What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

The Common App, Analyzed: 5 Successful Activity Entries Explained

What’s Covered:


It can seem like the Activities section of the Common App gives rise to the most questions, and for good reason. This section features many different moving parts: not only must you describe ten of the most significant extracurricular activities that have filled your free time in high school, but you are also asked to estimate your time commitment to these activities and forced to describe them in 150 characters or fewer.


Even if you’ve identified which ten activities you’ll enumerate and what you want to say about them, you may be wondering what that looks like in practice. Here, we’ll do a deep-dive into the writing process of this section, by picking apart 5 examples of successful “Activity” entries to explain how and why different approaches will serve you well.


A Note on Declaring Time Commitments


Before we get to the good stuff, we’d like to make a quick note on declaring time commitments. Students often feel pressured to overestimate their hourly commitments to clubs in order to make it seem like they have put in more care and effort than they actually have. This is a mistake. You should never lie on your college applications.


It’s natural to have an array of activities that require different time commitments, especially if you are making use of all ten activity slots. Colleges will not expect that every activity you list took up several hours each week. You should, however, consider ranking more time-intensive activities higher up on your list, as these will naturally seem to be your highest priority.


The best way to go about this section, then, is to be as honest and accurate as possible. To begin, count the number of weeks in the school year during which clubs were active. This can feel tedious, but it’s important and is worth the two minutes it will take. You want to make sure that you are reporting a realistic number of hours that is as close to the actual commitment as possible.


Once you’ve determined how many weeks of school you attend per year, the rest will be easy. You can quickly calculate your time commitments by estimating how many times per week each club meets and how long each meeting lasts. It’s okay that this is an estimate as long as you’re being honest. So rounding a club’s meeting time to an hour if it sometimes only meets for 55 minutes is totally understandable. But calculating that you spend an hour per week on a commitment when you likely only spend 30 minutes is not honest.


Common App Activity Entries: The Analysis


Community Service: What’s Covered


Volunteer work is pretty self-explanatory; it’s basically any service that isn’t paid. This could take a multitude of forms—a group you’ve joined, a club at school, a faith-based project, or any kind of organization that works to serve others or the world. Though these are the most common forms, community service can be broader, and can also cover individual, family, or cultural commitments that may not initially strike you as service work.


Think expansively about how and where you make a difference in your community or the world, and consider sharing it in your Activities section. Community service is appealing to admissions committees, as it makes it clear that you’re passionate and engaged about a cause that you’re willing to give to selflessly.


Example 1 – Volunteer Work


Topic Title: Volunteer Tutor, NYC Cares

Declared Time Commitment: 2 hours per week, 16 weeks per year

Description: Provided homework and study help to underprivileged kids. I studied with one girl until her Cs became As. I love being the “go-to” mentor.


Analysis: This entry is particularly effective in the way that it provides so much information in so few words. Evidently, this student drafted the entry multiple times, which leads us to an important piece of advice: take every single section of the Common App seriously, even the short parts. Indeed, just because the description section on the Activity chapter of the Common App is short does not mean that it isn’t important. If anything, it means you must choose your words even more carefully in order to craft a quality entry.


Specifically, this entry is high-quality because it communicates specific details about both the charity and the applicant’s role. Admissions committees will learn from the name of the charity (NYC Cares) that the student has taken the initiative to participate in outreach in their own city’s community.


Likewise, the description of the job—like “provided homework and study help”—gives specific information about how the participant spent her time. Meanwhile, the reference to being “the ‘go-to’ mentor” signals to the admissions officers that this applicant has made a name for themselves as a valuable member of the NYC Cares community.


Additionally, this entry impressively showcases a certain amount of personal, emotional investment in the charity on the part of the applicant. The detail of watching a student improve their grades from Cs to As both quantifies the service that the applicant has done as well as exhibits the applicant’s emotional investment in his or her work.


Artistic Extracurriculars: What’s Covered


The term “artistic extracurricular” describes any creative arts that you participate in outside of school. Here is where you want to show off your creativity, imagination, and commitment to the arts. This helps admissions committees understand just how important art is to you, and how much time you spend honing your skills.


When should you devote an activity slot to extracurricular arts? Well, if you commit significant time, energy, and materials to pursuing art outside of school, you should absolutely include that in your application.


If you participate in art primarily at school, but supplement it with work or practice at home, you might consider mentioning that—depending on how important it is to you. Finally, if you have won any accolades or achieved any significant accomplishments in this artistic arena, that is a strong argument for including it in your Activities section.


Example 2 – Performing Arts


Topic Title: Chorus and Select Chorus

Declared Time Commitment: 2.5 hours per week, 34 weeks per year

Description: I was chosen to sing the only complete solo piece in the Christmas concert this year.


Analysis: In this example, the applicant uses both the information section of 150 characters as well as the topic title to give as much information as possible about the activity at hand. Note how both choruses in which the applicant participates are listed under the same activity heading. This is an intelligent move because it would seem awkward to list these separately.


Though it is important to differentiate that the applicant participates in two separate ensembles to make sense of the time commitment listed, it is unnecessary to describe these activities in two activity slots as the 150-word summary would likely sound similar.


In addition, this is a great example of using the 150-word slot wisely. While this applicant could have filled the 150-word space with a mundane description of chorus practices, this would likely not communicate much about this specific applicant. Something along the lines of “Chorus meets twice a week to learn songs and prepare for concerts,” while accurate, would not say much about this applicant’s individuality. Virtually every chorus in the country does these things.


By instead assuming that an admissions committee will know these types of obvious details, this applicant is able to share something unique and interesting about their experience in these ensembles.


Scholastic Extracurriculars: What’s Covered


A scholastic extracurricular is an activity that’s more aligned with math, science, history, or English. This could be anything from Quiz Bowl to Debate Team to Robotics Club. It could also cover less structured activities that still have a distinctly academic side to them.


Maybe you’re a member of a book club that reads literary fiction by women of color. Perhaps you build catapults with your older brother on the weekends, and the two of you are committed to finding the perfect relationship between weight and counterweight. Whatever they may be, these extracurriculars show admissions committees your academic curiosity, passion for knowledge, and dedication to learning even in your free time.


Example 3 – STEM Activities


Topic Title: Math Team

Declared Time Commitment: 1 hour per week, 16 weeks per year

Description: In my junior year, I placed first at my school in the AMC 12 competition.


Analysis: Not every entry in the Activities section needs to meet the 150-word limit; this entry, for example, communicates salient information about the activity in merely 15 words. Even so, it is chock-full of details and quantifiable information. While it is important to be succinct, you should never withhold information in the interest of cutting words.


For something like Math Team, it’s highly likely that the admissions committee is familiar with what participation looks like; you don’t need to overexplain activities that are probably familiar to college admissions officers. Just as this example does, you should state what you need to say, and then include any other outstanding details or accomplishments, like the AMC 12 win.


Leadership Experience: What’s Covered


Perhaps you were elected to head a club you cared about your junior or senior year. Maybe you spearheaded a committee’s effort to determine how best to use a vacant space near your school. You could’ve been elected team captain, student body president, or served as a junior board member in an organization you care about. Whatever it may be, your leadership experience is a great thing to include in your Common App.


Informal leadership opportunities can be just as powerful as formal titles, but you want to make sure you explain clearly what your roles and responsibilities were. You may not be able to include it in your topic title, but you can shout out your leadership in the description. Maybe you were not elected team captain, but you organized the bake sale that raised funds for the trip to Nationals. Make sure you include these kinds of powerful examples wherever possible.


Example 4 – Retreat Leader


Topic Title: Retreat Leader

Declared Time Commitment: 1 hour per week, 30 weeks per year

Description: 9 seniors are chosen as leaders of the junior retreat. We meet weekly to critique each other’s speeches and learn to mediate small-group discussion.


Analysis: In this example, we see a student humbly but clearly explaining that this activity is a leadership position awarded to only a select number of students. If you hold such a leadership position that is elected or otherwise selective, it is important that you imply or state this in your description. Not only will it make sense of your weekly commitment time if this number is high, but it may also be your only opportunity to present this information to the admissions committee judging your application.


Leadership experience stands out as a strong positive on an application, so even if you have a lower time commitment than this student, consider including leadership experience if it does not appear elsewhere on your application. As this student did, you’ll want to relay your information clearly and concisely, but you’ll want to make sure that you include enough detail.


This kind of activity is highly specific to you and your school, so you’ll want to explain exactly what “retreat leader” means, like this student does by talking about speech work and small group communication.


Personal Passions: What’s Covered


This heading covers activities that often go beyond high school investment, a desire to compete, or love for a team. Personal passions are activities that you pursue because you love them and are committed to them for the long haul. In the example below, this refers to spending over a decade with an instrument, but it could also describe writing short stories outside of any class or club commitment, learning coding language in your spare time, or cooking your way through different recipe books with your uncle.


These activities could be characterized by their solitary nature, an impressive time commitment, or a yearslong dedication. If you’re genuinely passionate about something and it doesn’t fit into any of the other categories mentioned, it can still give valuable insight into who you are as a person, and what matters to you.


Example 5 – Lifelong Musician


Topic Title: Piano

Declared Time Commitment: 3 hours per week, 40 weeks per year

Description: I have been studying piano and performing in recitals since kindergarten. I’m currently working on Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor from Opus 2.


Analysis: In this scenario, the strength is in the details! Like the chorus example above, this entry does not waste time giving information that would already be assumed about practicing piano. Instead, it efficiently uses the space allotted to give a sense of the student’s level of accomplishment in the activity at hand. It gives a sense of the scope of the student’s commitment, which goes far beyond their 4 years of high school.


Naming a piece of music you’re currently working on—or some other detail for another activity that is the functional equivalent—can help admissions committees actually picture you doing the activity you are discussing. It also gives admissions officers an idea of the way you engage with this activity. Now, the admissions team knows that this student plays classical piano and not pop music pieces or jazz.


How Much Does My Activities List Impact My Chances of Acceptance?


Your extracurricular involvement is one of the primary factors admissions officers consider. If you want to know how your profile stacks up at your top schools, check out CollegeVine’s free chancing engine, which provides you with personalized odds of acceptance at each college on your list based on your grades, test scores, course rigor, and yes, extracurriculars. You can also adjust certain factors, to see how, for example, an award or other notable achievement in one of your activities could boost your chances.


How to Enter Your Activities Into Non-Common App Platforms


Some alternative platforms have slightly different formats or word counts for their activities sections—the UC platform allows for 350 characters in each description. Copying and pasting may not be the best strategy, as a change in format could make this seem awkward. If you have a longer word limit, you should write a bit more about your activities and make the most of the extra space.


Familiarize yourself with each platform you’ll be using to submit applications before it comes time to turn them in, so that you’ll have time to tailor things like your activities section to the format of each platform.

Short Bio
After graduating from Wesleyan University, Francesca Jette is pursuing a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at George Washington University. She has been helping high school seniors with college essays for three years now.