If you’re currently working on your Common Application, you’ve probably come across the activities section, but you may not be sure how to fill it out. Even though it’s not an essay, you can still strategically fill out this list to help you maximize your chances of being accepted to your dream school.
In addition to the personal statement and supplemental essays, the Common Application has many sections full of logistical questions, but one of the most important ones is the activities list. Even though the section is technically optional, every student should take this opportunity to describe in great detail any extracurricular activities they have been involved in over the past four years. But with limited room and only 10 spaces for activities to list, how do you make the most of the section in order to make it a compelling and memorable part of your application?
Extracurricular activities are becoming increasingly important in the college admissions process thanks to the practice of holistic admissions at most US colleges and universities, which means grades, test scores, and other statistical indicators are not the only things that matter when it comes to an applicant's profile. In fact, some students with a stellar extracurricular portfolio can compensate for any lapses in their academic performance over the years, even though that is still rare and should not become the game plan for any high school students. Instead, students should try to have a balanced profile that demonstrates their interests and abilities both in and outside of the classroom.
However, this doesn’t mean students should try to do everything available to them during their time in high school. Instead, a high level of recognition and commitment to 1-2 activities can go a long way. See what Stanford has to say about how they evaluate extracurricular activities:
Students often assume our primary concern is the number of activities in which a student participates. In fact, an exceptional depth of experience in one or two activities may demonstrate your passion more than minimal participation in five or six clubs. You may also hold down a job or have family responsibilities. These are as important as any other extracurricular activity. In general, we want to understand the impact you have had at your job, in your family, in a club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you.
In the same way that your essays tell a part of your story, your extracurricular activities can shape the narrative of your passions, interests, and ambitions — a.k.a. who you are. It gives college admissions officers a sense of what kinds of contributions you would make to their campus and the world at large. Admissions officers also have their own method of weighing the different kinds of activities that students bring to the table, so students who keep this information in mind can use this list, however brief, to their advantage.
There are four major criteria that colleges use to evaluate a student's extracurricular involvement, which will then result in a score that will help admissions officers compare numerous students’ activities list:
Level of leadership role.
Number of years of high school the student did the activity.
Hours per week during season (weeks per year as well).
Admissions officers often give students "points" based on each of these factors, resulting in a score out of 16 — see a breakdown of these points below. Students should use this score and the above criteria to organize their lists. Basically, the more points that a student will receive for an activity, the higher it should be on their list. The order in which the activities appear does matter, and more impactful activities should be first.
Let's break down the different sections to fill out for each activity you include and how each of these criteria will affect how the student is evaluated.
This is what the Common App activity section looks like, for reference.
The Common App offers you a drop-down menu with many different options for the type of activity that you participated in, ranging from “Social Justice” to “Technology” to “Family Responsibilities.” Even if you were in an activity that doesn’t quite fit one of the categories listed, it’s still a good idea to choose the category that is most similar to the activity that you were doing. However, if you were part of something truly out of the box and original, you can put “Other club/activity” and then describe it further in the next sections.
Here, students have just 50 characters to describe any leadership position and/or the variety of roles they may have played over the years in a certain organization or activity. This is relatively straightforward, but applicants can use certain words to convey their level of responsibility, even if they did not have an official title. For example, if a student ran social media for a club but had no official title, that student may put down that they were the “social media coordinator” for the club. For self-driven activities such as writing a published piece or starting a business, students are at liberty to give themselves a title that properly captures the amount of time and effort that went into the endeavor. Just don’t embellish the truth with responsibilities you didn't have — it will be obvious to the reader.
For students who are running out of room here to describe achievements, use abbreviations to your advantage i.e. “Won comm. service award for 200+ hrs in ER” if you volunteered at a hospital. Just make sure that anyone would be able to understand the acronym you’re using, not just your fellow club members or peers at school.
If students were simply a member of the club and did not necessarily have a leadership position, they should think about framing their contributions to the club and an effective way. Instead of simply saying “Member,“ they could write out “Volunteer at numerous events” or even “Active member/participant.” You shouldn’t make up a title that doesn’t exist at all, but you don’t have much room to convey any of the accomplishments you may have had while participating in this activity. It’s up to you to use every bit of space that you have wisely to do so.
As for the criteria that admissions officers use to score applicants, here is how a student may be scored in their level of leadership within an activity:
4 points if the student holds the highest leadership title within the activity: President, Captain, Editor-in-Chief, Drum Major, Shift Manager, etc.
3 points for the "second in command" role: Vice President, Managing Editor, Assistant Drum Major, Asst. Manager, etc.
2 points for other leadership roles: Secretary, Treasurer, etc.
1 point for membership: Club Member, Team Member, Employee, etc.
There isn’t a ton of wiggle room here when it comes to naming the organization, even though there are more characters allotted here. Don’t try to give “art club“ a fancier sounding name; that will be obvious. But if you are part of a club or a chapter of a larger organization, such as a UNICEF club or FBLA, You can put the large organization as part of your résumé instead of the specific chapter name.
Participation Grade Levels & Timing of Participation
These are pretty simple questions with checkbox answers, but their implications can still be important. Admissions officers are looking for students who have been dedicated to their activities for a long period of time and have even participated in them when outside of school. It’s even better if students have been involved in a club for a while and then eventually received a leadership position in their junior or senior year since it demonstrates growth in their capabilities and willingness to take on more responsibility.
Again, do not lie and say you’ve done something for all four years and throughout the entire year when you haven’t — but make sure you consider how much time you really have put into a certain endeavor so you don’t leave anything out.
Here’s how admissions officers might evaluate a student's length of commitment to a certain extracurricular activity:
4 points if the activity has been done all four years of high school
3 points for three years
2 points for two years
1 point for one year
As with the last section, admissions officers want to know what kind of time you have dedicated to this activity. If you’re noticing a trend of time-related questions on the activities, that’s because it is significant when it comes to evaluating and comparing students’ profiles, so make sure you’re capturing the full breadth of your contributions to the activity.
But students sometimes struggle with this question because they don’t do activities on a weekly basis. Instead, it may have been a summer camp or a month-long project. Estimate your best guess of the number of hours you may have spent over the year, and then divide that into weeks. Again, don’t embellish, but don’t sell yourself short here either — if you put in 30-40 hours to an activity in a given year or timeframe, find a way to divide that up into weeks to properly reflect that commitment.
Here’s how admissions officers may evaluate an applicant’s time commitment for a particular activity, which may help you decide how to frame your time commitment to an activity.
4 points if the student does the activity 20+ hours per week
3 points for 15 hours per week
2 points for 10 hours per week
1 point for 5 hours or less per week
Level of Recognition & Measurable Impact
This list does not ask students to designate the level of recognition or the measurable impact they achieved for a certain activity (the academic honors section does ask about levels of recogntion), but it will still be considered. There are several levels of recognition that admissions officers will consider: international, national, state/regional, and school/town. Students who have achieved a higher level of recognition for activities will have those activities carry more weight in the admissions process. For instance, if a student has competed at a national competition, especially if they won an award, this is considered to be a high-profile activity that shows a level of commitment and excellence in the activity that is commendable. These kinds of impactful activities should be high up on the list.
Here is how admissions officers will score an applicant’s measurable impact for a given activity:
4 points if the student competes on the national level, received national exposure, or a national award
3 points for state level
2 points for regional level (i.e. county science fair, district championships for sports, etc.)
1 point for participation within the high school/town only
What if I don’t have any activities or leadership positions?
Think about anything you may have put time into after school and how it may be categorized as an extracurricular activity. Maybe it was an after-school job or a family responsibility, or you simply worked on something for your own enjoyment. Use your discretion here — that means playing video games and traveling with your family doesn’t count as an activity — but try to come up with a way to describe those duties you’ve had over the years. Even if you joined a club briefly or just spent a summer doing an online course, that is important to note here. Don’t worry if you didn’t have a leadership position; as long as you can put some activities on the list, you’ll be fine.
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