How to Stand Out on the Common App Activities Section

Share your accomplishments in a way that shines.

How to Stand Out on the Common App Activities Section Shemmassian Academic Consulting.jpg

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Part 1: Overview

In addition to the dreaded 650-word personal statement and college-specific supplemental essays, your child will have to complete the Common App Activities section.

Whereas the personal statement will show college admissions committees who your child is, the Common App Activities section will allow colleges to understand what your child has done and is doing outside of the classroom, offering one of the best opportunities to stand out among other applicants.

Without college essays and extracurricular activities lists, colleges would be limited to grades, class rank, and ACT and SAT scores to make their admissions decisions. Given that so many students with strong numbers apply to college each year, it’s important for your child to use the Activities section to develop an application theme, that is, their “it factor” and specialties.

Before we get into writing tips and sample extracurricular descriptions, let’s go over a few Activities section basics:

What qualifies as an activity?

According to Common App, “activities may include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits.” In other words, pretty much anything pursued outside the classroom qualifies as an activity.

How many activities can be listed?

Your child may list up to 10 activities.

What are the word or character limits for each activity?

Common App sets the following limits for each activity:

  • Position/Leadership description and organization name, if applicable: 50 characters
  • Activity description, including what your child accomplished and any recognition they received, etc.: 150 characters

As you can see, there is very limited space offered for each activity, so we’ll be discussing how to maximize the impact of each entry below.

What other information does Common App collect for each activity?

Common App requests the following information for each activity:

  • Activity type (e.g., Art, Athletics, Community Service, Debate/Speech, Foreign Language, Research, Social Justice, Work)
  • Participation grade levels (9, 10, 11, 12, Post-graduate)
  • Timing of participation (During school year, During school break, All year)
  • Hours spent per week
  • Weeks spent per year
  • Whether or not your child intends to participate in a similar activity in college (Yes/No)

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Part 2: Writing Strategies

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s discuss some proven approaches to completing a strong Activities section:

1. Include role and organization name in the top box

The first three fields for each Activity on Common App look like this:

Common App Activities Section Shemmassian Academic Consulting.JPG

After selecting an Activity type from the drop-down menu, your child should describe their position and organization name in the corresponding box. That way, your child can use the full 150-character limit for the activity description box.

For example, rather than writing “Student council” or “President”, your child should write “Student council president”.

2. Do not repeat words from the position description box in the activity description box

Continuing with the student council president example: Instead of writing, “As president of the student body, I was responsible for…”, your child should write, “Responsible for meeting agendas, liaising with administration, and implementing school initiatives, such as free textbooks for low-income families.”

3. Focus on quantifiable and significant impact

Many applicants undersell their achievements because they don’t get specific enough about their contributions. For example, rather than write something like, “Organized food can drive for local families”, your child should write, “Collected over 10,000 cans and provided Thanksgiving meals for 500 families in greater Cleveland.” With details like that, your child’s impact will be unquestionable to admissions committees.

4. List tasks and avoid complete sentences to make room for more detail

Colleges understand that your child does not have enough space to provide in-depth descriptions of each activity. Therefore, rather than write, for example, “At the hospital, I transported patients with physical disabilities on wheelchairs…”, your child should write, “Transported patients on wheelchairs, provided meals and blankets, assembled gift baskets, and attended grand rounds.”

5. Describe current activities using present tense

For instance, rather than, “I tutored seventh graders in science”, your child should write, “I help seventh graders master challenging science concepts.”

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Part 3: Advanced Strategies

1. List activities in order of importance and impressiveness

Activities listed earlier will be better remembered by admissions committees, so your child should lead with their most impactful and meaningful ones. Moreover, by capturing admissions committees’ positive attention early on, they will review the rest of your child’s Activities list more favorably.

2. Make activities sound as impressive as possible

Dr. Cal Newport first popularized the concept of the failed simulation effect, defined as follows: “Accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do.” Therefore, within each activity’s description, your child should describe accomplishments that are hardest to explain. For example, if your child blogs about mental health and had an opportunity to meet with a local city councilperson to develop a mental health awareness initiative in your county, they should mention that. (see other examples in our article published on NBC’s Parent Toolkit) It’s important to note, however, that your child should never fabricate or exaggerate achievements and activities for the sake of impressiveness.

3. Chunk related activities together to develop a theme

College admissions committees look not only for activities in which your child has participated for a number of years, but also for groups of related activities. For example, let’s compare the following students’ activities:

Student 1

  • High school basketball team captain
  • Model United Nations award winner
  • Piano club president
  • Elementary school English tutor

Student 2

  • High school basketball team member
  • Youth basketball team coach
  • Organized local basketball tournament for kids with special needs
  • Interned with local professional basketball team’s analytics department

Clearly, Student 2 passes the failed simulation effect test while also demonstrating significant impact and achievement through a single area—basketball. On the other hand, Student 1 lists unrelated activities that make them seem well-rounded, but nothing particularly stands out. Collectively, Student 2’s activities will be more memorable and seem more impressive than Student 1’s.

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Part 4: Activities Section Example

Google Virtual Reality (VR) Intern

Coded VR environments for various software prototypes, some of which were featured at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show.

Code for Community Founder and President

Organize coding camps for middle and high schoolers from inner-city Chicago whose schools do not offer computer science classes.

Coding Club President

Major projects include developing software for school to track student grades, assignments, and parent communications.

Tae Kwon Do Assistant Instructor

Train 5- to 6-year-old martial arts students to develop proper technique and instill confidence.

Tae Kwon Do Trainee

Achieved black belt at age 16 and currently training for state tournament.

Writing Peer Counselor

Supported high school students with all forms of writing, including in-class assignments, AP exam essays, and school newspaper articles.

Math Tutor

Support struggling middle and high school students with Algebra 1 and 2, Geometry, Precalculus, and Calculus.

Cru Club President

Host monthly speaking events with athletes, principals, etc. for 80 students from all over Chicago to help them discover aspects of their purpose.

AP Scholar with Distinction

Passed 100% of all 8 AP exams I have taken with an average score of 4.25.

Principal’s List

Achieved a 4.0 or higher GPA during every year of high school.

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Part 5: Frequently Asked Questions

Question: How does the Common App Activities section differ from the University of California (UC) Activities section?

Answer: The Common App and UC Activities sections differ in three noteworthy ways:

  1. Number of activities: The UC application allows students to list up to 30 activities vs. the Common App’s 10-activity allowance.
  2. Categories: The UC application asks that students enter up to 5 activities in each of the following categories: Coursework other than A-G, Educational Prep Programs, Volunteer & Community Service, Work Experience, Awards & Honors, and Extracurricular Activities
  3. Character count: Whereas Common App allows 150 characters for each activity description, the UC application allows 160 characters for each activity description.

Because the UC application allows for more entries and a higher character count than Common App, it’s advisable that your child complete the UC Activities section first. Then, your child should choose their 10 most meaningful activities for Common App and cut enough characters to get below Common App’s 150-character-per-entry limit.

Question: How should summer jobs and activities be listed?

Answer: Summer jobs and activities should be listed with your child’s rising grade. For example, if your child has already completed 10th grade, they should list their activity with the 11th grade.

Question: What should my child do if their activity type is not listed in the drop-down menu?

Answer: Your child can select “other club/activity” from the drop-down menu and describe the activity further in the position/leadership box.

Question: Is it a problem if my child has fewer than 10 activities to list?

Answer: Not necessarily. College admissions committees value long-term commitments to activities vs. a long list of activities to which an applicant devoted less time and effort.

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