursuing a related Rockstar Achievement and then explain what you did instead.
Important: Your extracurricular essay should briefly mention roadblocks only to that extracurricular activity. Don’t use this space to mention roadblocks to your academic career in general (i.e. why you failed a certain semester or didn’t take more AP classes)—that’s for your additional info section.
Admissions officers will understand that some students have not had the same access to resources and opportunities as others (i.e. ten years of piano lessons, started a non-profit, traveled the world before age 10, etc.).
Instead, what readers want to know is that you took full advantage of the opportunities presented to you, and that were specific to your circumstances.
While counselors may have some information about your high school or socio-economic environment, they won’t have all the details. Why not make it easy for them? Example:
Without a means of transportation (in Korea the driving age is 18), I was unable to participate in school-sponsored activities or outside tournaments, so I spent most of my time taking online college courses (MOOCs) and reading books about world health care.
Unfortunately, I had to drop basketball my junior year because practices finished after dark and I had to take public transportation home and it is not safe to walk through my neighborhood late at night. However I still helped fundraise for the team and played basketball on the weekends with my little brother.
Other possible roadblocks:
Did your school lack funding or not even have a particular club?
Was there too much bureaucratic red tape? (Be specific, if so; don’t whine.)
Were you or a family member sick, making it difficult for you to participate in a meaningful event?
Did your family lack the funds to pay for your flight to a conference?
Some ideas for what you did instead:
I started that club myself.
We put together a fundraiser to raise money for the trip.
When I couldn’t take that class, I studied on my own (if it relates to your extracurricular activity).
Related article: How to Improve Your Mediocre Extracurricular Essay in 30 Minutes
Tip #3. Mention opportunities even if you were unable to attend due to financial, health, or other reasons
I was accepted at the Stanford Medical Youth Program (SMYSP) but was unable to attend because my family couldn’t afford the cost of the five-week residency.
This was not a “missed opportunity.” This was a success, even if it didn’t go as far as you wanted or expected it to.
Not only is this an acknowledgment of your partial success, your reader might see accepting you as a chance to finally give you the chance to pursue your dreams.
Feeling inspired yet?
Time to get writing.
Want help on your Common App personal statement?
Check out this Free One-Hour Guide to Writing the Personal Statement.