The Strategy Behind the Scenes
The activities section of the Common Application (and most university-specific applications) is a vital opportunity to showcase your achievements and commitments outside of class. While listing your activities may seem straightforward, following a strategy can go a long way in helping you distinguish yourself to admissions boards. By carefully choosing how to present your activities, you can show evaluators not only how you have pursued your passions, but also the positive impact you will have on their campus community.
In the Common Application, the activities section asks for the names of the clubs or organizations in which you participated, as well as the amount of time you devoted to the activity and a description of your work and specific accomplishments (see our article on “Writing Impact-Focused Descriptions”). Taking these factors into account, your list should be ranked beginning with the most important activity and ending with the least important. This may sound simple to do, but how can you tell which of your activities will be the most impressive to your readers? First, start with an outline of all activities in which you participated. Then, pare down your list by eliminating activities which you did not expend considerable time or effort on. Finally, you will prioritize your list based on three factors: time, impact, and leadership roles. Let’s break down that process:
Step 1: Creating your list
As you draft your list, consider what your activities tell about your interests, how you have spent your time, your personality traits, and the impact you will have on campus communities. When deciding what to include, remember that admissions boards are looking for candidates who demonstrate spikes of interest in certain fields. These “spiky” applicants have a clear passion in specific areas, subjects, and hobbies. Admissions boards are trying to build a well-rounded class of students who have diverse interests. So what does this mean for you?
Quality over Quantity
While the Common Application allows you to list up to ten activities, it is okay to list only a few. Focus on showing the quality of your work in specific areas, rather than aiming to fill up all the sections with activities that do not demonstrate your focus and commitment. Prioritize activities where you devoted at least 2-3 hours a week, and those in which you were a member or leader for at least a full year. That Photography Club you joined for a few weeks during freshman year? Not as impressive as those two years on the Debate Team, especially if you held a prominent role.
Your activities do not necessarily have to be related to school. Here are some examples of activities that could help illustrate both your diverse interests and your dedication to pursuing your passions:
- Did you build a highly trafficked website that relates to your interests?
- Did you start a successful blog?
- Do you play in a band and hope to pursue music, or music management?
- Did you start a small business?
- Did you spend a significant amount of time volunteering with an organization whose mission aligns with your passions?
- Did you spend hours playing video games, and dream of designing them someday?
- Do you write in your spare time?
- Do you run a witty Twitter account with thousands of followers?
Admissions offers are looking to see that you have pursued your interests with creativity and enthusiasm. Once you are in college, you will have many opportunities to participate in both organizations and clubs, and also in the local community. If the activities where you spent the most time are not school-related, but demonstrate your focus and investment in a certain issue, do not hesitate to include them. The activities section is an opportunity to help colleges envision you as a person with strong interests that you plan to pursue in a college community.
Step 2: Paring Down Your List
Once you have made a first draft of your list, it is time to make sure that each item you have included helps paint a picture of who you are as a student, leader, and applicant. Remember, even though you are allowed to include ten activities, the number of activities is less important than how each activity demonstrates your commitment, leadership, and contributions to an organization.
As you begin paring down your list, ask yourself these questions to decide which activities are relevant:
- Did I invest a substantial amount of time in this activity?
- Is this activity related to something I might be interested in pursuing in college?
- Does this activity reflect an interest I might want to pursue as a career?
- Did my role change and grow the longer I was involved in this activity?
- How did my participation and leadership positively impact this organization?
- Did I receive any special recognition for my work in this organization?
After asking yourself these questions for each activity, you may be able to eliminate some activities. However, if you did not hold many leadership positions but feel you grew as an individual from certain activities, do not hesitate to include them—just make sure they are strategically ranked.
Step 3: Prioritizing your activities
Once you have a finalized list of your most relevant activities, arrange them in order from “most important” to “least important.” What does this mean? Consider these three factors:
- Whether you had a leadership role.
- The time you invested in each activity.
- The impact you made in the organization.
Not sure how to prioritize your list? Read below to see how your activities and awards should rank.
Leadership and Growth
If you have held any leadership positions, they should be placed at the top of your list. Also, consider how your role in each organization has grown and changed over the course of your high school career. Include both formal and informal leadership positions. For example:
- Did you go from a benchwarmer to team captain over four years?
- Did you eventually become editor of the newspaper where you used to be a reporter?
- Were you the sole founder of a website, blog, or small business?
- Did you increase your volunteering hours at an organization once you realized you were passionate about its cause?
- Were you elected or nominated for any titles by your teachers and peers? (i.e. student council positions, athletics, editorial boards, student liaison, peer mentor, or leadership roles within a club)
This is your opportunity to show how you have distinguished yourself against your peers. Your application is a chance to demonstrate how you will seek leadership positions on campus, and how you measure up against other applicants.
Time and Effort
Next, consider the amount of time you put into each activity. If you spent hours each week preparing and competing with your Model UN team, but only attended a few meetings of a photography club, prioritize Model UN. The same applies to volunteer experiences; in fact, if you only volunteered once or twice with a certain organization, it would be better not to include it. That being said, you can use your judgment; that week you spent building a house with Habitat for Humanity might catch a reader’s eye, but volunteering once at a soup kitchen does not demonstrate significant time or effort. Again, remember that the quality of your chosen activities is more important than filling up the activity section.
Finally, consider your impact. Admissions boards are looking for applicants whose effort, dedication, and leadership have helped an organization succeed. Prioritize activities where you had significant quantitative and qualitative impact. For example:
- Did your school newspaper win an award while you were editor-in-chief?
- Did you successfully lobby for important changes as a student council member?
- Did an event you organized and publicized have increased attendance this year?
- Did you help lead your soccer team to a regional championship?
- Did you play a major role in fundraising for your organization?
Showcase how your leadership contributed to the success of an organization, and prioritize any activities where your effort was beneficial to your club and community.
Dos and Don’ts
From your rough draft of your activities, you now have a list of activities that best showcase your interests, strengths, and well-deserved recognitions. This list should be ranked from the most impressive to the least, taking into account the factors of leadership roles, time, and impact. Remember these tips as you prioritize and finalize your activities section:
- Prioritize activities in which you held a leadership position (President, Team Captain, Founder, etc.)
- Prioritize activities where you had a concrete, positive impact on an organization or event.
- Prioritize activities to which you devoted a considerable amount of time.
- Prioritize activities, both inside and outside of school, that showcase your diverse interests.
- Remember that activities in which you were a member or participant can go towards the end of your list. For these activities, you will have room in the “Description” section to explain why they were important for your growth as an individual, and how you served as an effective team member.
- Remember that the Common Application also asks you whether you plan to pursue this activity during college, so make sure to include activities that reflect both how you have spent your time in the past, and also how you might contribute to a college community.
- Include activities that are irrelevant to your interests.
- Include activities where you spent a very minimal amount of time (a few hours volunteering once or twice, or only a few meetings of a club).
- Prioritize activities where you were a member or a participant with minimal impact, especially if you held leadership roles in other activities.
By prioritizing your activity list and considering your specific role in each activity, you can guide a reader’s attention to your most impressive accomplishments. Permission to show off: granted!