How to Write the Activities List: Everything You Need to Know
February 23, 2021
How to Write the Activities List: Everything You Need to Know
As you start your college application process, chances are, you will encounter the Common Application for at least one or two of your schools. After all, this centralized application system allows you to apply to any of its 700+ member colleges. The Common App is divided into sections that ask for your contact information, demographics, school name and address, test scores, personal statement, and of course, the place where you mention your 10 most significant extracurriculars. This is an extremely important component, and thus many students wonder how to write the activities list.
The Common App activities list is a significant element that provides admissions officers with an 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 roles, descriptions, and the duration of your participation to understand what you’re passionate about, whether or not you’re a hardworking and committed individual, and how your extracurriculars connect to the rest of your application. In this blog, we have outlined all of the nitty-gritty details that you need to know about how to write the activities list.
The Activities List: The Basics
Let’s start with the logistics of the activities list. The section lets you add up to 10 activities, and allows only 150 characters (not words!) to describe each of your entries. It’s crucial to make the most of the allotted space when writing the description, but note the other questions asked by the section alongside “Activity description” before you start writing so that you don’t repeat any information. These are:
- Activity type
- Position/leadership description and organization name if applicable
- Activity description
- Participation grade levels: 9, 10, 11, 12
- Timing of Participation: all year, summer, school break, etc
- Hours spent per week
- Weeks spent per year
- Intent to continue in college: yes, no
The first menu you come across is a drop-down list featuring categories to describe your activities.
Read through all of the options that are available so that you don’t end up picking “Work (Paid)” for a babysitting role for example when “Family Responsibilities” is more precise.
- Athletics: Club
- Athletics: JV/Varsity
- Career Oriented
- Community Service (Volunteer)
- Family Responsibilities
- Foreign Exchange
- Junior R.O.T.C.
- Music: Instrumental
- Music: Vocal
- School Spirit
- Student Government/Politics
- Work (Paid)
- Other Club/Activity
You’re allowed a maximum of 50 characters for the “Position/leader description and organization name” slot. Having a description of what the student did as the title is the most important. Simply having the title of the activity or the role is not enough.
You might be confused about how to order your involvements most effectively as you figure out how to write the activities list. Since it is a part of the Common App itself and doesn’t pertain to any particular school, keep in mind that all of the colleges you apply to will see the same activities list. To guide you through determining which activities to add first and how your level of commitment plays a role in the order, let’s take a more in-depth look at how to strategize the placements and write descriptions in a way that can help distinguish you from your peers.
How to Write the Activities List: Strategizing the Order and Description
Long story short, you should list your most impressive activities first. Think about which activity has had the most impact on you and vice versa. The order should also fit the theme of the rest of your application and be organized in a categorical order.
When you write your activities list, remember that it is all about optimizing the character limit of 150 to summarize your impact and role in a way that stands out to admissions officers. This means strategically outlining the part you played—whether you had a leadership position, how you put forth quantifiable and tangible achievements, how long you’ve been involved, as well as making sure activities fit the theme of your application. So let’s take a closer look at the categories to think about in regards to each of your extracurriculars when considering what to include as you wonder how to write the activities list:
- Leadership: Whether you’ve started an organization, led a sports team or acapella group, or served as the president of your favorite club, leadership roles should always take precedence when thinking about both the order and the description of your activities. Your leadership roles help you stand out from the rest of the pack. Schools want students who aren’t afraid to take initiative and would undoubtedly be more impressed by a leadership position in your own organization over your general membership in a common club.
- Tangible Achievements: You should definitely quantify your achievements, as numbers are a quick but highly efficient way of demonstrating impact. If you know the number of people who attended an event you initiated, or membership growth since you started leading a group, these are useful statistics that impress admissions officers!
- Sustained Involvement: When thinking about how to order your activities, students should carefully consider the consistent amount of time or sustained involvement they have demonstrated to the activity. Take advantage of the “Participation grade level,” “Hours spent per week,” and “Weeks spent per year” options. Greater and longer involvement depicts dedication towards honing your leadership skills and creating community in your club or organization, which are traits admissions officers seek in students.
- Application Persona: It’s important to think of your application persona when organizing your activities list. Your application persona is the theme of your application. You could be an artist who has taught painting classes at a local school and started an Instagram page featuring your work for example. If the majority of your activities—especially the ones listed at the top—don’t have a clear connection to each other, admissions officers might think you’re disorganized and not ambitious enough. Colleges appreciate students who are specialized leaders in one area rather than moderately committed to 10 different activities.
Now that you have an idea of the content, let’s talk about the structure of your sentences as you think about how to write the activities list. Don’t start your descriptions with “I” as it’s considered too informal. Be consistent in your formatting and organization. Don’t start one entry with “President & Captain,” but another with “Founder & President.” Keep “President” in the same position both times.
Your word choice makes a difference to your activities list. Since you only get 150 characters to make a strong impression on the reader, it’s key that you use strong verbs that convey your role with greater impact. Check out some action words in the table below which might come in handy when describing your role in your most significant activities:
Research: Analyze, Assess, Compile, Estimate, Evaluate, Examine, Identify, Investigate, Pinpoint
Creation: Design, Engineer, Establish, Explore, Formulate, Implement, Inaugurate, Initiate, Launch, Pioneer, Propose
Cooperation: Collaborate, Coordinate, Consolidate, Contribute, Facilitate, Negotiate, Support
Leadership: Execute, Enforce, Govern, Manage, Motivate, Preside, Simulate, Strategize
Improvement: Accelerate, Amplify, Enhance, Enrich, Extend, Formalize, Improve, Optimize, Overhaul, Refine, Restructure, Revamp, Revitalize, Streamline, Systemize
Even from just reading these words you can tell that they can convey your role in the activity very clearly to admissions officers. Mentioning that you’ve “engineered” or “accelerated” a project gets the message across more effectively than words like “do” or simply “led.” Comprehensive wording allows admissions officers to visualize and understand your level of commitment and the depth of your involvement better.
A successful activities list should look like this:
You can see that the student has prioritized original initiatives, i.e., the program they have founded. Note the quantified data—it’s apparent from the description that the student worked hard at this project due to the inclusion of the “¥80,000.” Each of the activities are described using strong verbs such as “spearhead,” “analyze” and “teach,” letting admissions officers clearly understand what the student did in the role.
The student has participated in all of these activities over all four years of high school, and throughout the week. They have also placed an internship in second place, conducted under professors at prestigious universities. Unique work opportunities such as these are a big achievement for high school students, over participation (even a leadership position) in a pre-existing common club such as Amnesty International.
Dos and Don’ts of the Activities List
Now that you have an idea of what admissions officers look for in the descriptions and order of your extracurriculars, let’s take a look at some dos and don'ts as you embark on strategizing how to write the activities list.
- Be honest about your hour count: While it may be hard to pinpoint the exact amount of time you’ve dedicated to an activity down to the minute, be reasonable when adding the time spent in a week or year. Try to be as honest as possible, instead of exceeding the actual amount in order to impress colleges. Admissions officers will find it hard to believe if you mention that you’ve spent 100 hours a week on an extracurricular on top of taking a challenging course load.
- Try to fill all 10 slots: While you don’t have to add 10 activities if you’re stretching too thin, admissions officers highly recommend that you try your best to fill all 10 of the slots provided if you’re applying to colleges ranked in the Top 20. According to our former admissions officers, you’re struggling to find an extracurricular when you’re running short, something to note is that Activity #9 on the Common Application is somewhat of a throw-away activity while activity #10 can be something that is eccentric, interesting, or surprising although not necessarily meaningful or impressive.
- Include part-time jobs and volunteer experiences: Going off of the last point, you might not realize that part-time jobs and volunteer experiences also count as your activities. You can add them to the activities list—especially if you’ve been involved in them throughout high school, have led projects as part of these endeavors, and they fit your application persona. This is especially useful to remember if students are struggling to fill all 10 slots. Admissions officers appreciate knowing that candidates are responsible individuals who bring experience in a variety of degrees.
- Keep supplemental essays in mind: Even though all your schools will see your Common App activities list, some universities also ask a supplemental essay question about elaborating on one of your most significant activities. Here are some examples from top institutions:
Caltech: Describe three experiences and/or activities that have helped develop your passion for a possible career in a STEM field. (10-120 words.)
Harvard: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)
Princeton: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)
While you can definitely write your essay about an activity that’s mentioned in your activities list—after all you’re supposed to include your most impactful extracurriculars in both cases—make sure you’re not repeating sentences from your Common App for your supplemental essay and vice versa. Admissions officers want each sentence in either case to convey new information about yourself. So make sure to note how you’ve framed your description in the activities list so that you won’t have to repeat the same line later!
- Write out the list in a separate file first: Your activities list gives admissions officers an idea of how you choose to interact with your community and how you’d contribute to their campus. So don’t take this section lightly and come up with your list on a whim. Type out your list in a different file first—a spreadsheet is good for dividing up into the categories and keeping character count—to stay organized.
- Don’t prioritize common activities: You may have been captain of your debate or Model UN team, and while that’s okay, participation in these common activities should not go on top of your Common App activities list. You’re trying to stand out here. Below is a list of the types of extracurriculars that won’t make you diverse in the eyes of admissions officers.
- Chorus/marching band
- Cheerleading/pep squad
- Recreational summer camps
- Service trips abroad
These kinds of extracurriculars aren’t so interesting and aren’t as important as other unique activities or ones that are specific to a student’s interest. So while you may have taken on leadership roles in these areas, you shouldn’t prioritize them over more specific and unique initiatives.
- Don’t include honors: If you’ve received awards for your extracurriculars, the activities list might not be the best place to put them. After all, you have 5 slots and 100 characters each to add them in the honors section. Even though the honors section is dedicated to “academic” achievements, the word can be used loosely, for recognition in the arts, for publication, and for showing sportsmanship in athletics as well. Before writing about an accolade in the activities list, ask yourself if it would make more sense in the honors section first.
- Don’t submit the first draft of your activities list: Just like with any other part of your college applications, you should not submit the Common App activities list without having read through your entries and gone over multiple drafts. Watch out for spelling and grammar errors, incorrect numbers, and whether you’ve made the most of the space given. After you’ve edited once, edit again!
- Don’t add hobbies without careful consideration: You might be wondering whether or not to include hobbies in your activities list. It depends on how much the activity aligns with the theme of your application. If your application persona is a screenwriter, it makes sense to include that you’ve made short films as a passion project. But if you enjoy playing basketball in your free time but you’re not applying as a student athlete and have no other athletic experience, you shouldn’t include it in your activities list.
- Don’t be offensive: Remember that admissions officers are human too and will flag your application for any inappropriate content. You naturally want to appear as a considerate and likeable individual, so adding anything that could offend an individual or a group of people will never look good on your college applications.
While grades and test scores make up a big part of the application process, your Common App activities list gives admissions officers a glimpse into your character and personality. As you figure out how to write the activities list, don’t miss out on the opportunity to show your top-choice schools the depth of your involvement by successfully taking advantage of the space provided. By highlighting your most significant and impressive extracurricular involvements, you can demonstrate to colleges that you bring commendable leadership abilities and dedication to your community.