How Do Admissions Officers Assess the Activities List?



The activities list is one of the most straightforward yet complex parts of a college application. Few people address this portion of the application with much strategy because it seems its purpose is simply to convert your resume to the Common App’s list of (up to 10) extracurricular activities. This is a misconception. Curating a fine-tuned activities list is one of the most powerful methods of sharing your personal story with admissions officers.

What should students keep top of mind when creating an Activities List?

Admissions officers (AOs) usually only have approximately 60 seconds to review your activities list. Given that time constraint, you must craft all 150 characters in the description wisely and think critically about how to describe your leadership role/club position. AOs at top-ranked schools see hundreds of excellent activities list. Simply listing your extracurricular activities in chronological order is not good enough. You have to be strategic about the placement/order of each activity and the ultra-brief descriptions that you curate within this single sheet.


What is “Context” and how is our shared COVID context of 2020 impacting the process of AOs?


AOs think a lot about a term called “context.” Evaluating an applicant’s context essentially means thinking about what a student has within their reach. They inquire: within this applicant’s school, what extracurricular activities are offered? How many extracurricular activities outside of school are available to the student? Most importantly, how has this student not only utilized the resources around them, but how have they actually pushed beyond their context to create even more opportunities for themselves and for their wider community (local, regional, or national)?


Admissions officers will have to evaluate “context” somewhat differently this year, but do remember that students from all previous application cycles have accessed virtual opportunities to make their activities list stand out. This might mean starting a website, starting a virtual book club, engaging scholars internationally, liaising with professors from other states etc. Lacking in-person opportunities for school clubs will not be an adequate excuse for lackluster extracurricular records during the Fall of senior year.


What are AO’s reading *for* when they read the activities sheet?


Admissions officers are trying to get a narrative from your activities list. They want to be able to summarize your extracurricular involvement in one sentence or one sentence fragment. It is the applicant’s responsibility to make that one sentence or one sentence fragment extremely clear. If you cannot read your own activities sheet and generate one succinct sentence/story, then you need to revise it again. 

Do not believe the myth that colleges want well-rounded students. Top colleges want passionate, lovers of learning, and future mentors to their colleagues. The admitted student profile does not necessarily look like a “well-rounded student” in the traditional sense. In fact, more often the ideal top-ranked candidate looks like a student who has thought diligently about how they want to impact the future more narrowly. This does not mean that all 10 of your activities should be in one category or be labeled with the same common app category. That approach would actually be far too extreme and should be avoided. Admissions officers are reading for a vivid sense of your personal qualities and your intellectual qualities as exemplified by your extracurricular record (or better stated, they are seeking your personal, purpose-driven journey through high school, beyond the classroom).


How do I narrate my purpose-driven journey through high school?


Here is an exercise that you can engage as you prepare for writing your activities list. Brainstorm the following questions:


What truly excited me to learn more during my time as a high school student? What made me wake up and actually feel eager to get ready, get dressed, and head to school? When have I ever found myself lost in learning? By “lost,” I mean, when did I ever get so excited that I lost track of time and ended up diving deep into a wormhole of learning, question asking, journaling, and self reflection?


After asking yourself abstract questions like these then move into more specific questions:


What might I like to do/study/learn at college? When I take a look at the course and extracurricular offerings at my favorite colleges which departments/organizations really intrigue me? Hopefully, you are drawn to majors and activities that you never ever experienced in high school. Hopefully, these are majors and community engagement opportunities that you never knew existed. Why? Because then, admissions officer can recognize a “spark” in your application. They are not like the other thousands of applicants we are reading in our pool that are interested in pursuing the same five core subjects that almost every single high school students is expected to know and learn in their core curriculum.


This distinguishing spark means the application is not like many others in the highly competitive pool. Most of the brilliant applicants at top school present themselves as strong students interested in pursuing (roughly) the same five core subjects that every single high school students is expected to know and learn in their core curriculum. Most applicants will pursue similar extracurricular activities in colleges (which is excellent because that lets AOs know the candidate is currently engaged and will continued to be engaged in college). However, top candidates are more creative in linking their proven record with a new path that they can only achieve if accepted into their top choice colleges. In other words, AOs are determining if you are a match and a fit for the college, but you, the applicant, is even more selective than the AOs. The stand-out candidate compels the AOs to recognize how their purpose-driven extracurricular history will flourish and continue into an impressive future at that/those specific high-ranked college(s).



The bottom line


Although the activity list prompts you to disclose the who, what, where, and when of your activities, do not be fooled. Admissions officers are focused on figuring out the how and why of your activities. How does this particular activity show a student is at the top range of competitiveness? Why does this student stand out from the others within this immaculate set of applications? How did the student figure out this particular specific problem and this particular solution? Why is their passion for learning so infectious? 


Writing the activities list is a serious matter, but remember this serious matter should also be a matter of joy, a matter of self-reflection, and a matter of recording your chief personal triumphs.    Admissions officers expect to see a polished final draft. At the same time, these are professionals who understand that the best, most concise, most succinct writing started off as a first draft. Thus, write your first draft and then revise, and revise, and revise.

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