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Writing Powerful Descriptions

In “Playing the Game: Making the Most of the Activity Section,” we discussed how to rank your activities in order of most important to least important by focusing on impact, time, and leadership roles. Your next step is to write brief descriptions for each activity. The Common Application allows you only a small space (enough for about one or two sentences) to describe “Details, honors won, and accomplishments.”  To do this effectively, you should use efficient, powerful language, and emphasize your efforts and impact within each activity.

Emphasis On Impact

College admissions boards are looking for applicants whose interests have led them to go above and beyond their responsibilities. The spikes of interest that you display in the activities section should demonstrate the impact you have had in your various academic and extracurricular communities. When drafting your descriptions, consider the following questions:

What impact did I have?

  • Remember, your impact could be quantitative or qualitative.
  • Quantitative impacts are measured with numbers and will concretely demonstrate your impact. For example, “I raised money for the American Cancer Society” does not sound as impressive as “I spearheaded a campaign that raised $10,000 for the American Cancer Society, double what was raised in previous years.”
  • Qualitative impacts describe success that isn’t measured by numbers, but is related to leadership, entrepreneurship, achieving challenging goals, and interpersonal skills. Did your leadership as team captain play a fundamental role in your team’s unprecedented success this year? Did your Debate Team win a regional or national award? Take credit as a valuable team member or leader.

Did I achieve any recognition or honors for my involvement in this activity? If so, why?

  • While the honors section of the Common Application will ask about academic honors, this section consists of any recognition you achieved in extracurricular activities. If you were named Employee of the Month at your after-school job, consider what characteristics helped you earn that title. If you undertook major projects in your community and received recognition, describe the project and the kind of an impact it has had on your community.

Language that packs a punch

Because you have only a small space to describe the activity, your impact, and any recognition you may have achieved, you can follow this simple formula for packing as much information as possible into one sentence: I did X as measured by Y by doing Z. For example: “I increased readership of the newspaper by 30% through quality reporting and advertising.”

In addition to using this formula when applicable, you should also pay attention to your language use. Instead of focusing on your responsibilities and what you had to do, use language that demonstrates that you went above and beyond your tasks. Powerful language emphasizes your impact and sounds more impressive to a reader.  For example, the verbs below sound stronger than weak language like “helped,” or “participated.”

  • Accomplished
  • Achieved
  • Attained
  • Coordinated
  • Established
  • Founded
  • Increased
  • Maximized
  • Organized
  • Raised
  • Streamlined

Weak language, by comparison, is vague and does not highlight your accomplishments. For example, if you have already stated you were student council treasurer, writing “Managed the group’s money” as a description does not tell the reader anything new. Instead of focusing on your basic responsibilities, use language that highlights your impact. This means being specific and using dynamic verbs like the ones listed above.

Sample activities descriptions

  • Student council: “Increased fundraising by 40% through wide-reaching school and social media campaign”
  • Newspaper: “Pitched and authored several front-page stories on subjects ranging from current events to school athletics.”
  • Yearbook: “Coordinated with local advertisers and edited 200 pages of content.”
  • Athletics: “Led team to regional and national victories.”
  • Writing: “Completed a 40,000 word novel in one month as a participant of National Novel Writing Month”

Describing Your Academic Awards and Honors

While the Common Application does not ask that you provide a description of your academic honors, some university-specific applications will allow you to briefly describe your academic achievements. If so, the above guidelines can also apply to discussing your honors. As you’ve read in “Short and Sweet: Listing your Awards,” you should focus descriptions of honors on the selectivity and level of recognition of the award. Similarly to your activity section, you should focus on dynamic language and quantitative evidence to help convey the importance of your award. For example:

  • “Recognized as AP Scholar in Chemistry for being one of only three students to receive a perfect score.”
  • “Selected as finalist in regional science fair with over 400 participants.”

By using quantitative evidence here, you demonstrate the selectivity of your award, and show readers that your achievement was not only personally rewarding, but also speaks to how you have distinguished yourself from your peers.

Final Tips

  • Use quantifiable evidence whenever possible
  • Focus on your impact rather than your basic responsibilities
  • Carefully choose dynamic language that emphasizes the importance and impact of your role.

With strong, detailed descriptions of your activities, you will show readers that not only did you participate in activities that correspond to your spikes of interest, but also that you have had a positive impact on your community.

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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