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How to Fill Out the Common App Activities Section
The activities section is one of the most important parts of your application, particularly if you are applying to very selective colleges. Many students who apply to these schools have top GPAs and test scores, so extracurricular activities are one of the best ways to differentiate yourself from the rest of the applicant pool and make yourself stand out as an exceptional candidate.
Colleges want to know what your life is like outside of the classroom. Have you developed strong interests over time? Are you a leader? They are looking for students who are potential pioneers in their future fields. While college is certainly a place to explore new interests, admissions committees want to see that you have an idea of the kinds of activities about which you are curious and at which you might excel, so that college will nurture these talents and push you to succeed further.
You should spend some time considering what to include in the activities section of the Common Application. There are certain limits, so it essential to be selective and concise. Unlike your education and testing, you have control over what to include and how to describe your activities, so you should put some thought into it.
Types of Activities and Positions Held
The Common Application offers a dropdown menu with the following activities from which to select:
Community Service (Volunteer)
For each activity you include on your application, choose the appropriate category. If you find that a particular activity fits into multiple categories, choose the more specific one (e.g. Math Club would go into Science/Math as opposed to Academic). If the activity fits into two equally specific categories, choose the more relevant one. You will have the opportunity to expand in the description if you need to do so.
Since the list is fairly broad, you will probably find that your activity fits into at least one of the sections available. If not, select “Other Club/Activity” and identify it in the Position/Leadership description and organization name section. In this case, unless the position and organization names are fairly self-explanatory or very recognizable, you will need to be a bit more specific in your description.
While many of these activities are fairly general, such as Academic and School Spirit, a few of them refer to specific positions or organizations. Junior R.O.T.C., for example, refers to Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a Federal Program sponsored by the U.S. Armed Forces. Accordingly, you should only list that activity if you actually participate in that specific organization.
Colleges do want to see that you are specialized, but you probably don’t want to choose the same category for every activity. If it seems like you are choosing one category for everything, try to diversify a bit and think about how activities can be related without being exactly the same thing. For example, if you are the secretary in student government and participated in a leadership program over the summer, select Student Government/Politics for the secretary position, and Career Oriented for the leadership program. Both categories indicate that you are a driven and leader, but they present different facets of your personality.
Selecting Activities to Include
The activities section has a limit of ten activities. The restrictions mean you will need to be selective in reporting your extracurricular activities, limiting you to the most important ones or those that are most meaningful to you. If you need to add more activities, use the additional information section or your essay if you choose a relevant topic. However, you should only do so if these activities are truly essential to the admissions committee’s understanding of your extracurricular life.
Many schools allow you to submit a resume in addition to your application. Not only does doing so allow you to include more activities, but also provides more space for you to expand on the descriptions of your activities, since you are not limited to a certain number of characters.
Also remember that you don’t have to list ten activities just because the space is available; some activities require much more of a commitment than others.
Keep in mind that some schools report in-school activities such as student government, clubs, and awards on the transcripts they will send to colleges on your behalf. Review your transcript or check with your guidance counselor to see if this is the case at your school, because if it is, it may not be necessary to repeat it in the activities section. You will be able to report more activities this way, if that is a concern for you.
For each activity, the form will ask you in which grade levels you participated in the activity, the timing of your participation (school year vs. school break), and how many hours you spent on it per week and weeks per year. These questions can help you narrow down which activities you include, since you should only be adding the ones to which you are truly dedicated. Colleges want to see that you are committed to your activities, because that indicates passion for something outside of academics that you will bring to college and hopefully beyond.
Bear in mind that activities you took on later in high school are more meaningful than those you participated in earlier. That doesn’t mean you should add five new extracurriculars your senior year; admissions committees will see through that. However, if there is a particular club you were involved with freshman year that you didn’t continue, it’s better to include something you began junior year and developed further.
If you played tennis all four years of high school and became captain of your school team senior year, that is an activity to include in this section. On the other hand, if you dabbled in the clarinet briefly in ninth grade before quitting, it’s probably a good idea to skip that one.
There may be some activities that are naturally limited to a set time period or commitment, such as a summer academic program or sports camp. Don’t worry that colleges will see the brevity of your involvement as a negative factor if this is the case; they understand that some activities simply have an imposed beginning and ending that are not within your control. You will have a chance to indicate the timing of the activity—during school year, during school break, or all year—and colleges will take that into consideration when evaluating the activity. Additionally, if you have participated in related activities, colleges will see the pattern of your interest and commitment.
Position/Leadership Description and Organization Name
After you choose the activity type, the application will ask you to describe the position you held (or hold) and the organization name. This section is limited to fifty characters.
Be as specific as possible here. If you participate in a club, define your role, rather than just listing “member.” If you participated in an activity for multiple years and have had multiple roles within it, choose the highest-ranking position you held. For instance, someone who participated in his or her school newspaper as a reporter for two years and became editor should list “editor.”
You should also be specific in defining the organization. If it has a name, say it, and define what it is if that is unclear. If the activity is typically referred to by an acronym, be sure to list the full name, as you never want to assume that admissions committees will be familiar with the activity to which you are referring.
Writing the Description
You are limited to 150 characters for details, accomplishments, honors won, and accomplishments within each activity, so you will need to be concise and offer only the most pertinent details. If you absolutely need more room to thoroughly explain truly important details about the activity, use the additional information section to expand, or describe it in more detail in your essay if it relates to the topic you choose.
Remember that this section is not there for you to prove your eloquence as writer; you have the essay to do that. Rather, this serves to inform the admissions committee about your life outside school as succinctly as possible. Use active verbs and limit the use of adjectives and adverbs. You don’t need to use complete sentences. Be as specific as you can be in the space available. If you hold a leadership position, emphasize that role in your description.
Try to focus on quantitative descriptions over qualitative ones. Adding numerical values offers concrete proof of your success, and can show colleges how you were involved specifically. If you are a leader in the activity, mention how many members the group has, how many people you serve if applicable, how many people your work affected, and so on.
Try not to be redundant, especially considering the limited space. For instance, if you are the president of the tutoring club at your school, you don’t need to list “tutoring” in the description, since colleges are likely to consider that a given; instead, emphasize your duties as president, how you manage and distribute tasks, and how you work with club members. If you want to talk about the actual tutoring in more detail, discuss your approach—e.g. “meet with students one-on-one, develop study aids, and create practice examples.”
Position/Leadership description and organization name, if applicable: Editor, The Daily (school newspaper)
Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc.: Run weekly meetings, brainstorm ideas, assign and revise 10 articles/week, collaborate with printer to distribute 500 copies to students and faculty.
Participating Grade Levels
The application will ask you in which grade levels you participated in a particular activity. The key is as follows:
9-12: High School Grades
Post-graduate: after high school
If you participated in an activity over the summer between grade levels, choose the rising or later grade level (e.g. the summer between 10th and 11th grades should be listed as 11th grade).
Estimating Time Commitment
When you estimate the amount of time you spent on a particular activity, it doesn’t need to be exact. However, it does need to be realistic. If you claim to spend ten hours per week on all ten activities, colleges will know you’re exaggerating, to say the least. It’s understandable that you spend more time on some activities than others.
If you are having trouble estimating your time commitment, try keeping a time log for a couple weeks and provide an average.
Participation in College
The last question for each activity asks you whether or not you plan to continue a similar activity in college. The application asks this because colleges want to know what kind of student you will be when you arrive. Remember, they are looking for a diverse student body filled with future leaders in their fields. If you intend to continue a particular pursuit in college, it shows them that you are truly interested and dedicated to it. To some degree, they also want to see that you are doing the activity because you are truly passionate about it, not just because you want to impress colleges.
That doesn’t mean you have to continue it. Some activities have a natural end and simply aren’t adaptable to a college environment, such as a club particular to your high school. Or perhaps you just don’t want to continue it. But if it is something you don’t really care about, you may want to reevaluate whether or not it is a good idea to include it in your application.
Also keep in mind that just because you intend to continue the activity in college at this point does not mean you are obligated to do so when you actually matriculate. Colleges may give your name to members of a club, organization, or activity in which you participate so they can follow up with you, but you are by no means bound to joining when you begin college (unless, of course, you are accepted on an athletic or other scholarship that requires your participation in a certain activity). So by answering “yes” to this question, you are merely indicating that you are interested in continuing the activity.
A Few Other Considerations
List your activities in order of importance. To delete an activity, move it to the bottom of the list and click delete icon. You can also simply edit the activity to reflect a different one.
You may want to start by watching the short tutorial video available at the top of the section to get started. Try not to feel too overwhelmed—college applications take a lot of work, but the reward is well worth it.
Looking for more guidance on filling out the Common Application? Our applications advisers are here to help! Click here to learn more about our College Application Guidance Program.