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The Common App, Analyzed: 5 Successful Activity Entries Explained
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 10 of the most significant extracurricular activities that have filled your free time in high school, but it also asks you to estimate your time commitment to these activities and forces you to describe them in 150 characters or less.
It would be hard to over-strategize this section, which is why we’ve previously written about how to approach it as a whole. But even if you’ve considered which 10 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, 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 over-estimate 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. It is natural to have an array of activities that require different time commitments; especially if you are making use of all 10 activity slots, colleges will not expect that every activity you list took up several hours each week.
The best way to go about this section, then, is to be honest and as 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 is important and 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 if 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.
And Now, What You’ve All Been Waiting For: The Analysis
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: to 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. Adcoms will learn 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”— give specific information about how the participating 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 him or herself 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.
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 adcom will know these types of obvious details, this applicant is able to share something unique and interesting about his or her experience in these ensembles.
Topic Title: Math Team
Declared Time Commitment: 1 hours 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.
Topic Title: Retreat Leader
Declared Time Commitment: 1 hours 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 intimate 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.
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. By naming a piece of music you’re currently working on—or some other detail for another activity that is the functional equivalent—can help adcoms actually picture you doing the activity you are discussing.
When in doubt, remember that honesty is the best policy. Though it can be tempting to cheat the Activity section and overestimate hourly commitments, trust that the amount of time you’ve spent on your commitments has been enough. Your descriptions will bring these entries to life more than extra hours ever will!