common application

by Elyse Krantz, former admissions officer at Barnard College

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 our college admissions experts would like to point out 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 extracurricular activities – from arts and athletics to part-time jobs and summer commitments. Looking for another way to help your application stand out from the pack? Follow these pointers for crafting a rich and memorable Common App activities page.

  • DO make the most of your 150 characters. This 1 tip is exactly 149 characters long. Use every inch to demonstrate your impact beyond the classroom.
  • DO list your most impressive and relevant activities near the top. In the event that an admissions officer only skims your activities page, you’ll want to ensure the first few items are the most compelling.
  • DO include a grade level when listing a club title. If you were Treasurer of the National Honor Society in 11th grade and President in 12th, just listing “Treasurer and President” is too vague. Let admissions officers see your leadership progression by typing “Treasurer (11), President (12).”
  • 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, designed, coached, led, coordinated, and researched are some of our favorites.
  • DO add activities that were impacted by COVID-19. If space allows, mention the competitions, summer programs, and internships you would have participated in had the coronavirus pandemic not affected your plans.
  • DO use present tense for activities that are ongoing and past tense for those that have concluded. For example, if you are no longer a member of the school orchestra, you “played cello with zeal.” If you’re still involved, you “play.”
  • 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 a general explanation. 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 consider combining similar activities. If you don’t have room to list all of your most significant clubs, try grouping similar activities on the same line. “Animal Hospital Volunteer and Pet Sitter” both showcase your love and care for furry creatures.
  • DO inject some personality into your descriptions. Admissions officers know what “soccer” is, so instead of describing it as “Played games with my team and competed in weekly events,” 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 waste space by writing an impersonal description.Member of robotics team that actively participates in regional and championship competitions” reveals nothing new about you. Show admissions officers your personal contribution to the team or how you directly impacted the club’s performance.
  • 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 organizations in the future, 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. Many colleges don’t allow students to upload separate résumés anyway, and those that do may have little time to review them.
  • DON’T exaggerate your time commitments. Admissions officers know you need to sleep, and they also know that most clubs meet an 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!

Want More Common App Tips?

Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Elyse received her BA in linguistics from Dartmouth College and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining College Coach, Elyse worked as an admissions officer at Barnard College and Bennington College. Visit our website to learn more about Elyse Krantz.