How to Write About Extracurriculars on the Common App
It’s a conundrum countless students have faced during the college applications process: you’ve dedicated innumerable hours to your favorite club, risen in the ranks to become president your senior year, organized what feels like hundreds of lunchtime meetings – but when it finally comes time to describe those accomplishments on your college applications, you draw a blank.
It’s not easy to describe the activities you’re most proud of within 150 characters, and it’s even harder to describe them in a way that adequately conveys the time, energy, and hard work you’ve devoted to them. However, there are some ways to make the most of the space you’re given and describe your extracurriculars in a way that best showcase your dedication and passion.
In order to write effectively about extracurriculars, the first step is selecting extracurriculars that will present the best image of yourself to colleges. While it may be tempting to put down as many extracurriculars as you can think of, or list activities that you think will sound very impressive even if you weren’t very heavily involved, colleges aren’t looking for the candidate who attended 15 club meetings once and never made another appearance. Instead they want students who demonstrate commitment, leadership, and passion. Select activities to which you devoted significant time, were involved with over the course of more than one year, and if possible, in which you served leadership roles. Once you’ve selected the activities you plan to write about, you can focus on how exactly to write about them. Keep in mind also that the most competitive applicants always fill out the 10 slots on the Common App Activities list, so you should aim to do so too.
One of the most important things to keep in mind while describing your extracurriculars is the importance of action-oriented verbs. Many students automatically begin their descriptions with phrases like “responsible for” or “in charge of”, but such phrases actually add virtually nothing to your description (of course you were responsible for something, that’s why you’re putting it on your college applications!) and take up much needed character space. Begin sentences or phrases with action-oriented verbs such as “facilitated”, “managed”, “maintained”, “networked” – words like these carry a connotation of responsibility and ensure that every character allotted to you is used effectively. Using strong verbs also lends your description an active tone, as opposed to the passive tone of “responsible for”, making your description sound more engaging and impressive. Take a look at the example below:
Before: French Club President – Responsible for overseeing club, holding meetings, and increasing membership.
After: French Club President – Facilitated weekly meetings, delegated responsibilities among senior officers, publicized club events and maintained communication via social media.
Another quick way to increase the quality of your description and demonstrate responsibility in your description is to quantify your accomplishments as much as possible. Numbers are objective and easy to understand, while qualitative descriptions can be more subjective and offer a less clear picture of your degree of involvement. If you can assign numerical values to your accomplishments, your description becomes more credible and readers can better understand the amount of work you’ve devoted to an activity. For example, if you ran a book drive, name the amount of books that were donated; if you led a fundraiser, name the amount of money raised; if you were president of a club, name the number of people in the club and the number of officers who worked under you. Quantitative descriptions, like action-oriented verbs, are a way to demonstrate responsibility and involvement while still using words economically. See how significant an impact using numbers can have on your description:
Before: Annual Holiday Charity Publicist – Networked with students, local business, and school administration to publicize largest student-run event on campus.
After: Annual Holiday Charity Publicist – Networked with 4000+ students and 13 local businesses to publicize largest student-run event which receives over $15k worth of donations annually.
Another important thing to remember while describing extracurriculars is that sometimes the actual work done is not as important as the skills learned. For example, let’s say you worked at a supermarket all throughout high school; you felt like you learned so much working there, but you don’t think colleges will be very impressed by your job description, which included restocking the shelves, manning the cash register, and organizing carts. Rather than focus your description solely on the actions you completed, emphasize the valuable skills you learned. See below:
Before: Safeway Grocery Clerk – Restocked supply shelves, worked at cash register, created product displays, fielded customer service requests.
After: Safeway Grocery Clerk – Performed clerk, customer service, and cashier duties, developed skills in cooperative work, time management, and interpersonal communications.
Above all, remember to be specific! While applications give you ample opportunity to describe the vast amount of time you’ve committed to an activity, all that time doesn’t mean much if you don’t execute correctly. The best way to showcase dedication and interest is through concrete accomplishments and specific references to what you achieved in your position. Be sure that the description you give is not a general description of your club, team, or other activity as a whole, but the role you played. While for some activities and organizations you may need to give a brief description in order to contextualize your accomplishments, for most extracurriculars you don’t need to waste space describing the purpose of your club or team more generally. Chances are, admissions officers will already know.
Before: Mock Trial Attorney – Attorney on Mock Trial team, in which students are given a court case and write arguments for either side in a simulation of a criminal trial.
After: Mock Trial Attorney – Delivered direct and cross examinations of principal witness for prosecution and defendant, named MVP in county competition.
Despite the frustration that accompanies trying to summarize 3 years of dedicated participation on a sports team or volunteering with a charity in 150 characters, employing the above techniques will help you communicate as effectively as possible your accomplishments in high school and stand out to admissions officers.