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The Secret to a Winning Common App Activities List 2021-22

Common Application
Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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Public Service Announcement: the Activities List is a vital component of your application. 

Yet, as application coaches, we’ve seen countless students treat the Activities List as an afterthought. This does tragic harm to their chances of getting in.

To admissions officers, the Activities List is a quick way to understand how involved you are, what you’re interested in, and the impact you’ve had. They translate this into hard numbers — some schools give applicants a separate Activity score; others assess your List as part of a broader personal score (ie: your potential for success, as reflected in essays and other non-academic items). 

The point is: a 150 character-limited character description is a terrible thing to waste. This guide will show you how to make the most of those 30-ish words to show admissions readers you belong on their campus. 

For a free, guided tool for putting together your Activities List, login and use our Dashboard.

Admissions officers look at your Activities List for evidence of impact;Examples of impact focused activity descriptions;Writing the descriptions: strong verbs, short phrases;Writing the descriptions: Explain what the activity was, what you did;Brainstorming content: Begin by researching yourself;Think creatively: it’s easy to overlook valuable activities;Don’t have many activities? Need more space? Use the Additional Info section;Prioritize your list based on description, leadership, and time;Never stretch the truth: your impact can be small and still impressive
Admissions officers look at your Activities List for evidence of impact;Examples of impact focused activity descriptions;Writing the descriptions: strong verbs, short phrases;Writing the descriptions: Explain what the activity was, what you did;Brainstorming content: Begin by researching yourself;Think creatively: it’s easy to overlook valuable activities;Don’t have many activities? Need more space? Use the Additional Info section;Prioritize your list based on description, leadership, and time;Never stretch the truth: your impact can be small and still impressive

    Admissions officers look at your Activities List for evidence of impact

    Knowing what admissions officers look for in an Activities List is the best way to write descriptions that — truthfully — give them what they’re looking for. Here’s what admissions folk keep top of mind:

    1. Sustained engagement. They’ll look more highly at activities you’ve done over a long time and/or for many hours a week. It shows you actually care about this thing (and are likely to keep caring as a college student and graduate).
    2. Leadership. Admissions officers like to see you held a leadership role. Formal roles are easier – you can list a title. Informal leadership is harder but just as important. This article will show you how to write descriptions that show leadership. 
    3. Impact. Admissions officers like seeing your unique contribution to the activity. Here’s a good thought exercise for identifying your unique contribution: Think about if you were never a part of it. How would it have been different? (Bonus points if you can quantify your impact with numbers or clarify your impact with quotes or awards.)
    4. Potential to succeed. Admissions officers look for 5 traits that indicate a student will succeed in college and beyond: Drive, Intellectual Curiosity, Initiative, Contribution and Diversity of Experiences. Many activities, formal and informal, can show these traits — fake-trading stocks to learn about them (Intellectual Curiosity), amassing a large Twitter following (Initiative, Drive), and so many more. 

    By the way, understanding the 5 traits is critical to every aspect of your application. For a tool to see which best describes you, head over to our college admissions page, create an account (it’s free), and take the test

    Important point: your Activities List should essentially be a detailed examination of how you spend your time outside of classes, excluding chilling with friends or by yourself. Although – "chilling" may actually be an activity if it involves things related to the 5 traits (maybe Intellectual Curiosity). 

    The point is to think broadly. An Activity matters because of what it says about you, not because it’s formal or informal. We’ll come back to this below.

    Examples of impact focused activity descriptions 

    Once you know what admissions readers look for, you also know the challenge ahead: packing each of your 150-character activity descriptions with as many concrete examples as you can of engagement, leadership, impact and the 5 traits

    Example #1 — applicant filled in as an afterthought:

    • Position/Leadership description: Server 
    • Organization Name: Scoops Ahoy, Starcourt Mall 
    • Description: Served ice cream after school two days a week.

    Example #1 now that the applicant knows the college is reading this over for evidence of impact.

    • Position/Leadership description: Server 
    • Organization Name: Scoops Ahoy, Starcourt Mall
    • Description: Honed service skills, improving personal tips by 50%+ in 9 months. Received promotion. Used shop as base to uncover evil Soviet plot. 

    Why it works

    • Honed service skills — Service skills are useful in many careers and situations. Showing that you developed these skills is good.
    • Improving tips — Quantifying your skill improvement using tips is even better; data makes your claim more believable.
    • Received promotion — This is hard proof you showed Drive, Contribution and other valuable traits that made your manager want to retain you.
    • Uncovered plot — Here, you demonstrate Drive, Intellectual Curiosity, Initiative, Contribution and Diversity of Experiences. Actually, all of the 5 traits! What’s interesting is that it’s in going outside of the formal bounds of your job that you showed this 5 trait bonanza. That’s true outside of Hawkins, Indiana, too. 

    Example #2 — applicant filled in as an afterthought:

    • Position/Leadership description: Slytherin Team Captain 
    • Organization Name: Hogwarts Quidditch 
    • Description: Led the quidditch team during junior and senior years.

    Example #2 now that the applicant knows the college is reading this over for evidence of impact.

    • Position/Leadership description: Slytherin Team Captain 
    • Organization Name: Hogwarts Quidditch 
    • Description: Elected captain by team of 17. Led early-morning practices. Oversaw first victory since Dark Lord defeat. Instituted ethics rules to restore team reputation.

    Why it works

    • Elected by — If you have a leadership position, great. But go further to show what it took to get where you are. Getting 16 other people to vote for you is a real accomplishment. Again, quantifying is good. 
    • Led early-morning practices — What does a captain do? Admissions officers won’t know unless you tell them. Leading early-morning practice sounds like a tough job. A job requiring Drive at the very least. 
    • Victory — Here, you’re quantifying your achievements again, and putting them in perspective for someone who might not know why it’s meaningful.
    • Ethics rules — You’re showing that you care about more than just winning: Contribution and Initiative are also part of what makes you tick. 

    It’s not easy to express your achievements in 150 characters. But by focusing on the impact you had, and which of the 5 traits you demonstrated, you’ll bring out what’s most important in these experiences. If you’d like a professional to look over your descriptions, see if our coaching and feedback service would work for you. 

    Writing the descriptions: strong verbs, short phrases

    There are lots of ways to pack a punch in those little 150-character boxes. Here are the ones we’ve found to be the most helpful:

    Tip #1: Begin each phrase with a strong verb. 

    For example, if you were to talk about reading this article to understand how to write a killer Activities List (which obviously you wouldn’t), you might say:

    • I found an article online that gave me some pointers for writing a better Activities List. 

    Or you could make it sound a lot more impressive:

    • Researched knowledgeable resources on how to best create Activities List descriptions.
    • Uncovered truth about what colleges are really looking for. 
    • Increased the impact of my list; guidance counselor noted “huge improvement.”

    Tip #2: Cut full sentences into succinct phrases.

    In this example, Elsa wastes valuable space:

    • I set off a country-wide eternal winter, and put my sister in mortal danger, before applying a love-based solution to revive my sister and the land. 

    Instead, she could pack in:

    • Created country-wide eternal winter. Put sister in mortal danger. Applied love-based solution, reviving sister and the land. Ruled happy people

    By cutting down into phrases, she’s able to add a whole new important achievement. It’s a great way to pack in the impact. 

    Tip #3: Focus on the problems you solved, skills you gained, and/or impact you created.

    You likely noticed above that Elsa committed a faux-pas: she mentioned endangering a person’s life. Admissions officers want to see positive impact. Let’s have her try again:

    • Learned to control powerful snow-creating magic. Melted eternal winter by working collaboratively. New open attitude gained subjects’ respect.

    Here, we see that Elsa has solved problems (eternal winter: melted), gained skills (snow-creating magic: controlled), and had an enormous impact (all of those + subjects’ respect). 

    Most people make a mistake here. (No, it’s not revealing you almost killed someone.) They list things that anyone in their position would have done:

    • Wrote articles for the newspaper. 
    • Attended debate tournaments. 
    • Played on the soccer team for four seasons.

    Boring! 

    Instead, think about these activities in terms of problems, skills & impact. 

    • Demystified new junior curriculum requirements in article newspaper advisor called “best of the semester.” 
    • Raised over $1000 to help all debate members travel to the state tournament. 
    • Scored five goals, the highest number of any team member this year.

    Tip #4: Quantify your impact, use quotes, and mention awards whenever possible.

    Here’s the best way to figure out what your impact was: What did you do that someone else couldn’t have done? (Or not done as well?)

    Once you’ve determined your impact, try as much as possible to translate it into numbers, quotes, or awards. Even real achievements can seem limp if you don’t find ways to make the reader understand what they mean. 

    Compare:

    • Victorious in a high-stakes yearly contest of skill. Competed fiercely, using cunning, strategy, and collaboration to succeed.

    Well, okay. But says who? What does any of it mean? What if Katniss phrases it this way instead:

    • 1 of 2 survivors (of 24) in a yearly contest. First to get authorities to change rules, saving co-victor. Dictator called me a threat to his rule.

    By quantifying her experience, and quoting a real person, she brings the size of her achievement into relief. 

    Awards: Mention them. Awards that you won through an activity show quantifiable impact.  

    Tip #5: Point out how an activity changed you for the better

    You might think this experience couldn’t work in the Activities List:

    • Survived being eaten alive. Rescued by hunter. Grateful to be alive along with Granny. 

    And, no, it wouldn’t really. Still, this is a way better way of presenting it:

    • Learned to be wary of strangers trying to influence me. Gained an appreciation for what matters in life, esp. time with loved ones.

    To repeat the Activities List mantra, recruit someone to tease out aspects of what you’ve done that may be more impressive — even in a small way — than you think. Having an essay coach is the easiest way to do this, but there’s also a lot of value in getting a counselor, teacher, or parent to go through it with you.  

    Writing the descriptions: Explain what the activity was, what you did

    For activities the admissions reader will know, don’t waste space explaining. Things like:

    • Model UN
    • Speech & Debate
    • Band
    • Sports teams.
    • You get the idea. 

    For activities and clubs that are specific to your school, add just a few words of context:

    • What the activity is (its purpose). 
    • Its size (number of students in it). 

    Often, it’s helpful to spell out your responsibilities — what did you do? This can do a few things:

    • Show the reader what the activity is. (Particularly, if it’s more unusual.)
    • Show why the activity matters to you. 
    • Show what kinds of skills you’re likely building.
    • Show you’re acting as a leader, even if you don’t have a formal leadership role.

    In the example of the Slytherin Quidditch captain we gave above, we included the line: Led early-morning practices. 

    This is just a description of what a captain actually does. It doesn’t focus on impact. But it does suggest that you’re building certain skills:

    • Discipline and drive in pursuit of a larger goal.
    • Interpersonal skills — the ability to get teenagers to wake up early and do hard work.   

    In addition, it shows that “captain” isn’t just a title to you. You really put in the work. You really are a leader. 

    Call in an outside person to look over your list. Ask them what they think each activity was, and what they think you did in it. The things they don’t get may surprise you. This can be a friend, a trusted grownup, or a professional. Just make sure you get an outside view. 

    Brainstorming content: Begin by researching yourself

    What have you been up to since high school? It’s surprisingly easy to forget about your own activities and accomplishments. Using our free brainstorming tools can be an excellent starting place. We walk you through a number of brainstorming activities, which will be a helpful starting point for your Activities List. 

    In addition, try to think through your school years chronologically, so you don’t leave anything out. Yes, it’s completely normal to find you need to go through old emails and paperwork in search of clues to your own life. 

    This might also be a great time to call in a parent for support. They just might remember the stuff they had to pay for, drive you to, or listen to you go on and on about.

    Bear in mind that informal activities, including learning on your own, family obligations and the like, can be powerful additions to your List. In fact ...

    Think creatively: it’s easy to overlook valuable activities

    Nothing looks better in one of these 150-character boxes than something outside-the-box. Sadly, students often leave off great experiences, to which they’ve devoted substantial time, because they don’t seem “activity-y” enough. Be creative! Ideas include:

    Jobs, even short employment stints 

    • It’s perfectly fine if the job didn’t require much skill. You can learn and have impact in any job. 
    • Example [Window-washer]: Aimed to afford gift for elderly aunt. Developed fur-based cleaning method, praised as “entertaining” by clients. 

    Taking care of siblings or other relatives; taking on household tasks or household management

    • Spending time helping your family is important work. It can say a lot about you. As with any other activity, focus on your impact and growth, and quantify when possible.
    • Note: students with significant family obligations often use the “Additional Info” section to expand on their description. 
    • Example: Keep house for step-mom, step-sisters since father’s death in 1708. Recruited animal friends for support.

    Self-learning

    • Remember Intellectual Curiosity? It’s one of the 5 traits! You’ve demonstrated it if you pursued an interest seriously outside of school. It might be worth writing about here.
    • Self-learning activities could include trading stocks, taking a MOOC, honing advanced knitting skills, or learning a foreign language. 
    • Example [Self-taught guitar]: Mastered Mexican folk styles, including mariachi. Performed live to applause in Land of Living, Dead. My music saved my ancestor from oblivion. 

    Creative projects like blogging, YouTube channels with original music, Etsy stores

    • Projects like these can show tremendous drive and creativity. However, admissions officers may be skeptical. You can overcome those fears with solid metrics or a word of validation from a trustworthy source.
    • Example: Amassed trove of human treasures untold. Of collection, king’s minion said, “This is bad!” Explored shore up above to test theories of object use.
    • Example: Created YouTube channel reviewing favorite nostalgic Disney movies. Grew channel to 1000 subscribers within 3 months. 

    A one-off seminar, community service day, or other interesting activity

    • Note: don’t include short events if you have too many activities. 
    • Prioritize the ones where you spend the most time, or have the most impact.
    • All that being said, you can include an interesting activity where just the fact that you participated speaks to your interests. Just don’t pretty it up with a long description — trying to show unique impact here will sound hollow.

    Example #1:

    • Position/Leadership description: In it
    • Organization Name: The room where it happened
    • Description: [ blank ]

    Example #2:

    • Position/Leadership description: Participant
    • Organization Name: MLK Day of Service
    • Description: [ blank ]

    In terms of what Activities you can include, there are no hard and fast rules. However, the line between impressing an admissions officer and turning them off can be frighteningly nebulous. It’s worth the effort to talk to someone who knows what colleges are looking for, such as your guidance counselor or professional coaches (like us!). 

    Don’t have many activities? Need more space? Use the Additional Info section

    On the one hand, maybe you still have time to participate in a meaningful activity. Then you could write about it! If that’s the case, make sure it’s something authentically enjoyable or meaningful to you. (Senior-packing-in-activities-to-impress isn’t a great look.)

    But … if you’re reading this article, we’re guessing an application deadline is close. If your Activities List is light, put it in context for the admissions reader. For example:

    • Is your school commute is 1.5 hours each way?
    • Do you practice violin four hours, every day, no exceptions?
    • Are your family responsibilities intensive?

    If you fit this kind of unusual pattern, use the Additional Info section to write a straightforward account of why your list might appear bare. In some cases, you’d be using this section to describe what you’ve devoted yourself to with more depth. In other cases, you’d be explaining your full circumstances — not making excuses, but simply stating the facts. 

    This is often easier said than done. We know we’re asking you to talk about pieces of your life that can be fraught with emotion and difficulty. Again, the best way to get through this is with the help of an extra set of eyes. Talk this through with a guidance counselor or have a professional weigh in on how to strike the right tone, what to leave in and what to leave out. 

    Prioritize your list based on description, leadership, and time

    Once your brainstorming is done, write up each activity as best you can. (It’s easier to cut than to add.) Then consider these 3 factors as you decide what to place highest:

    1. How impressive is the description? — Descriptions with big impacts or awards should come first.
    2. Where do you have leadership roles?  
    3. How much time have you devoted to it? (Per week and over what period) 

    There isn't a hard and fast rule here. But these questions should help guide you.

    As we’ve mentioned, think about the Additional Info section in conjunction with your List. If you have an activity that requires more than 150-characters to fully explain, you can add “(See add’l info.)” to your description, and say a little more there. 

    Ask any of your reviewers, professional or amateur, to think about how your List makes sense in the context of your entire application. 

    Never stretch the truth: your impact can be small and still impressive

    If there’s one thing we’ve learned in all our years of helping students improve their chances of college admission, it’s how easy it is to underestimate your own accomplishments. Colleges aren’t looking for superheroes. They’re looking for normal high school students who’ve struggled and failed at times, but who are loaded with potential. 

    Are you someone’s favorite babysitter? That shows you’ve got potential. Did you get fit and make friends on the track team, even if you didn’t medal in any races? Sounds like you’ve got some winning qualities. 

    Don’t let the Activities List make you feel bad about yourself. 

    If you exaggerate to impress in those little boxes, you’ll end up digging yourself deeper into the hole. At best, you’ll start sounding inauthentic. At worst, one of the many, many professionals looking very, very closely at your application may notice that things don’t add up, investigate, and find you out. Students absolutely have had their acceptances rescinded over “exaggerations” in the Activities List. 

    If you’re worried about how to put yourself in the best light possible while staying 100% truthful, call in an expert or bring in someone whose opinion you trust. Getting this right is hard, but it really matters.

    For more information on the Common App, check out: 

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