How To Structure Your Extracurricular Essay

When it comes to your extracurricular activity essay, you’ll either describe a challenge or series of challenges you’ve encountered and overcome, or you won’t. I’ve developed a structure that works for each case.

The first is what I call the “Elon Musk” approach and it works well for students who have addressed or overcome a challenge through their extracurricular activity. 

The second is called the “Uncommon Connections” approach and works well for students who are not writing about a challenge they’ve encountered through an extracurricular activity. 

But heads-up: you don’t have to pick an approach right now. In fact, don’t yet. Read through both techniques and see which might work better. 

THE NARRATIVE APPROACH (AKA THE ELON MUSK EXERCISE)

This approach works particularly well for: 

  • Any extracurricular essay about overcoming a challenge
  • Any volunteer or community service essay
  • Any social issue essay, for example that asks “What are you interested in?” or “What’s one problem you would like to solve?”

This structure was inspired by an article written by Andy Raskin that analyzes a pitch Elon Musk gave on the Powerwall. What’s the Powerwall? It doesn’t much matter for this exercise, but it’s basically a better, more eco-friendly battery. Here’s Raskin’s take on Musk’s pitch:

“Musk’s delivery isn’t stellar. He’s self-conscious and fidgety. But at the end, his audience cheers. For a battery. That’s because Musk does five things right that you should emulate in every pitch you ever make to anybody.”

While reading Raskin’s article I realized (because I’m the College Essay Guy and this is where my brain is half the time) Musk’s approach could easily be applied to a wide range of extracurricular essay topics, so I adapted the structure, added a step, and created an approach that will help you map out a challenges-based extracurricular essay in about ten minutes. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Identify the problem. 

Describe the challenge you were (or are currently) facing. The problem could be something global, like an environmental issue, or something more local, like a lack of creative opportunities in your high school.

Step 2: Raise the stakes. 

Help us understand: Why was (or is) overcoming this challenge important? What might happen if this problem went (or goes) unchecked? 

Step 3: Describe what you did. 

Tell us the specific things you (or you and your team) did to solve the problem.

Step 4: Clarify your role. 

Describe your particular involvement. Why were (or are) you crucial to the project or club’s success?

Step 5: Share the impact you had, lessons you learned, or values you gained. 

Provide specific evidence that gives us a sense that your work mattered. I’ll show you some ways to do this in a minute.

Think that’s too much to do in one essay? 

Behold. An essay that does it: