The Common Application Activities List

In my last post, I answered some questions about extracurricular activities. At some point, you'll have to write about those activities. I wouldn't be much help if I didn't point you in the right direction. Today, we'll go over some tips for writing the Common Application activities list.

Activities List Tip #1: List your most important activities first.

Why? Because the Common App instructions tell you to list your activities "in their order of importance to you." Readers will assume that whatever activity you list first is most important.

Activities List Tip #2: List only your important activities.

The Common App asks you to list your "principal extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities." Principal, not minor, secondary, or ancillary. In other words, your important activities. When you write down an activity, you're announcing that activity really matters to you. Remember, one goal with extracurricular activities is to show depth over breadth, and one way to do that is by listing only important activities.

And don't worry if you don't fill up every single space. The Common App even tells you, "The availability of 10 fields is not intended to imply that you should list 10 activities, nor is there any expectation that you will do so." You don't need to include filler just to get to 10. You're aiming for "principal" activities, not "all the activities I can cram into 10 slots."

Activities List Tip #3: Remember Your Reader Is a Stranger.

You're writing to a stranger, so you have to make sure your description makes sense to someone who's never met you. On the Common App, beyond the hours you spent and when you spent them, you only get to share a few tidbits about each activity. To make sure these details describe your activities clearly, let's review the three chances the Common Application gives you to provide activity details.

First, the Common Application lets you select the type of activity (like "Debate/Speech") from a drop-down menu. Yes, please do scan through all of the choices before choosing. But this step is easy enough.

Sometimes, you'll have to split an activity into multiple entries. For example, if you play violin in the high school orchestra and for a local retirement community, then (assuming both are "principal" activities) you would list each of these two activities separately. By splitting an activity, you show depth and get extra space to describe it. But use common sense. You only want to split an activity if it has discernible components and if you consider each of those components a "principal" activity. When in doubt, err on the side of depth, not breadth. Splitting only to show breadth is pointless.

Second, the Common Application lets you describe in your own words "Position Held, Honors Won, Letters Earned, or Employer." For example, you might write "President." If you've participated in an activity like Key Club for three years but have only been president for one year, no problem. Just add the grade level when you served as president: "President (11)." Multiple positions for a single activity? List them in succession: "Vice President (10); President (11)."

Third, the Common Application lets you describe in your own words "Details and Accomplishments." Start by defending against confusion. You don't want the reader to have a "What the heck is that?" response. So if the position or honor or employer you described might leave the reader wondering what you're talking about, clarify. After you defend against confusion, go on offense by describing your best highlight. It might be frustrating to condense hours and years of commitment into 2 lines, but relax - everyone has the same space constraints. These constraints simplify your task because you only need to describe one great accomplishment. And of course, if an activity really matters to you, you can write about it in the essay.

Activities List Tip #4: Use action verbs.

Having a title, a role, or a responsibility is fine, but colleges want to see that you've done something. Action verbs automatically show what you've done. If you're not sure how to describe an accomplishment, start by finding an action verb you like. I like Boston College's list of resume action verbs, which is organized by category (instead of alphabetically, which is annoying).

Activities List Tip #5: Use numbers.

Whenever possible, use numbers to quantify your achievements. If you won a prize, say how many contestants there were. Saying "1st place out of 240 contestants" sounds better than "1st place." If you raised money, say how much. Saying "Raised $1,132 from 32 donors" sounds better than "Raised money from community." If you supervised people, say how many. Saying "Supervised 3 sales associates" sounds better than saying "Supervised sales associates."

As you can see, numbers provide lots of detail in very little space, and they stand out from text on a page. If you really can't think of how to use a number, or if using a number feels too forced, then fine, don't use a number. Just let that decision be intentional, not accidental. Usually, with a little brainstorming, you'll figure out how to work in some numbers.

Final Thoughts on the Common Application Activities List

Mark Twain is supposed to have commented, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Though the space limitations of the activities list liberate you to focus on the best highlight for each activity, don't assume that space limitation means you'll be able to finish in thirty minutes. Concise writing takes time. Start writing your activities list early.

I hope you'll find today's tips helpful when you write your Common Application activities list. If you like them, please share them with your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.