How to Nail the Common App Activities Section
What is the Activities Section?
The Common App Activities section is the section where you can list your extracurricular activities—essentially, what you do besides school.
The personal statement and other supplemental essays are primarily for colleges to know who you are. The activities section is so that colleges know what you’ve done. Common App states that the activities you include in this section can be “arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits.” So, yeah. Pretty broad. Essentially, any activity you spend time on outside of school can be considered for this section.
Why Do Colleges Require It?
Without the activities section, your application would look, for lack of a better word, a bit boring. The extracurriculars section helps potential universities understand who you are beyond just test scores and GPA and gives you an excellent opportunity to reveal where you direct your time and passions. It’s also a great way for admissions officers to decide whether or not you’re a good fit for their specific school. For instance, if your main passion is water polo, and that’s all you want to do in college, admissions officers would be skeptical if you’re applying to a school without a water polo team.
A Preliminary Example
Before we move on, let’s take a look at a quick example of how revising your Activities section can make a huge difference in your application.
Consider this entry in an activities section: Cello Section Leader Lead cello section for orchestra concerts.
Now, compare with this one: Cello Section Leader Lead cello section in intricate group pieces, play at nursing homes and bookstores with a community orchestra, coach less-experienced cellists with technique.
See the difference? Chances are, you already noticed a few ways that the second entry is better, even though both are for the same activity. The second one is longer, more detailed, and uses better, stronger verbs. Now let’s jump in and see exactly how that works.
Which activities should you actually include?
The first step to making sure you milk the Common App activities section to its full potential is choosing which activities to include. Generally, activities that you spent more time on are more important than ones you didn’t do much with, like that random club you went to for 30 minutes each week freshman year. And activities you took on in later years of high school, like junior and senior year, will be weighed more heavily than those that you joined earlier but then quit. The best extracurriculars are ones that you’ve done for a long time. Admissions officers love to see commitment to a few clubs or activities throughout your high school career.
In fact, some activities might actually harm your application. I would advise against putting small activities that you quit on this section. They only serve to clutter your application and won’t help you. For example, if you joined Italian Club sophomore year but quit after a few months of meetings, it’s probably best to leave it out.
Types of Activities
The first step to making sure you milk the Common App activities section to its full potential is selecting the right type of activity for each slot. Here’s the full list of activities to choose from:
- Athletics: Club
- Athletics: JV/Varsity
- Community Service (Volunteer)
- Family Responsibilities
- Foreign Exchange
- Junior R.O.T.C.
- Music: Instrumental
- Music: Vocal
- School Spirit
- Student Govt./Politics
- Work (paid)
- Other Club/Activity
As you can see, this list is pretty long, but most of the categories are self-explanatory. Most of them are also quite general, except for Junior ROTC and student government.
Do my activities have to be all on the same theme?
College counselors disagree on this question, but most advise that it’s good to have a concrete mix, but not so varied that admissions officers are confused. If you have three activities under Music: Instrumental, a few under Theater/Drama, and one or two under Computer/Technology or Cultural, that looks appealing. However, if your activities are entirely different and don’t overlap at all in terms of category or type, you might want to present them in a different way.
Now, it’s time to choose which activities you actually include in this section. Common App limits you to ten slots or ten activities. However, if you have an activity that couldn’t fit but that represents an essential aspect of who you are, you might consider including a brief description of it in the Additional Info section. It’s unlikely that this will happen, as the quality of your activities is generally more important than quantity, but it’s possible. In addition, many schools allow you to submit a full resume if you feel like it would provide new, significant info for admissions officers.
On the flip side, you might be wondering if you need to fill out all ten slots. The answer is no. If you have five really great activities (or even five mediocre ones!), put them in the first five slots and leave it at that. However, most students, especially those applying to top colleges, will be able to fill the ten slots that Common App provides. If you still feel like you’re missing some activities, try thinking about:
- School clubs you’ve joined in the past few years
- Internships you participated in
- Instruments you played
- Volunteering/community service
- Family responsibilities, like significant chores or caring for family members
- Jobs, even ones you only held during the summer
- Sports you played, with school or not
- Camps, trips, academic programs, or other summer programs
- Online or summer courses that don’t appear on your transcript
- Hobbies (what do you do with your free time? Build computers? Read? Write books? Develop apps? You might be missing a project.)
In addition, make sure that the activities you select are not on your transcript. If they are, you might not need to list them separately in the activities section. To find out, you can request a transcript from your guidance/college counselor.
Position/Leadership Description and Organization Name
When you’ve selected the type of activity, Common App requires the position you held in the activity and the name of the organization that the activity was affiliated with. This process is pretty self-explanatory- if you were the president of a club, write “president”; if you founded a club, write “founder”, etc. If the activity was a self-directed project, you might write “developer,” “writer,” or something else.
The name of the organization is optional but recommended. The only reason why you wouldn’t add it in is if you participate in an activity that isn’t officially under an organization, like writing a novel on your own time or caring for family members. Otherwise, use the full name of the organization, and don’t be afraid to use as much of this box as you can to give admissions officers a full understanding of your activities.
The 150-Character Description
This section is short. A 150-character description isn’t much more than 25 words or two short sentences. If you need more space to fully detail the awards you won, members you coached, etc., consider adding them into your Common App personal statement or Additional Info section. Remember, don’t over-describe your activity—you should only include more in another section if you believe further elaboration would truly help your application represent you.
One of the most efficient ways to improve your activities section is to make sure you include everything. In the cello example entry that I showed you at the beginning of this article, the first entry was dull and bland. But the second, improved entry did two things: 1) included more detail, and 2) included more elements and specific areas of the activity. What have you done? Did you win any awards? Did you mentor younger/less-experienced members? Receive any honors? Recruit new members? Organize meetings? Structure agendas? Communicate and collaborate with other participants? Drill down and get specific.
Phrases like “I do,” “I participate,” and “I was” suck the life out of your activities section. Instead, try stronger verbs. Here is a brief list of verbs that you could include:
These are just a small sampling that doesn’t fully represent every activity. Here’s a more complete list.
There’s no need to include complete sentences here. “I organized helpful meetings for other group members. I also led the team to our state competition in 2019 and won an impressive award for team spirit.” sounds contrived and lengthy. Instead, take out adjectives, and instead of sentences, use semicolons: “Organized meetings; led team to 2019 state competition; won team spirit award; recruited 20 more members; collaborated with president and secretary.”
This concise precision also illustrates my next point: numbers, numbers, numbers. Provide quantitative proof of your accomplishments, if you can, or at least some outward measure of success. “Wrote 300-page-novel; published on Amazon; marketed to 1000s of people” sounds much more impressive than “wrote novel; published it on Amazon; marketed to people.” Aim for activities that will stand out in this way. Even if you don’t have a quantitative marker of your success, have you won any awards or even interacted with anyone who could vouch for your success? Chances are, you’ll think of some number you can put in each of your activity descriptions that will make your section a lot stronger.
For each activity, Common App also asks you in what grade levels you participated in it. Ideally, you’ve chosen at least a few activities that you participated in for 2+ years. These will be easy to fill in. If you had a summer program or a project you worked on, don’t be afraid of only filling in one year. Especially if the project/program was an interesting and helpful experience, it will still look great, and admissions officers will understand why you couldn’t participate or complete it multiple times. If you did some type of summer program or activity,put it under the older grade—e.g., if you went to summer camp between junior and senior year, you would enter “12” under that activity.
Time Spent On Activity
Aside from the activity description, the time spent on each activity might well be the hardest part. Common App requires you to list the number of hours each week and the number of weeks per year that you participated. It’s often hard to estimate just how many hours you spend each week on different activities. Do your best—it doesn’t have to be perfect, just realistic. And don’t exaggerate time commitment—if you say you worked at a job for 20 hours a week, met with a club for 15, and played a sport for 10, admissions officers might start to wonder if you’re inflating the times a bit. Or maybe you’re superhuman. Either way, keep it real.
If you’re still having trouble estimating time, try tracking your time with an app like Toggl (not an ad) to see where your time is really going.
Will You Continue This Into College?
This is a fairly straightforward question—do you plan to keep doing a similar activity next year in college? It’s not as important as it seems. Colleges, especially top-50 schools, ask this because they want to craft a diverse freshman student body. In addition, saying that you may want to keep doing an activity shows a prolonged interest. Therefore, if you think you may want to participate in the activity in college, answer “Yes.” This answer won’t be binding in any way, and colleges aren’t going to follow-up. You won’t get any messages like “did you really join Spanish Society? You told us you would…”
When should you answer “No”? If the extracurricular in question has a natural end, like a summer program or project, or if you just don’t think you want to continue, it’s totally fine if you answer “No”. Think honestly about your college plans, and don’t worry if you have a few activities you’re not interested in pursuing further—admissions officers will understand.
The Common App activities section can add spunk and spice to your application. What have you done? Where do you spend your time? What makes you special? I hope that these tips will help when the time comes to fill out your application. Until then, happy applying!
Not ready to write your common app activities section yet? Check out our post on how to improve your extracurriculars!