Mastering the Activities Section of the Common Application
College applicants are infamously known to stress about their essays. And it’s not uncommon for students to spend weeks (if not months) brainstorming their ideal essay topic and then editing it down to perfection. But there’s another section of the Common Application that also requires a great deal of writing yet receives far less attention. Some application readers would argue that it also happens to be the section that applicants most often overlook and under appreciate.
What is it?
The “Activities” page: a single form that invites students to describe up to 10 of their most interesting, meaningful, and important extra-curricular activities – from arts and athletics to clubs and summer commitments. Looking for another way to help your application stand out from the pack? Follow these 12 pointers for crafting a rich and memorable Common App activities page.
- DO be sure to list the actual name of the club/activity on the “Position/Leadership” line. Otherwise, colleges will know you’re “Secretary,” but they won’t be sure which club you belong to.
- DO list your most impressive and relevant activities near the top of the list. In the event that an admissions officer only has time to skim your activities page, you’ll want to ensure the first few items are the most compelling.
- DO choose a different word at the beginning of each description line. Vary your vocabulary to bring linguistic interest to your list, and avoid vague words that don’t reveal any particular skill. Implemented, collaborated, initiated, coached, led, coordinated, and researched are some of my favorites.
- DO use present tense for activities that are ongoing; past tense for those that have concluded. For example, if you’re no longer a member of the school orchestra, you “performed in bi-annual concerts.” If you’re still involved, you “perform.”
- DO keep your punctuation consistent. If you opt to end one of your descriptions with a period, make sure they all conclude that way.
- DO give specific details about your club, rather than providing general explanations. For example, if you helped with fundraising efforts through Key Club, also mention the actual amount of money you raised, in addition to the name of the charity that received the funds.
- DO inject some personality in your descriptions. Admissions officers know what “soccer” is, so why not describe the activity with a sense of humor or mention how you enjoy the camaraderie and sportsmanship aspects of the game the most?
- DO think outside the box for which activities to list. You are not limited to only including school-sponsored clubs and organizations. If you spend 10 hours per week babysitting at home – list it! If you enjoy tinkering with computers in your spare time – that counts, too!
- DON’T check “yes” for the “I intend to participate in a similar activity in college” question for all of your activities. Unless you genuinely want to engage in those types of activities in college, you should mark down the occasional “no.” A long list of “yeses” can look awfully suspicious.
- DON’T provide scant descriptions for your clubs and activities or type “see attached résumé.” Follow the rules and complete the activities page as fully as possible. Most colleges don’t allow students to upload separate résumés anyway, and those that do may have little time to actually review them.
- DON’T exaggerate your time commitments. Admissions officers know you need to sleep, and they also know that most clubs meet on average of one hour per week. Be truthful, and don’t embroider the facts.
- DON’T feel bad if you have fewer than 10 activities to list on the Common Application. Admissions officers favor depth over breadth, so it’s perfectly all right if you’ve left a few blank lines at the end of the page. As long as your other activities are well-documented and robust in their own right, listing just a handful of clubs/organizations is okay!
Check out Elyse’s other Common App articles:
Listen to Elyse’s segments on the 2015-16 Common App on Getting In: A College Coach Conversation:
The “Activities” section of the Common App is one way you show colleges that you’re more than a number. This is a place to showcase what you’ve done outside of class. The Activities section looks simple, and it is -- if you remember to avoid these 15 mistakes!
Mistake #1: Leaving out significant activities.
An activity is anything you’ve spent time on outside of class. It’s not just stuff you do with official clubs or organizations. That job you have, or that time you spend caring and cooking for your little brother? Yep, both are activities. But what does “significant” mean? If the activity took up a lot of your time or had a big impact on you, it’s significant. Count it!
Mistake #2: Using bland verbs.
Verbs are spice. You wouldn’t want to eat food without flavor, and no admission officer wants to read an Activities section without tasty verbs. Where to find these verbs? Start with these "résumé verbs." Easy.
Mistake #3: Repeating verbs.
You have hundreds of verbs and only a few activities. No need to repeat those résumé verbs! Show your pride in your application by switching up your verbs. Go beyond “organized,” “helped,” and “led.”
Mistake #4: Using complete sentences.
You don’t have much space for each entry, so forget about complete sentences. Sentence fragments that start with your résumé verbs are just fine.
Mistake #5: Not using numbers.
Which sounds more impressive, “raised money” or “raised $1,000”? “Collected canned food” or “collected 100 cans of food?” “Tutored a group of students in math” or “tutored a group of 5 students on 10 pre-algebra concepts”? You get the idea. Numbers are a compact way to show the importance of what you’ve done.
Mistake #6: Forgetting to mention awards or positions held.
Whether you were the MVP of your soccer team or the president of your debate club, you need to let the college know. The simplest way is to write the award or position, followed by the grade level. For example, type “Captain (11)” to show that you were captain junior year.
Mistake #7: Failing to include highlights of your involvement.
Don’t just say “Organized events.” Keep going. Say “Organized events such as canned food drives and clothing drives.” I know, those are just two of dozens of your contributions, but space is limited. What was your biggest contribution? Your best moment? Your deepest impact? Describe your one or two best highlights as specifically as you can.
Mistake #8: Including too many activities.
The Common App gives you 10 spaces. You only have 4 activities. You panic. Are 4 activities enough? Relax. It’s about quality, not quantity. If you have 4 activities, that’s fine. Fill in 4 slots and move on.
Mistake #9: Including too few activities.
This is for the overachievers out there who have more than 10 significant activities. Don’t panic when you see there are only 10 spaces for activities. Go to the “Additional Information” box in the “Writing” section of the Common App, and type a heading called “Additional Activities.” Write your extra activities below.
Mistake #10: Stressing about calculating exact weeks and hours.
The Common App asks you to indicate the number of weeks per year and hours per week you spent on each activity. Of course you haven’t tracked that. No one has. Just come up with a reasonable estimate. So long as you’re not exaggerating your hours -- like by using a number so big you couldn’t possibly have had time to sleep and eat -- don’t worry about it.
Mistake #11: Not splitting certain activities into two entries.
With some activities like music or sports, you’re involved in more than one group. For example, you play in the school orchestra and a string quartet, or you play for the high school team and a club team. The easy solution? Split that one entry into two entries. For the music example, that would mean one entry for the school orchestra and one for the string quartet. Just make sure the total hours number is right to avoid over-counting or double-counting.
Mistake #12: Using inconsistent formatting and punctuation.
Choose one format for the top line of the activity entry, and stick with it. My go-to suggestion is this: Organization Name: Position (Grade Level). For example: Key Club: Treasurer (11). Whichever format you use, use it for all your activities. The same goes for punctuation. It doesn’t matter whether or not you end each entry with a period, but be consistent. And yes, please do capitalize the first word of each entry.
Mistake #13: Using abbreviations no one understands.
Sure, we know that “Co.” means company and “Gov’t.” means government. But FLSK or OIQ? No one has a clue. Whenever possible, spell out those weird abbreviations. Sometimes, you won’t have enough space. It’s not a big deal. If the reader understands the type of organization but not the name, that’s enough. And if this really bothers you, consider using the Additional Information box in the Writing section to spell it all out.
Mistake #14: Listing your activities in the wrong order.
List the activities in order of most important to least important. If you’ve already entered your activities, no, you don’t have to delete and start over -- just use the arrow button to re-order your entries.
Mistake #15: Not proofreading your activities before submitting your application.
By proofreading, I don’t mean skimming. I mean printing out a paper copy and reading the words out loud to yourself. Out loud. That’s the only way for you to feel confident you’ve caught all your typos. Bonus tip: Do this for your Common App essay, too!
It's Worth the Effort!
All this is time-consuming, yes, but difficult? No. You’ve worked hard on your activities. You owe it to yourself to describe them well. Avoid these 15 mistakes, and you’ll be off to a great start!
Jon is an admissions consultant who holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He advises students on their applications to college, law school, and medical school.