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  • Writer's pictureSawyer Earwood, CEP

3 Questions for The Perfect Common App Activities Section

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

What is the Common Application’s activities section? How do you complete it? Why is it important? How is an activities list different than a resume? Most students and families are aware of the college essay, but far fewer know that students will also have to provide an activities list. There are several different ways to format activities depending on the type of college application form used. In this blog post, I’ll be focusing specifically on the Common App activities section and I’m going to give you three questions to help make sure that every activity shines.


Table of Contents:

 

Common App Formatting

As I mentioned in the introduction, this blog post will be focusing on the Common App activities section. Before diving into the three questions, it's important to understand the instructions and limitations of the Common App activities section.

Structure

The Common App activities section provides the space to highlight a maximum of 10 extracurricular activities. Students are given nine prompts to help explain each activity:

  1. Activity Type:

    1. The Common App provides several preset descriptors in a dropdown menu that will be used to help categorize the activity. Here is the list of preset categories provided by the Common App: Academic, Art, Athletics: Club, Athletics: JV/Varsity, Career Oriented, Community Service (Volunteer), Computer/Technology, Cultural, Dance, Debate/Speech, Environmental, Family Responsibilities, Foreign Exchange, Foreign Language, Internship, Journalism/Publication, Junior ROTC, LGBT, Music: Instrumental, Music: Vocal, Religious, Research, Robotics, School Spirit, Science/Math, Social Justice, Student Govt./Politics, Theater/Drama, Work (Paid), Other Club/Activity.

  2. Position/Leadership Description

    1. Maximum: 50 Characters

    2. This is where a student can list their specific title in each activity. Most students will put a fairly generic term here, such as student, volunteer, or player. A generic term is standard for this particular field, but students are encouraged to be as specific as possible. By adding even one descriptor, a student can add a significant amount of detail to the position and save space in the description section. Instead of a student, volunteer, or player, students could describe themselves as a student tutor, food bank volunteer, or quarterback.

  3. Organization Name

    1. Maximum: 100 Characters

    2. For most students. this will be the most straightforward field to complete. The name of whatever organization or group you were participating in should be put here. There are two particular scenarios that are fairly common and cause students to struggle:

      1. Firstly, just because an organization might often be referred to with an abbreviation or acronym, it doesn't mean that the admissions officer will know what it stands for. If you are planning to use any shorthand for an organization name (which I usually advise against whenever possible to avoid), it has to be abundantly clear to the reader who might be unfamiliar with the organization.

      2. Secondly, if the activity is not through a formal organization, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be included in the activities list. If a student is working on an independent project, pursuing mastery of a hobby, or has created their own business the it's important to have an organization name (e.g. self-study, hobby, self-employed, etc.).

  4. Please describe this activity. including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc.

    1. Maximum: 150 Characters

    2. The rest of the blog post will go into specific details on how to formulate meaningful and effective activity descriptions. Some additional things to consider might be discussing how long you've been in the activity (if longer than 9th-12th) and what awards/recognition you or your team might have received.

  5. Participation Grade Levels

    1. The Common App gives students the ability to select what grades in high school they participated in the activity (9th-12th). If a student has been doing the activity since before high school, it’s important to note their extended involvement in the description.

  6. Timing of Participation

    1. Similar to the previous question about grade levels, the Common App allows students to indicate if they participated in this activity during the fall semester, spring semester, or throughout the entire year.

  7. Hours Spent Per Week

    1. Most students will start to panic when they see these next two fields and realize that the Common App is asking them for a specific quantity of hours dedicated to each activity. There are some high-achieving students, or students that go to schools with particularly methodical college counseling departments, who might actually have a catalog of hours spent doing a specific extracurricular. The reality is that 99+% of students don't have any sort of hourly logging system. A student should do their best to estimate a realistic and representative amount of time for their participation in an activity. It doesn't have to be exact and no one is going to fact check your response if it's done in good faith.

  8. Weeks Spent Per Year

    1. Much of the discussion from the previous field still applies here. My only new suggestion would be to take some time and figure out how many weeks are in the summer, the spring semester, the fall semester, and the academic school year. Generally speaking, if you can figure out those time frames in terms of weeks, it should cover the majority of your activities.

  9. Do you intend to participate in this activity in college?

    1. This is another question that tends to cause some worry for students. Many students have no desire to continue an extracurricular in college, but they're worried that if they select "no" it might affect their admission decision. While I can only speak anecdotally from my own experience in an admissions office, I can confidently say that no admissions professional I've spoken with puts significant weight on the answer to this questions. Additionally, even if a student answers "yes" and changes their mind later, the admissions office will not hunt them down on campus to rescind their offer of admission. If a student is particularly distrustful of the college application process, there's no strategic reason to not answer "yes" for every activity (although I discourage this). In my opinion, if a student is not offered admission due to telling the truth, then that school is likely not a good fit for them.

Limitations

  • Number of Activities:

    • The Common App activities section is fairly straightforward about how many activities you can list within the application. Each student is given space for a maximum of 10 activities. For most students, 10 activities is more than enough to encompass their extracurricular commitments in high school. For other students, 10 spaces for activities is not enough space for everything they've done during high school. It's important to remember that quality is more valuable than quantity in this scenario and it's ok for students to not fill out all 10 activities.

  • Character Count:

    • The Common App activities section is notorious for having significantly less space than most students are used to for describing activities. The good news is that the position/title and organization name are fairly generous with their character limits, which can be utilized strategically. The bad news is that there is an 150 character maximum on the description for each activity. For those well-versed in Twitter, you will recognize that this character count is only a little bit longer than half a tweet. Creating meaningful definitions in such a confined space is a common hurdle for students, and one of the reasons that we have them utilize the three questions exercise.

Strategies

  • Choosing Activities:

    • Since there are only 10 spaces to list activities, some students will have to be mindful of which activities they choose to add to their list. Obviously, the activities in which a student most heavily invests should be present (meaning activities in which students devote the most time, energy, and passion). Another consideration is making sure that the activities selected showcase a holistic picture of the student. If a student has 15 activities involving a pre-med path (research, shadowing, summer camps, etc.) that's great, but it's important to prioritize the top five pre-med activities to save room for any additional activities in which they might have been involved (art, volunteering, hobbies, etc.). Another important consideration is the topic or prompts for the college essays. A student should strive to not just repeat their activities list in their essay, but rather expanding on important activities or introducing new ones can be a great way to enhance the activities list outside of the character limits.

  • Order of Activities:

    • With a limit of 10 activities, students need to carefully think about the ordering of the extracurricular engagement. In particular, students are encouraged to put their strongest activities and engagements at the top of the list to hook the admissions officer. Another consideration is how a student can organize their 10 activities into smaller thematic groupings to help the admissions officer more easily track their engagement with particular topics, themes, or interests.

  • The Three Questions:

    • Now that all the groundwork for the Common App activities section is in place, it's time to finally jump into the three questions that every student should ask themselves to create an effective and informative activities description. In the following section, I'll explain why each of these questions is important and how to apply them within the activities section.

    • Question 1: What did you do?

    • Question 2: How did you do it?

    • Question 3: Why was it important?

 

Question 1: What did you do?

  • Why ask this question?

    • For this question we want to tackle the high/macro-level of what happened during your time in this activity. The answer to this question ideally should be very general and cover the overall achievements or goals of the activity/organization.

  • Example Activity:

    • Activity Type:

      • Community Service (Volunteer)

    • Position/Leadership Description (Max 47/50 Characters):

      • Boys' Service Club President (12)/Member (9-11)

    • Organization Name (Max 34/100 Characters):

      • Bayside Academy Boys' Service Club

    • Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc. (Max 150 Characters):

      • Focus on the question, "What did you do?"

      • Led a group of ~25 students in local volunteer work...

      • 51/150 Characters

    • Participation Grade Levels:

      • 9, 10, 11, 12

    • Timing of Participation:

      • All Year

    • Hours Spent Per Week:

      • ~1.5 Hours (36 15-minute meetings + 40 hours minimum service work)

    • Weeks Spent Per Year:

      • ~36 Weeks (Duration of School Year)

    • Do you intend to participate in this activity in college:

      • Yes

 

Question 2: How did you do it?

  • Why ask this question?

    • At this point you should have a brief summary of what you did or accomplished in the activity. The next thing to focus on is how you completed, organized, or participated in this activity. Good job being the president of a service club, but so what? How you accomplished the goals of the organization is arguably more important than what goals you accomplished. Was this organization already planned and funded? Did you really do much work? Were the events already planned? Alternatively, did you create this organization? Did you have to hustle to generate a stable treasury? Did you create new events or change the organization in a long-term way?

    • Your goal is to take advantage of the activity description section by providing examples to support your skills or accomplishments. Here are two different examples of how one might describe the goals they accomplished. One of these examples focuses on specific milestones and events, while the other focuses on the skillsets or attributes utilized to accomplish the goals.

  • Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc. (Max 150 Characters):

    • Now, let's focus on the question, "How did you do it? [Milestones]"

    • Led a group of ~25 students in local volunteer work... joined in 9th, elected as president, planned Honor Flight, Christmas Angel, Art Fair, and Chili Cookoff events...

    • 110/150 Characters

    • Alternatively, "How did you do it? [Personal Skills/Traits]"

    • Led a group of ~25 students in local volunteer work... budgeted, scheduled, organized, and participated in 4 annual events...

    • 67/150 Characters

 

Question 3: Why was it important?

  • Why ask this question?

    • Previous questions have tackled the what you did and how you did it. Most people are aware of the importance of the first two questions, but in my experience, the real differentiator is being able to convey why something you did was important. Answering why something was important can be a difficult task, especially given the limited amount of space. Even if your answer doesn't fit into a description of an activity, you should definitely understand why you participated in an activity and why it was important to both you and the larger community. One of the clearest signs that a student is doing an activity for vanity is the inability to effectively answer why questions.

  • Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc. (Max 150 Characters):

    • Finally, let's focus on the question, "Why was it important?"

    • Led a group of ~25 students in local volunteer work... joined in 9th, elected as president, planned Honor Flight, Christmas Angel, Art Fair, and Chili Cookoff events... contributed to positive and helpful change in the local community.

    • 67/150 Characters

    • Led a group of ~25 students in local volunteer work... budgeted, scheduled, organized, and participated in 4 annual events... contributed to positive and helpful change in the local community.

    • 67/150 Characters

 

Assembly

After answering our three questions, all that remains is synthesizing the information and assembling the description to be within the 150 character limit. So what do we have so far?

  1. Led a group of ~25 students in local volunteer work... joined in 9th, elected as president, planned Honor Flight, Christmas Angel, Art Fair, and Chili Cookoff events... contributed to positive and helpful change in the local community.

    1. 230/150 Characters

  2. Led a group of ~25 students in local volunteer work... budgeted, scheduled, organized, and participated in 4 annual events... contributed to positive and helpful change in the local community.

    1. 185/150 Characters

Oh dear! It looks like combining my responses to the three questions puts the description over the character limit. Now its time for the most important part of creating activity descriptions: assembly. Let's see if rearranging and shortening these three ideas can keep the substance while reducing the character count.

  1. Led, budgeted, and organized ~25 volunteers to create positive change in the local community by volunteering 40+ hours in addition to 4 annual events.

    1. 150/150

Overall, I think that this new version still captures all three answers without going over the character limit. It's also important to remember that not every description will have everything you want. For example, I would have liked to keep some of the specific event examples y, but the specific events had to get cut for length. Some people might also push back about me not mentioning the election or presidency. Thanks to the format of the Common App, we've already included the election/presidency in the Position/Leadership Description. If I decided to write an essay about this activity, I could pull in more specific details such as the annual events, elections, or changes during my presidency of the club.

 

Conclusion

When we think about the job of a college application, the main goal is to convey your values, skills, and personal context. By asking these three questions you can elevate your activities list from a regurgitation of facts to an analysis of what you did, how you did it, and why it was important. For most students, the application is the first, last, and only time they might meet their admissions officer. With admission officers reading at a rate of 10-15 applications each hour, every character (literally) counts when expressing who you are and why you should be part of a college's community.

With all my support,

Sawyer Earwood

Independent College Counselor

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors





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