Former Admissions Officers Offer Tips on the Activities List

Padya Paramita

Former Admissions Officers Offer Tips on the Activities List

The Common App activities list is more than a resumé. It is a significant element that provides admissions officers insight into your personality and how you choose to spend your time outside of school. A strategically-written activities list can help distinguish you from your peers. Admissions officers use your extracurricular titles, descriptions, and the duration of your participation to understand what you’re passionate about, whether you’re a hardworking and committed individual, and how your extracurriculars connect to the rest of your application.

Students often have a lot of questions about writing the activities list. Two of the most common questions regarding the component are 1. What kind of activities (besides students’ most obvious extracurriculars) can go on the activities list? And 2. What is the best way to order the activities list? In this new series, we have outlined all of the nitty-gritty details that you need to know about creating an impressive activities list. Using tips from InGenius Prep’s Former Admissions Officers (FAOs) from top schools such as Dartmouth, Georgetown, UChicago, Johns Hopkins, and Duke, we have covered exactly what to include, and how to prioritize all that you’ve done.

What Kind of Activities (Besides Just the Obvious) Can Go in the Activities List?


While school activities that show long-term involvement, achievement, and leadership definitely have value, it is those activities that are not the usual fare that will stand out even more. So, here are a few options that fall outside the obvious school activity list:

  • Past or present internships or employment (even better if it directly or indirectly connects to your future college major).
  • Summer programs at leading universities or academic summer camps are always noticed, whether or not connected to your future plans.
  • A club or business you have started, independently or as part of a team, shows your entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to take the initiative. All the better if you have achieved any successes that you can talk about specifically, with details.
  • Independent research projects through programs such as IGP’s Academic Mentoring program, especially if there is an end product such as a paper or report available for you to submit or a link to the website if you were published.
  • Challenging and interesting national/international competitions such as iGems or the Wharton Global Investment Challenge
  • Online courses can show versatility and a desire to challenge yourself, whether relevant to your future major or simply exploring a personal interest.
  • Travel experiences that lead to better cultural understanding, whether it is an exploration of your own heritage or simply looking to learn more about cultures that you would normally not be exposed to in your home country.
  • Using your talents to interact with the community as a volunteer such as a musician who plays twice a month at a retirement community or something similar.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but there are endless ways to show that you are pushing yourself past the limits of what your school has to offer by pursuing opportunities in the local community and beyond. The idea is to have a strong base of activities to show that you have maximized what you could do at school, but combine those with external activities to show that you are willing to challenge yourself outside that comfort zone.”

- Former Associate Director of Admissions, Georgetown University

Take Your Own Initiative!

“Most impressive activities to me are ones where the student is actively seeking out or creating opportunities that align with their interests and personas. So that could include starting a club or organization (sometimes it is easier to found a non-profit than getting a school to approve your club!). Also look for ways that you can put hobbies and other interests that you are pursuing independently (learning from YouTube videos, Google searches, etc)  "on paper" by taking an organized class on them or getting certifications. The other advantage of this is that you don't have as much risk of gaps in knowledge in an area that solely doing your own independent research can create.”  - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 University

Hobbies: Things You Collect Or Records You’ve Set

“I've had students list funny collections like "500 Lego minifigs, including original designs", the number of books they've read or movies they've seen during high school, if that's part of their story.” - Former Admissions Reader, Ivy League School

Jobs And Volunteer Work

“You might not realize that part-time jobs and volunteer experiences also count as valuable activities. You can definitely add them to the activities list and you should - especially if you’ve been involved in them throughout high school, have led projects as part of these endeavors, or if they fit your application persona. Admissions officers appreciate knowing that candidates are responsible individuals who bring experience in a variety of ways.” - InGenius Prep Application Expert

ALMOST Anything—Let Them Get to Know You

“It's really important that a student helps the admissions officer get a true understanding of their life outside of school. Almost anything can be added in this section, including internships, a part-time job, family responsibilities, or even a hobby that takes up a lot of time. Students should view this section as being "inclusive" of their time outside of school and shouldn't be shy in adding activities that give an AO more information about who they are as a person.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University, Top 5 Liberal Arts College

What is the Best Way to Order the Activities List?

Consider the Individual Student—Because Each Candidate is Unique

“ One has to always treat each student as a unique individual and the strategy for the activity list will vary depending on the list of activities. The rule of thumb is to start with the largest possible number of activities and whittle them down to the final list. The obvious thing is to start with the most impressive one (achievement, awards, longevity) and move forward having ranked your activities on the same scale. 

However, most impressive varies from student to student and one would emphasize the same activity for two students differently based on these factors. Remember, there is probably no right way or wrong way to order the activities but it is always better to shoot the big guns upfront so you capture the attention of the reader quickly. That said, the rest of the list is sometimes overshadowed by the outstanding achievements at the top. So, we are back to square one where it is clear that the order of the activities will vary for each student, with the caveat that we are looking at the attributes mentioned earlier to make those decisions.” - Former Associate Director of Admissions, Georgetown University

Consider Impressiveness

“Most impressive first, and generally most impressive is something you've founded, followed by activities you have leadership positions in. But I'd also consider putting activities that best align with your persona and what is in your essays at or near the top. Lastly, if your activities fall into a few general categories, I suggest grouping those together, even if that means that some less impressive activities end up above more impressive ones in a different category.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

Consider Importance to YOU

“AOs expect you to order them in order of importance to you — the top 5 should be your most important activities. It's good to have activities that show commitment and leadership over time as well.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

Think About Your Application Persona

“We talk a lot about the importance of the "Application Persona" at InGenius. Basically, the thread and narrative of the entire application. The activities list should reflect that same story. Having the first several activities be connected to your persona will help solidify that idea to the AO and help them better understand the value that you'll bring to their college/university. But as the instructions say, always start with the most important activities at the top. This doesn't mean activity #7-10 are not important, it just means that they likely haven't taken up as much time as the others or may not be connected to your persona.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

Number 9 and 10 Should Also Be Part Of Your Strategy

“Obviously the most important [activity should go] first. I put weakest as number 9 and try to end with something a little quirky or unexpected.” - Former Admissions Reader, Ivy League University

Hopefully, now you have a clearer understanding of what to include in the activities list and how to go about adding them in order. Watch out for more blogs in this series with the tag “FAO Advice” as we ask our Former Admissions Officers for more tips on admissions behind-the-scenes and FAQs from our students!

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