Common App: Optimizing the Activities Section

We have made it to September and seniors are knee-deep in the college admissions process. It’s important to keep an eye out for ways to optimize your applications and on the Common App, one way to do that is through the activities section.

Here are some tips to help your activities shine.  Note that the majority of this advice applies to other applications as well. 

Think outside the box! The Common App has a broad definition of what it considers extracurricular activities.  It does not have to be an organized activity. Do you cook 4-5 days a week, whether it’s due to family responsibility or just a hobby?  Do you babysit your younger siblings while your parents work? Do you fix computers for your friends and family? These are all considered activities by the Common App. 

Choose your activities wisely. The Common App allows students to add up to 10 activities.  While many students haven’t participated in that many activities (which is totally fine!), others have trouble narrowing their options down.  When deciding which activities to include consider the following:

  • The application also asks for the approximate number of weeks/year and hours/week you spend on that activity. This means that you’ll want to first add more time-consuming options before moving to any one-off volunteer days or projects. Admission counselors tend to value loyalty, so if you’ve been part of a tournament all 4 years of high school that should also take priority, even if it’s only once a year. 

  • This section is a great way for the admission counselors to learn about who you are outside of the classroom. Keep the activities that you’re most excited by towards the top of the list, as it helps convey your interests. 

  • Don’t worry if you have more than 10 activities you want the admission counselors to know about. Many colleges allow you to upload a full extracurricular resume as part of your application. Alternatively, you may be able to find ways to reference additional extracurriculars in your supplemental essays. 

Be strategic when describing your activities.  You only have 150 characters to describe each activity (with an additional 50 characters to state your position/title and organization name). Focus on the following to use your limited space wisely: 

  • Instead of explaining what the organization does, emphasize what you achieved in this role. 

  • Be as specific as possible; instead of “fundraised for XYZ charity” write “raised over $1,000 for XYZ charity.”

  • Vary the descriptions, even if the activities are similar. For example, if you tutored students through two different organizations you might say “raised students’ test scores an average of 10 points” for the first activity and “helped students learn their multiplication tables” for the second activity.

  • Make sure your description is easily understood by the reader, even if they’re not familiar with all of your activities.  Let’s say you’re a member of a political club and were chosen to meet with a local representative. Instead of using just his/her name, be sure to also include a title in case the reader is unaware who “Karen Smith” is. 

  • Don’t worry about using formal sentence structure. Feel free to use incomplete sentences, lists, and small abbreviations (such as “HS” for high school) as needed. The admission counselors are aware you’re working with a very limited word count.  

Now’s not the time to be humble. It can be hard to talk frankly about your achievements without feeling like you’re bragging. However, your college applications require you to boast about yourself in a way. Don’t downgrade your success whether it’s how many hours you’ve spent participating in a certain activity, your title/position, or the description. Just be sure you’re not lying or stretching the truth.

Have a question about the activities section that isn’t answered here? Let us know!