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How to write a great UC Activities List

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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    Most students list their activities without about as much care and passion as they would list the British Monarchs. Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II. What is there to say, really? Just move on to the “real” parts of the application, right?

    Wrong!

    Did you know that Edward VIII abdicated his throne after less than a year to marry an American divorcée? That George VI had a terrible stutter … in the age of the radio? Maybe you’ve heard of the Queen’s feud with Princess Diana?

    There’s a reason filmmakers are raking in the profits from dramatizing the human stories behind those boring-sounding names. Similarly, if you bring your list to life with a little extra detail and attention, your application will get a huge boost. 

    As college essay coaches, we’ve seen that the fact that most students spend so little time on their Activities List can be an opportunity for you to shine:

    1. It leaves an opening for your Activities List to stand out if you put in just a bit more care and effort.
    2. While doing a good job of the Activities List does take more time, it’s not actually that hard. It’s even kind of fun.

    Let’s get into it. (By the way, if you also want guidance with the UC PIQs, we’ve got that covered, too.)

    In this article: 

    What UC is looking for: evidence of impact

    The 4 elements to emphasize in describing activities

    Examples of activity descriptions that focus on impact

    5 tips for writing strong activity descriptions

    Make it clear what the activity was and what you did

    Brainstorm content first; write it next; cut it down last

    Additional Comment Section magic: Use it to explain a lack of activities, or for more room

    Prioritizing your list: Description, Leadership, Time

    What UC is looking for: evidence of impact

    Just like you don’t care about the chronological order in which the Monarchs of Britain reigned, the UC admissions officers don’t really care what you did in your free time. Is it soccer and drama for this applicant? Trumpet and chess club for this other one? Who cares!

    However, do you feel different about those royal Brits once Netlfix invests millions on lavish sets and casts someone like Claire Foy to tell the story? Yes, you do. (Well, probably - we don’t really know your taste, but we can at least say you care more.)


    Similarly, the UC readers are going to perk up when they see that you invested some time on concrete, vivid details and produced a list that says interesting things about you

    Did you use the activity as a chance to leave a mark? Did you make an impact? Does the activity show you’ve got an interesting personality - one that might take you to interesting places? Does it show you’ll be successful in college and beyond

    The 4 elements to emphasize in describing activities

    The way to spend on these metaphorical “lavish sets” for your activities is to emphasize the following 4 attributes in the activities you list: 

    1. Sustained engagement — While UC gives you 120 chances to list activities, the goal here is not about quantity. It’s about quality. Did you stay with it long enough to make a difference? Long enough to develop skills and experience? UC likes hearing about that. 
    1. Leadership — It’s always impressive to hold a leadership position. If that position isn’t official, spend the time to show that you were a leader, despite not having an official title. 
    1. Impact — “Sustained engagement” and “leadership” are both really proxies for impact. If you made a difference, that’s exciting. Shout it out in your Activities List. A good exercise here is thinking - what would have been different had you never participated in the activity? If you can quantify your impact with numbers, quotes, or awards, all the better.
    1. Potential to succeed — Activities are a great way to show off the 5 traits colleges look for in applications: Drive, Intellectual Curiosity, Initiative, Contribution, and Diversity of Experiences. Even informal activities often can show off these great traits. For example, if you amassed a large Instagram following through your EveryOutfitBritishMovieMonarchs page, you’ve displayed Initiative, Drive, and Intellectual Curiosity. 

    By the way, the 5 traits are critical to every piece of your application. To see which of the traits best describe you, login to our dashboard for a free account and take our quiz

    Examples of activity descriptions that focus on impact

    The UC application gives you 350 characters for describing each activity — quite a bit more than the Common App. Still, it can be a challenge to pack each one with examples of engagement, leadership, impact, and the 5 traits. 

    But look at what a difference it makes when you add those elements into your description. 

    Example 1 — typical applicant, taking the word “list” too literally: 

    Speech
    Recorded radio speech declaring nation at war.  


    While that sounds like an excited speech, the description makes it sound like anyone could have delivered. Let’s see if we can do better, Colin Firth

    Example 1 — savvy applicant, writing to show their impact:
    Speech
    Despite stutter, recorded radio speech declaring nation at war. Worked with speech expert on exercises and recording environment to overcome impediment. Thousands of citizens came to applaud live after broadcast. Leading papers praised delivery. Nation rallied and entered WWII.

    This second description (using 278 of 350 characters) focuses on the impact of the speech (the people who came to applaud, the papers’ praise, the effect on WWII). It also talks about the enormous effort (Drive) that went into the speech.

    It tells the UC admissions officer a story of a person who would be an asset on campus. It doesn’t assume that it’s impressive to make a speech saying your nation is at war. Because that alone isn’t impressive — rather, the impact of that speech and the impact of the speaker’s will to be able to make that speech are the impressive parts.

    Example 2 — typical applicant, taking the word “list” too literally: 
    Speech
    Gave speech rallying troops at Tilbury.  

    No surprise that Cate Blanchet can improve on this.

    Example #2 — savvy applicant, writing to show their impact:
    Speech
    Laid groundwork for speech’s message by riding among soldiers at Tilbury without bodyguards. Delivered speech on horseback to thunderous appreciation. Wrote speech myself. Speech went down as one of best in history, a turning point in Britain’s ascendancy as a major European power. 

    Again, the first description is just filler. The second one tells us why this speech mattered and the Drive that went into it. Queen Elizabeth didn’t just see “give speech to rally troops” on her schedule. She wrote the speech. She decided on some cool theatrics (no bodyguards, horseback) and executed on them. She went above and beyond (Drive). She took Initiative. How cool would it be to have her on campus?  

    We understand that you probably haven’t given a speech declaring war or rallying troops. 

    But what these examples show is that it isn’t the impressiveness of the activity that matters. When King George VI gave a speech declaring Britain to be at war, that in and of itself doesn’t really impress us — even though it’s a big deal!

    It’s only when we learn what he put into the speech that we start to care. It’s only when we learn how the speech affected ordinary citizens that we see it as meaningful.

    Similarly, no matter what you’ve done, you must explain what went into it and why it mattered. 

    5 tips for writing strong activity descriptions

    Maybe you’re not as great a writer as Queen Elizabeth. (The First, we mean. No idea if the current queen can bang out Shakespear-rivaling poems or not.) 

    Luckily, you don’t need to be a great writer to write a great activity list. All you need are these 5 tips.

    Tip 1 — No full sentences: short phrases only.

    For example, this is no good:

    I learned to respect my people’s emotions and the culture’s changed mores and, possibly saving the institution of the monarchy, I lowered the flag after Princess Diana’s death, even though it made no sense, protocol-wise. 

    This is much better, Helen Mirren:

    Broke centuries-old flag-flying protocol in deference to country’s mourning. Act possibly saved institution of monarchy. Gained new-found respect for the culture’s changed mores. Popularity rose by 5% following post-Diana low. 

    While the UC is fairly generous with their 350 characters per slot, still, short phrases allow you to fit in way more interesting, 5 traits-showing facts about your achievements. 

    Tip 2 — Start phrases with strong verbs

    Should you start your phrases with short, strong verbs? Yes: Start ‘em strong.

    Great. What is a “strong” verb?

    A strong verb, like a strong activity description, is specific. It’s not “Ruled over Britain.” It’s a smaller (but far more mighty) verb than “ruled.” Such as:

    • Dissolved parliament. (Just kidding. Admissions officers hate anti-democratic actions.)
    • Created the institution of parliament. (Yes! Democracy!)
    • Defeated the Spanish Armada.
    • Nurtured Golden Age of cultural and economic power. 

    Unless you’ve been up to some very exciting doings in your high school years, these verbs might be more helpful to you:

    • Achieved
    • Campaigned
    • Consolidated 
    • Spoke
    • Recruited
    • Persuaded
    • Exceeded
    • Revitalized
    • Invented
    • Illustrated
    • Cared for
    • Motivated
    • Mentored
    • Analyzed

    These are just some ideas. The point is to try to be as specific as possible so that you’re really painting a picture of the impact you had in your activities.

    Tip 3 — Focus on problems solved, skills gained, and impact

    The most common Activity List mistake we see is writing a description that anyone would make. Such as:

    Reporter, School newspaper
    Wrote articles. Conducted research and interviews. Edited content.

    Hmm … Nice job, robot. That sounds really boring.

    Everything we’ve talked about so far has been about bringing your list to life with greater specificity. One way to do that is to think about problems solved, skills gained, and impact: 

    Reporter, School newspaper
    Developed expertise on School Board and management interactions. To research likelihood of in-person school re-opening, interviewed all School Board members, attended all meetings. Wrote 7 articles on fight to re-open classrooms, 5 of which were “most-clicked.”

    In this example, the student discusses:

    • The problem they solved (Can we know how likely it is school will reopen in-person?)
    • The skill they gained (subject matter expertise; but also probably skills interviewing and figuring out what’s going on at public meetings - both difficult skills), and 
    • Their impact (people obviously wanted to know what was going on, and the “most clicked” ranking indicates that the articles delivered). 

    No matter what you did, talking about it specifically almost invariably makes it sound more concrete, more unique, and more impressive. (By the way, we all needed a break from royal examples. You’re welcome.)

    Tip 4 — Use numbers as much as possible; also quotes + awards

    As we said above, determine the impact you had by thinking about how the activity would have been different without you there. What did you do that others couldn’t do (or couldn’t do as well)? 

    Once you’ve done that exercise, take it even further by trying to translate that impact as much as possible into numbers. If numbers don’t work, try for other concrete, objective measures, including quotes by authorities and awards received.

    For example:

    Won Battle of Agincourt
    Led Battle that defeated larger French forces in 1415. Battle marked an important turning point in the Hundred Years’ War.

    Honestly, that one’s pretty impressive, Timothée Chalamet. However, we can do even better. 

    Won Battle of Agincourt
    With advisors, helped develop strategy for defeating French forces, which outnumbered us 5:1. Led troops to battle, did my own hand-to-hand fighting. Victory ended 10 years of conflict and created peace for 7 more years. Shakespeare dramatized incident in famous play Henry V.  

    In this case, we get some good numbers on how badly overwhelmed the British forces were. (I think they were technically “English” at that time, but this isn’t a history blog, so someone else can fact check. I also invented the numbers; please don’t cite them in your AP European History paper.)

    From the specific years cited, we get a sense of the magnitude of the victory. Finally, we have an outside authority (Shakespeare) showing that they’re impressed, since they wrote a play about these events. 

    All of it makes the achievement that much more impressive. Henry V would have definitely been admitted to the UC schools. 

    Some more realistic ideas for you might include:

    • Calculate percentage improvements — ex: how much bigger are your average tips from when you started waitressing to now? How much faster do you run your races from when the season began to when it ended? You can be creative with this. You can also estimate, so long as you say so (“an estimated 5% improvement in tips”).
    • Anything you did on the internet will have metrics — take this opportunity to learn how to analyze them (it’s not always easy). If you wrote for the school paper, ask to see the metrics to figure out how many people read and clicked on your articles. If you maintain your own website or social media account, look over the analytics and see if there are some strong stories you can tell through the data.
    • 99% of success is showing up — so why not log your perfect attendance? “Didn’t miss a single student council meeting” is meaningful on top of the things you did while on council. 
    • Can you get feedback from a teacher, coach, or expert? — It’s not easy to quantify the output in your art portfolio or the improvement from your sophomore year poems to the ones you write now. But maybe a teacher singled one of your poems out in class, or for publication in a newsletter? That means something. Mention it! Maybe you can ask a teacher what they think about your poetry, and use a quote from their response. (That’s not the strongest evidence - since they’ll have an incentive to be nice - but it’s still evidence.)
    • Awards — While the UC application does have plenty of room for listing awards, mention the awards in the activity slot, too. (You can then say more in the award slot.) Almost nothing says, “This kid is really good at this thing” like an award.

    Tip 5 — Get someone who’s not you to review your list

    Not the most groundbreaking advice, but an outside perspective can help. Get someone who knows about your work to help you see if you’ve oversold something or left an important piece of it out. Get anyone to read it over and see if you are clear or if it’s hard to follow. 

    Ask your readers to tell you where they get confused and what questions they have. 

    Finally, reading over activity lists is part of what most college essay coaches do (and the lists contribute to your “personal score” just as much as any PIQ or essay). So consider hiring one if it feels right. 

    Make it clear what the activity was and what you did

    Often, your activity won’t need a lot of explanation. Band, Model UN, Debate Club, Sports Teams … admissions officers know what those entail.

    However, for activities and clubs that are specific to your school (or to you), provide the context so that they can understand what it was. Say something about:

    • What the purpose of the activity is, and 
    • Its size (number of students involved).

    In addition, you might spend more time spelling out your responsibilities than you otherwise would. 

    To go back to an example from above, let’s say admissions officers don’t know much about teenagers with battle experience. So Henry V might have to spell things out. 

    Not “Led battle of Agincourt,” because UC doesn’t really know what that means. Instead, “With advisors, helped develop strategy for defeating French forces. Did my own hand-to-hand fighting.” Wow. UC probably didn’t know that Henry V wasn’t just some figurehead like Kings and Queens are today, but actually made the whole battle happen and was in it. Because he spelled it out, now they know. 

    Similarly, what’s on your list that UC probably doesn’t see every day? Make sure you spell out what you do (or did) in that capacity. 

    Brainstorm content first; write it next; cut it down last 

    If there’s one big insight we have into the college application-writing process, it’s that brainstorming is key. We actually have a set of free brainstorming tools (through the dashboard) that comprehensively walk you through your strengths (the 5 traits!) and your high school experiences, and help you make sense of how to fit all of it into your applications. 

    Whether or not you use our dashboard, begin the Activities List process by brainstorming everything you’ve done in high school. Go year by year. Ask your mom, dad, and friends for help remembering. (Yes, it’s easy to forget things you did last semester, not to mention 3 years ago.) 

    And think broadly — UC is interested in activities formal and informal. In fact, sometimes informal activities best show off your potential to succeed. 

    Think broadly about what an activity can be

    The UC Activities List is an examination of how you spend your time outside of classes. The UC applications asks you to split these into:

    • Award or honor
    • Educational Prep Program
    • Extracurricular activity
    • Other coursework
    • Volunteer / Community Service
    • Work Experience

    This is great because it helps you to think widely about where you’ve been spending your time. As essay coaches, we’ve often found that students tend to leave valuable experiences off. 

    Here are some examples of the types of activities you should include if you have them: 

    • Jobs, even short, entry-level work: Most high-school-level jobs don’t involve a ton of skill. But most of them do help you acquire skills and the ability to navigate the real world. What did you learn about customer service by checking tickets at the movie theater? What did you learn about working under a boss? There can be a lot to include.
    • Caring for siblings or relatives; helping with household chores or management: While these kinds of responsibilities might fit best in the UC Additional Comments Section, they also work in “Extracurricular Activity.” They can say a lot about your values and caring for family members or managing a family budget is a sure way to develop valuable skills. 
    • Self-learning. Nothing’s better for demonstrating the trait of Intellectual Curiosity than a project you pursued on your own. Examples include trading stocks (even if not for real), taking a MOOC, learning to crochet, learning a foreign language, reading all about the British monarchs. 
    • Creative projects like blogging, YouTube channels, Etsy stores. These sorts of projects are great for showing off not just Intellectual Curiosity, but also Drive and Initiative. You’re also likely to have some good online metrics from some of these endeavors. 
    • One-off community service day, seminar, or other interesting experience. While you shouldn’t load these up just because UC gives you the space, you might include something that shines light on other activities or aspects of your application. For example, if you’re a reporter for your high school paper, you might include: Participant, Columbia Journalism School 3-day high-school seminar. You should leave it at that - you didn’t actually make an impact in the seminar, but the fact that you attended says a lot about your willingness to grow as a reporter (Drive, Intellectual Curiosity). 

    Additional Comment Section magic: Use it to explain a lack of activities, or for more room

    This section is great. If you don’t need it, that’s fine, leave it blank. But if you do, it can really help you out. Here’s the prompt:

    ​​If there's anything else you want us to know about you, now's your chance. But remember, you should use this space only if you want to describe anything that you have not had the opportunity to include elsewhere in the application. This shouldn't be an essay, but rather a place to explain unusual personal or family circumstances, or anything that may be unclear in other parts of the application.

    Let’s look at 2 common scenarios.

    Scenario 1 — your activity list doesn’t have much on it

    Use this space to explain why that might be. For example, you might have a super-long commute to school, or one exceedingly demanding activity (you practice piano for hours daily at a concert level), or intense family responsibilities, or have a major health issue that requires strict medical regimens or numerous surgeries. 

    All of these issues are complex, unique, and sometimes emotionally fraught. So use the Comment Section’s 550 words to describe them straightforwardly. There’s no reason to make excuses, rather, use this space to shed light on an unusual aspect of your experience.

    Scenario 2 — you want to say more about one of your activities

    As we said above, activities are amazing for showing off the 5 Traits. While 350 characters is generous, sometimes you have even more to say that can shine a light on those traits of yours. Or perhaps there’s some important context that you need to add. 

    The main thing if you use this space is to treat it as “borrowed time.” Don’t wax poetic. Add in some bullets. Use those short phrases. Say more, but say it succinctly. Let your experience shine, not the language. 

    → This is also a good place to use this “Other Academic History” space. If the activity you’d like to expand on is academic in nature, consider using those 550 extra characters. The prompt says:

    This is a place for you to share details specific to your academic history that will help give admissions officers more context about your academic life. Think of it as an “Additional Comments” section, but just for your academic history.

    The space here is very tight, but you can maximize it using all the tips above (short, pithy phrases, numbers wherever possible). 

    Prioritizing your list: Description, Leadership, Time


    This should all be intuitive by now. As you sort through all the activities you’ve brainstormed that you might include in your list, use these 3 filters to determine where they go (and even if you should include them at all).

    They are:

    1. Did the activity result in a big impact or an award? How impressive is it? Put those really impressive ones up top. (“Led Battle of Agincourt,” goes above “Gave speech declaring war.”)
    2. Did you have a leadership role? Admissions officers are suckers for leadership roles, even if they’re informal. 
    3. How much time did you devote to this? How much time per week? Over how long a period? 

    These are great guidelines to help guide you as you decide what will really impress admissions officers vs. what will come off as boring “listing for listing’s sake.”

    More articles on Prompt.com’s admissions-boosting methods:


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