Bonnie Kleffman, M.Ed., GCDF
Tips for Creating a Common Application Activity List
Updated: Mar 20
One of the most difficult questions to answer in any interview situation is the elusive, “So, tell me a little bit about yourself...” Even the most polished adult might struggle with the perfect answer. For our senior scholars, completing the college application can be a longer, more tedious way of answering this very question, and if not informed correctly it can elicit the same cringe and create even more teenage procrastination. Never fear! The following is a simple breakdown to make the most out of the common application activities list.
Although the personal statement or main essay is often thought to be the most difficult task, the ACTIVITIES LIST is one of the most defining pieces of the application. Though it isn’t an exact science, there is quite a bit of nuance to composing, sorting and editing an activities list that showcases a student’s strengths.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: WHAT IS IT?
The activities list is a place on the college application reserved for all non-academic pursuits. These things will not be found on a transcript and aren’t reflective of GPA or class rank. Anything extracurricular is included here, and it is an excellent way for an admissions officer to ascertain how a student will fit in and contribute to their college campus. In deciding what to include and how to order the activities, students can illustrate that there is much more to love about them than just their grades and test scores!
“The ACTIVITIES LIST is one of the most defining pieces of the application”
WHAT IS INCLUDED?
Sports, clubs/organizations, community service, employment and even dedicated hobbies can all be listed here. Think broadly about how you spent your time outside of the classroom. If you are the class president, great! If you taught yourself how to ride a unicycle or if you brought baked goods to elderly neighbors during the pandemic, this also counts!
I recommend starting with a brain dump of everything you have been involved in since the summer before 9th grade year. For younger students, keep a running list and add to it regularly! Write detailed descriptions out longhand, including the following details:
Name of Activity
Name of club/organization/team/group (if applicable)
Number of years you did the activity, hours per week/weeks per year (use present tense if you are still doing it!)
Any leadership positions you have held (more on this later)
Any quantifiable data (How much money did you raise? How many competed for the award?)
What impact did you make by doing this activity? (Think BIG picture.)
Some of these things are easily quantifiable (working 15 hours per week) and some are less so, such as leadership or impact. These things may be defined broadly. Not everyone can be captain of the team, but most of us play leadership roles within organizations whether we have a title or not. Even if you did not have an elected leadership position, think about the role you played within the organization. Did you remind members of group meetings? Did you suggest new fundraising ideas? Were you the one to hold band sectionals in your backyard? Feel free to go broad when thinking about leadership and impact. Did you solve a problem in your neighborhood or write a blog during the pandemic to stay connected to your environmental science club? All of these things count.
HOW DO I RANK THEM?
This is where art and science blend together. The Common App has space for 10 activities (other platforms may have more, but for our purposes we will focus on the top 10). Grab a pencil and take a look at your list, then add up the points using the following structure:
If you have participated in the activity (or plan to) for all four years of high school, assign 4 points to the activity.
If you participated for three years, assign 3 points.
Give two points for 2 years, etc.
If you held the top leadership or were the founder of the organization/club/ team, assign a 4.
If you held a second or third in command, assign 3.
If you had an unassigned leadership role, assign 2.
For membership, assign 1.
If the activity is original to you or something that contributes to the greater good that YOU started, and is directly related to your intended major, assign a 4.(Did you solve a community problem? Did you write a book or do a major capstone project?)
If the activity is directly related to your future career or major but not unique to you, assign a 3
If the activity is indirectly related or you can make a connection to your future career or major, assign a 2.
If you do the activity for 20 or more hours per week, give it a 4.
For 15 hours(ish), assign 3.
For 10 hours, assign 2.
For five or fewer, assign 1.
The items that get the most points go toward the top!
HOW TO WRITE THEM?
From your long and quantified description, trim unnecessary words ruthlessly until you are left with words and phrases that are as economical as possible. My favorite example of this is from the ever-brilliant Ethan Sawyer:
“Because the space you’re using is so limited, the words you choose are incredibly important.
Actually, let me rephrase: Because your space is limited, your word choice is important.
One more time: Limited space demands precise wording.
See what I did there? Cut my character count from 92, to 61, to 37.”
Wait? CHARACTER count? Yes, you read that correctly. You are allotted only a small number of characters per section of each activity:
Position/Leadership Description - 50 characters
Organization Name - 100 characters
Activity Description - 150 characters
The verbs you use are strong and direct. You did not simply participate or lead, you pioneered, founded, developed, collaborated and adapted. You enabled, informed and assisted, prepared and discussed. You get the point. If it is an activity that you are still doing, please use the present tense.
Remember, responsibilities can demonstrate leadership skills, so find a way to include these in the most efficient way for maximum impact.
If you were just a member or participant, it is perfectly OK to simply list that. But if it is a one-time volunteer event, note why the event mattered and to whom. If it taught you important soft skills or helped you improve at something you love to do, then it is worthy!
Application Nation’s Sara Harberson suggests that students “give them something different for the position line and the description line. Focus on something that no one else will write in the position line. The more clever you can be, the more you can stand out.”
Her examples is a student who starts playing a sport and never makes it to varsity. They describe themselves as a “JV Player, Suburban High School Girls’ Basketball.” This is accurate, but kind of boring. Better might be “Beginner to Starter in a Flash, JV Basketball”. Best might be describing it in more “real” terms. “I never thought I would call myself an athlete, but here I am 4 years later starting as the point guard at 5’1! It may only be JV, but it’s my team.”
In completing the activities list, scholars are answering a very important part of the “Tell me about yourself” question! These things make you three dimensional, so if there is something to which you have devoted lots of time that makes you unique, list it! This is how you can stand out in the admissions process and in life!