What Is the Activity Essay?

The question today is how to write a better “activity essay.” The prompt usually looks like this: “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.”

Here’s what most first drafts look like:

Activity X is really important to me. First I did this. Then I did that. Then I did this other thing. And I learned Y.

In other words, most students interpret “elaborate” to mean “list a bunch of facts in a manner so dull that they immediately dissolve from memory.” Unfortunate. In this post, I’m going to give you three tips to make your essay sparkle.

I will do that by using a not-so-subtle sparkly image: the diamond. Heat and pressure turn ordinary carbon into a diamond. A jeweler decides how to shape the diamond. Then the jeweler cuts the facets to make it shine. Each of these observations carries an insight into writing the short activity essay.

Making the Diamond: Find Your “Pressure and Heat” Moments

Without pressure and heat, carbon is just plain carbon. Under pressure and heat, carbon can grow into diamond crystals.

As you write your activity essay, you’ll find you have diamond sentences and plain carbon sentences. Diamond sentences reveal moments of heat and pressure, times when you were under duress, when you were uncomfortable, or when you were in conflict with other people. Plain carbon sentences are everything else.

Designing the Diamond: Reveal an Important Personal Value

When a jeweler holds an uncut diamond, she must decide what shape to cut. Round, princess, oval, emerald, marquise, pear, heart, trillion? (Yes, sadly, I actually know what all these are.)

When you consider your diamond sentences, you have to figure out what shape to cut, too. What does this mean? It means you need to determine what personal characteristic your diamond sentences will reveal. Compassion, enthusiasm, confidence, loyalty, family, creativity, reason, reflection? Something else? You’re not just writing about a tough moment to write about a tough moment. You’re writing about a tough moment to show a particular value that matters to you.

Cutting the Facets: Use Precise Visual and Sensory Details

When you have the pleasure of shopping for a diamond ring, you might learn that sparkle results from precise facets. Precise facets not only have the correct shape and angle, but also the correct proportion relative to other facets. Yes, there is a lot of physics stuff I don’t remember about reflection and refraction of light that makes the diamond sparkle, but all that results from having exactly the right surface details.

I work with many students who feel pressure to be super deep and impressive in these application essays. What often happens is that students take this pressure to start talking about what they think, know, realize, and believe. I get it. But the result is generic. If you’re writing about how Activity X taught you Value Y, you can be certain hundreds of other kids are doing the same thing. The “deep thoughts” don’t set you apart.

This might be counter-intuitive, but what sets you apart are your surface details. Don’t write inside your head. Write outside in the world. That means telling us what you saw, what you heard, what you tasted, what you smelled, and what you touched. Trust your sensory details to show what type of person you are.

Bringing It Together: A Quick Plan for Writing the Activity Essay

No blog post is complete without a numbered list. Here’s a 5-step plan for developing your activity essay:

Spend 10 minutes writing as much as you can about your activity. No deleting. No editing. Just write, write, write.

Find your diamond sentences. These are the sentences that show you under “pressure and heat,” experiencing some kind of challenge. These are your uncut diamonds.
For each diamond sentence, identify a personal value it reveals. The goal here is to figure out what you got from that “pressure and heat” moment. That value or trait is how you will shape your uncut diamonds.

Choose your favorite diamond sentences. It’s your essay. You know who you are and what you’re about. You are capable of figuring out what is important. As you decide, though, remember that you’re trying to reveal something about you that doesn’t appear in your longer essays.

Focus on the five senses. As much as possible, move the essay from inside your head – what you thought – to outside your head – what you sensed. You’ll often find that the details you choose help you stand out better than any grandiose thoughts ever could.

Oh, and as you’ve probably figured out by now, these tips for adding dazzle to your short activity essay work just as well on the longer essays. Go forth and shine. Good luck writing!

Jon Perkins

Posted on August 13, 2014 at 6:28 am

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