Activities, Activities and More Activities: The Best “10” for Common App & How to Effectively Express Them

When I work with students on filling out the “Activities” section on Common App (and on Coalition – 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 in commenting upon, editing, and actually meeting with college-bound students to generate the best 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 is where students have the chance to highlight all of their academic, extracurricular, sports, and career-driven achievements.

3. Students should approach the “Activities” section with some thoughtful preparation beforehand. It can be daunting to go directly onto Common App, add “10 activities” 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 their thoughts.

4. The spreadsheet should include columns that list the following information:

  • Activity type (academic, sports, community service, research, etc.)
  • Activity title (including position held/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 (one whole hour – no explanations are allowed)
  • Weeks spent per year (same as above)
  • 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 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, they are more relieved and less overwhelmed when having their spreadsheet alongside of them.

7. The “Activities” section description (150 characters max) should preferably be written in 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 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 to pick up on any strange 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).

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Five Common Misconceptions About Writing the Personal Statement (as believed through the eyes of rising seniors)

Of course it’s normal and natural to want to put your best foot forward when making a positive first impression—especially when it comes to crafting a personal statement that college admissions officers will read in order to learn something about your life.

When I coach students through the personal statement development process, I have come to realize that time and time again, their thoughts on how to present themselves don’t really match up with the reality of how they should tell a personal narrative that is thought provoking, memorable, reflective, and creative.

5 Misconceptions + Advice

1. The personal statement should be a resume or an activity sheet

Advice: The Common App gives students the opportunity to list their 10 most important/impressive activities for colleges to review. Furthermore, there are many schools that provide supplemental essay prompts regarding extracurricular achievement or may even request a formal resume. However, the personal statement is NOT a resume or an activity sheet – a specific event or an accomplishment can be recounted based upon a guiding prompt but the accomplishment itself is not the heart of the essay, rather the steps and process it took to arrive at the outcome which demonstrate reflection, problem solving, and facing challenges.

2. The personal statement should reveal EVERYTHING about “me”

Advice: A gut reaction held by many students is to try and fit 20+ personal attributes and characteristics into their personal statement so they can demonstrate all of their positive qualities to the admissions officers in order to “win them over”. Instead of listing them without context, students should try to focus on a couple of strong attributes that they possess and weave them through their story by “showing” how they are out-of-the-box thinkers or why they are sympathetic to the needs of others rather than overtly stating it.

3. The personal statement isn’t a place to reveal failure

Advice: Contrary to popular belief, many of the Common App prompts encourage students to reflect on a time of personal growth, challenges and failures that they have faced, and mistakes that they have made. Throughout the course of the narrative, admissions officers are looking for a student’s vulnerable side and how they navigated a difficult situation regardless of the outcome – what is important here is what the student has learned from the experience and how it has helped them grow as a person.

4. The personal statement must take on a serious tone

Advice: Although writing conventions should be respected to show a strong command of written expression and knowledge of English grammar and punctuation in a flawless manner, students are usually concerned about revealing their sense of humor or creativity in fear that may come off as being too casual or too “out there”. In essence, the personal statement can be beautifully translated into a piece of creative writing that shows wit and even one’s quirky side by taking the reader on twists and turns as the plot develops.

5. The personal statement should reveal study and career aspirations

Advice: If the student’s narrative is based around a research query, internship experience, or an academic event that marks an important learning experience or a pivotal moment in which they have found their “calling”, then discussing study and career aspirations is fine. Yet of course told in the context of a story that shows how they were inspired or “guided” in the direction that they desire and relate it back to life experiences that have shaped them to take this path. However, essays that are written as a statement of purpose (like those postgraduate degree candidates would write) would not be appropriate here.

By Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

The New Student on Campus: 5 Tips to Be the Best Version of You!

Fast forward past the sleepless nights leading up to your arrival on campus. Fast forward past the excitement mixed with anxiety when you say goodbye to your family and friends back home. Fast forward past the flight or drive that it takes to even get to campus. Push play on the reality of what it means to actually “show up”.

One’s arrival on campus as an incoming freshman can be daunting—does the expression “being a little fish in a big pond” ring a bell? Although you may at first feel overwhelmed when having to establish your place at your new school (which is totally normal!), here are five tips on how to make the transition easier along with putting your best foot forward when meeting your roommate, classmates, teammates, professors, and academic advisor.

  1. Be polite and presentable – remember all of the manners that your parents have instilled over the years? This is the perfect time to put them to good use. Hello! How are you? Please, thank you, and nice to meet you go along way. First impressions (fortunately/unfortunately depending on how you view them) mean a lot, too; therefore be well kept when attending your first days of classes, going to ‘Meet & Greet’ student events, and checking out extra curricular activities during club fairs.
  2. Set personal and academic goals – think about certain objectives (and even write them down) as to why you have chosen your major, what you hope to learn/do at your new school, and what you hope to achieve at present and in the near future. In this way, you are putting your intentions into action and forward motion!
  3. Get social (without social media) – ask questions, introduce yourself, attend campus events, join clubs, try out for a sports team, sit with new groups of students in the dining hall, knock on your dorm mate’s door that is opposite of and next to yours…our natural inclination as humans is to sometimes hide when we are out of our comfort zone. Yet don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and make your presence known! In person opportunities to meet others is a sure way of expanding your social circle.
  4. Take care of yourself – it may seem like the last thing on your list of concerns, but one’s health and well-being should always be their first priority. Make sure that you give yourself needed time to keep up with deadlines by staying organized to prevent unnecessary stress, try your best to make healthy choices while in the dining hall (but of course a good junk food binge now and then is also part of the college experience!), avoid too much caffeine because if you consume too much, you are literally drinking up your sleep, and of course, get needed rest so that you can function at a more productive rate during your waking hours.
  5. Meet assignments and take pride in your work – although it’s normal to want to impress your professors, TAs, and even classmates, the person that you should be most concerned with impressing the most is you! Try your best to succeed, even in the face of failure. As long as you know that you have done all that you could have to realize an assignment, study for an exam, and submit a paper, you will develop a positive work ethic and self-image. You will truly surprise yourself! A word to the wise: although one aspires to achieve good grades, there are times that you may work extremely hard but the results aren’t as you have hoped. Remember that we all are human and there is always room for improvement…just as long as you are willing!

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Accepted! Now What?! 10 Pieces of Advice to Help You Make Your Final Decision

After that dreaded period of anticipation of waiting to see if/when an acceptance letter will arrive after completing the tedious task of applying to college, you finally get your first acceptance letter followed by some others. Ah, a sigh a relief! Yet another dilemma crops up…you ask yourself the burning question over and over again, “Which school should I choose?” Yet it doesn’t end there. Seeking out additional support and advice, you also turn to nearly everyone that will listen including (but not limited to) parents, siblings, relatives, friends, teachers, and coaches.

Although choosing the school that best suites your wants and needs is one of the most important decisions that you will be faced with while shaping your academic career, it is also one of those rare moments in time in which you should feel a great sense of accomplishment because all of your hard work and efforts have paid off throughout high school and luckily, you have options.

Here are 10 pieces of advice to take both to heart and mind when making your final decision:

  1. Take your time – if you are still waiting for more options, take this time to reflect. Yet be sure to adhere to deadlines that require your response by a given due date. Make a note in your calendar so you don’t forget!
  2. Do your research – look up some information and/or review some previous info that you have already gathered on each school so that when you make your final decision, it is an informed one.
  3. Make a list of “Pros & Cons” – literally sit down with a piece of paper and pen in hand. When comparing and contrasting the various schools that you have been accepted to, write down key factors that are both positive and negative in helping you determine which school has the most “pros”…for you.
  4. Evaluate your finances – conduct specialized research on the cost of each school including tuition, housing, meal plans, and any extra fees (i.e. study abroad, use of facilities). Once you have done this, talk to your family about your financial circumstances. If you have received scholarships and other types of financial assistance, these may be your deciding factors!
  5. Talk to your most trusted group of listeners – ultimately this decision is yours to make, but it is also helpful to have a good network of people that you trust and that you feel can guide you in a positive direction.
  6. Reach out to current students & alumni – once you have narrowed down your top choices, try to reach out to current students (and even alumni) through social media in order to get some feedback about their experiences, both past and present, at your school(s) of interest.
  7. OKAY, time is now up – once the moment has arrived, you should feel confident in your decision and you should proudly be able to confirm your attendance at the school of your choice. Once you have, be sure to follow deadlines that are asked of you regarding filling out information in the school’s portal, addressing any needed documentation, and payment.
  8. Inform the other schools – take the time to let the other colleges and universities know that you will not be attending so that you can give another student the possibility to fill your spot.
  9. Take a deep breath – after making any type of important life decision, it is always helpful to literally take a breath and take some time to “decompress” in order to re-energize. 
  10. Get to graduation – although it may seem like a “done deal” now that you have been accepted to college and have given your response to attend, this doesn’t mean that you are in the clear. Finish out your high school career as best as you can!

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Real College Stories & Advice for College-bound Students

Read through posts that provide great tips, strategies, and advice about once you get accepted into college and what to expect once you begin your undergraduate journey on campus and perhaps even abroad! For any inquires, please contact us and feel free to comment!

Supplemental Essay Example #3: Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

Don’t spend too much time describing. Rather, focus on analyzing a character, person, or work and its influence on you. When did you come across the essay’s subject? What attracted you to it? How and why has it influenced you? The explanation is the core of this type of essay, as it will reveal your personality and passions.

Remember that a “creative work” doesn’t necessarily have to apply to the studio arts or literature. Every field, from engineering and math to psychology and medicine, requires creative thinking for progress.Focus a bit more on the subject’s “influence on you.” After all, admissions officers are reading your essay to learn about you and no one else.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Supplemental Essay Example #2: Discuss an important local, national, or international issue and its importance to you.

Again, this is not the place to superficially summarize. To discuss means to think critically about a topic and to analyze it in depth. When faced with this question, most students write about major, complex, and global issues such as the detrimental effects of global warming on the environment. Such broad topics are unoriginal and impersonal. Choose a smaller issue or one that you can actually affect with your “one person” actions. The point of this, as with any essay, is to reveal something about yourself. Maybe there were too many homeless people in your local community so you started organizing students to volunteer at the soup kitchen after school. Maybe religious intolerance bothers you, so you started reading various religions’ core texts in order to have a more unbiased point of view on such an important aspect of people’s lives. Whatever you choose to write about, be sure to make it as much about you as possible.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Supplemental Essay Example #1: Evaluate an important experience and its impact on you.

If you are ever asked to “evaluate” anything, your response must involve critical thinking and analysis. A summary of the experience is necessary to provide context, but the meat of your essay should be your discussion on how the experience affected you for the better. (College essays should always be focused on positive change and self-growth, so if an experience made you cynical or pessimistic, choose another one.).

Many students have difficulty coming up with a “significant” experience as they deem their high school lives too trivial. Even if you haven’t yet stepped into the “real world,” you’ve definitely had important moments. What about the first time you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone? Or an epiphany you had—perhaps realizing you need to make your own decisions, no matter how much they may defy your parents’ wishes? Even choosing an uncommon major can be an exciting risk to write about. Don’t worry if you haven’t rescued anyone or changed the world yet—you are still a teenager.

Don’t brag! It is too obvious when students are using their essays to show off about a success—be it scoring the winning goal in the soccer championships or being voted class president among fierce competition. These topics are fine if and only if you are very wary of your tone. In order not to come off as a self-consumed egotist, make sure to convey appreciation for the involved community, be it teammates or voters. Colleges want applicants who will play an active role in the student body, so be to include those who accompanied you toward success.

Show your character. This is your chance to reveal your personality, values, and sense of humor. While exploring an experience’s impact on you, be sure to convey a sense of self-awareness, community, and humility.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Why Embracing Writing Makes High School and College Life Infinitely Easier

After receiving a C+ on “How to Write an Effective High School Paper,” a 10th grade writing assignment that was given to my classmates and me in September, I couldn’t help but think that the year ahead was going to be a complete struggle and bore. Ugh! I thought when seeing my carefully handwritten three-page paper all marked up with red lines, symbols, and illegible comments by my English teacher. In my defense, the other students received from the C to F range, with the exception of one girl who got a B-.

Mrs. Brown (*name change to protect the innocent) positioned herself as the type of teacher who would never even dream of giving out an easy A; it would only be earned if merited. The sight of Mrs. Brown each afternoon could turn your stomach after lunch. Oh, the demands she had on us to become highly effective writers and readers with a strong command of the English language!

One day when another classmate began to zone out during her lecture, she called him out—however, through use of empathy instead of wrath. She opened up and for the first time shared a little bit of her own experience as a high school student with us. She talked about her struggles with writing and how with diligence, she transformed her weaknesses into her strength. She admitted that she too would find herself zoning out as a student only to find that she missed out “on all the learning” that she could have benefited from.

In that moment, Mrs. Brown seemed different; she crossed the line from teacher to one of us: a human. She explained how learning in general can be so much more interesting if one actually pays attention. She added that when one continuously looks at the clock or out the window, time will never pass, and learning feels like a chore, whereas when one is engaged, time passes quickly, and one even wants more of it.

The next day, when I took my seat, I determined to listen intently and perform to the best of my ability so that I too wouldn’t miss out on all of the important things I needed to learn. It worked like magic! The class period flew by, and I finally understood some key writing elements that I was previously fuzzy on.

Mrs. Brown’s class surprisingly ended up becoming my favorite that year, and I ultimately earned my A. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.  If it wasn’t for her hard but meaningful lectures, writing activities, and numerous requests of essay revisions, I don’t believe I would have developed my writing skills and passion for literary expression.

For the remainder of my high school and college career, my confidence as a writer helped me achieve better results and assisted me to reach heights never imagined. It also made my studies that much easier. Other teachers and professors would even compliment me on my abilities and command of my language expression.

So what’s the point of all of this? Writing not only becomes one of the fundamental skills that we need to use as students, but it is used in our everyday lives; both personally and professionally in all types of forms. It’s a type of communication that gives us freedom—the freedom to share our innermost thoughts and convictions with our readers.

By Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

College Admission: Essays

Read through posts that provide great tips, strategies, and advice to calm “essay anxiety” when affronting the admission essay process! For any inquires, please contact us and feel free to comment!