Updated: Oct 21
Table of Contents
A lot of students ask if they "need to" write about a specific academic or extracurricular interest in their main essay or a supplement.
The answer is ... complicated. If an interest is supposed to be a defining part of your application, you need to demonstrate meaningful engagement: the idea that you're, well, actually invested in this interest.
You can show that in a variety of ways. I think of "meaningful engagement" as the abstract, intangible sum (this means you can't actually make an equation for it) of three factors:
How long have you been doing this?
What recognition/experience have you gained?
How passionate are you about this?
You can demonstrate meaningful engagement without fully satisfying all 3 requirements.
If you're the best high school chess player in the country, you probably don't have to worry about proving that you're passionate about chess.
Show time and recognition/experience through the Activities & Honors section.
Show passion in your essays.
So the short answer is, if you feel like you're missing something in the first two categories, you can supplement meaningful engagement with the third category.
Overall, you can probably check this category off if you've been doing the activity since at least freshman year.
Since some classes, like English, are required all 4 years, you might need more involvement to show meaningful engagement in this category.
a school club
academic competition (this overlaps with #2)
a community college class
How far did you get in this subject? If you're applying as a math major but you only made it to geometry by senior year, that might raise some eyebrows.
Private lessons or coaching, school or community groups (like band), etc. count toward time
This comes in many forms.
Awards: Pay attention to if this award is limited to your school, region, state, or country, or if it's international. Obviously, the broader the applicant pool, the more impactful the award.
Group placement: Making varsity, becoming principal violinist, being part of a statewide honor group, being given a specialized role such as treasurer, etc. Again, the broader the applicant pool, the more impactful the placement.
Rankings: This is similar to awards. Are you the third-best high school chess player in your state?
Experience: Did you do an internship or shadowing for this field? Or volunteer teaching?
This can only come from the essay. The best way to do this is to give a case study that demonstrates your passion (and ideally also an interpersonal skill). Go for something in a narrow timeframe so you can give specific details.
You should NOT focus on time or recognition/experience in an essay. Not only is that bragging, but you're also wasting words in the only place in your whole application where you can show passion.