When I work with students on filling out the “Activities” section of the Common App (and of the Coalition App – which asks for eight activities rather than ten), many times I am met with a range of concerns and uncertainty as to what should be included, what shouldn’t, and how to effectively describe each activity. Based upon my years of experience guiding college-bound students to generate the best activities list possible that highlights their strengths, talents, participation, and commitment, I have come up with some helpful advice to make the process more efficient and successful.
1. First of all, an undergraduate Personal Statement is not the place for a resume or an activity-list style composition. It is a place to express a personal narrative that reflects growth, self-awareness, and perspective based upon a meaningful life event/experience.
2. Therefore, the “Activities” section of the application is where students have the chance to highlight all of their academic, extracurricular, sports, arts, and career-driven achievements.
3. Students should approach the “Activities” section with some thoughtful preparation in advance. It can be daunting to go directly onto Common App/Coalition, add “10 activities” each of which asks for title, position, organization (if known) followed by a description that asks for 150 characters (which is about 25 words) followed by questions pertaining to grade-level participation and activity frequency. Therefore, students should create an Excel spreadsheet or spreadsheet on Google docs to gather and organize their thoughts.
4. The spreadsheet should include columns that list the following information:
- Activity type (academic, sports, arts, community service, research, etc.)
- Activity title (including position held/name of the organization)
- Activity description (a brief description that states responsibilities, leadership roles, what is/was accomplished, prizes won, etc.)
- Participation grade level (9-12)
- Hours spent per week (in hours – no explanations are allowed)
- Weeks spent per year (in hours – no explanations are allowed)
- Possible college participation in the activity or one that is similar (a simple yes or no answer is needed)
5. So, what types of activities are important? Those relating to research, leadership roles, academic competitions, career-related pursuits, internships, work related experiences, science/math achievements, performing or fine arts, sports (especially at the JV/Varsity levels), participation in school clubs, and community service. IF a student feels that they can’t reach “10” of the above activities, then they can think about travel, family responsibilities, independent studies, hobbies/interests, and school spirit.
6. Once the spreadsheet is established, students can fill out their activities (preferably from most impressive to least impressive). Even if they come up with twenty ideas, it’s fine! Process of elimination can then follow. When it’s time to then input the information into Common App/Coalition, students will be more relieved and less overwhelmed when having their spreadsheet alongside of them.
7. The “Activities” section description (150 characters maximum) should preferably be written in the third-person singular (like a resume) and in the appropriate tense depending on if the activity has concluded or if it is ongoing.
8. Once all the information is entered, students should go into “preview mode” on Common App/Coalition and copy and paste all the information into a Microsoft Word document for a spelling/grammar check. They should also read their activities and descriptions out loud—yes, out loud!—to pick up on any clunky or awkward-sounding phrasing. Proofreading always matters! If anything needs to be adjusted, they should do so first in the word doc and then update the corrections on Common App.
9. Afterwards, students can use the “up and down” arrows to adjust their activities in the order of importance (the 1st being the most impressive to the 10th as being the least impressive on the list—even though indeed it is probably still important).
10. And voila, you can exhale!