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

Where Thoughts Meet Words: Guiding Questions & Statements to Make the Brainstorming Part of the Personal Statement (Much) Easier

One of the most challenging things about writing is sitting down to a “new” word document or to a piece of lined paper. If the piece of paper or doc were to have eyes, chances are it would stare blankly at you, waiting for you to make the first move. It may even snicker at your inability to come up with an idea. Thankfully though, this horrifying scene is 0% true since a piece of paper or a word doc is simply a surface that allows us to transform our thoughts in a concrete matter when recording them into written words.

Although the process of starting something from scratch can be exciting, it could also be quite overwhelming. Luckily, writing is an expressive and creative medium that allows for one to engage in a process of stream of thought (the process of writing down the first thing or things that come to mind) or brainstorming (literally partaking in the process of thinking in order to come up with ideas and solutions) in a way that feels safe. This sense of safety is because you, the writer, have the freedom to think about and write down what you would like to without fear of being judged.

Insider tip: the first step in any good writing practice is to brainstorm—whether it be to address a research question, write a personal narrative, or to develop an expository essay…just to name a few.

When faced with the task of starting on the personal statement, one may be too caught up with self-doubt as to if their story is worth telling or not. For this reason, by jotting down, recalling, or reflecting upon various life events and experiences that are important and/or memorable to you is the perfect place to begin. By engaging in this type of activity, you give form to your thoughts that can lead way to a really great personal narrative in which can later be transformed into your final personal statement!

Here are some key questions/guiding statements that you can use to help you when faced with the initial step of getting some ideas down on paper – feel free to write short hand notes or an extensive paragraph; remember that this process is about you and you only. Therefore, enjoy it, you may really surprise yourself!

  1. What is my favorite academic subject and why? What was one of the key memories that sparked my interest in this subject area?
  2. What has been my greatest success to date? What were the steps I took to achieve success? How did I feel within the moment in which I accomplished what I set out to do?
  3. What has been my greatest challenge so far and how did I overcome it or what steps I am taking to overcome it?
  4. What is one of my most unique and special talents? How did I discover that I have this talent?
  5. The extracurricular activity that I pursue with passion is….I do this because….
  6. What are my best three character traits and why?
  7. How would I describe my family life? How has my family life shaped who I am as a person?
  8. How has my background/religion/culture/country of origin shaped who I am as a person?
  9. The three things (can be: people/places/things/animals) in my life that are most impacting to me are….because….
  10. One of the biggest life lessons that I have learned thus far has been…I learned this lesson by…it has made me more….

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Acing the College Interview

What is the purpose of the admissions interview? The interview gives the college you’re applying to another opportunity to get to know you better, and should hence be embraced rather than feared. The interviewer will likely ask you questions about your academic and personal interests, your intended major, and how you can contribute to the school. Here, you also have the chance to ask about the school and/or the local community to further show that you have done your research. After your interview, the interviewer will write notes on your conversation, providing the school with another means of evaluating you.

What are the forms of the interview? Not all colleges offer interviews to prospective applicants, and those who do can either offer the interviews on-campus, near where you live, or online through Skype or Google Hangout. As the college applicant pool is increasingly globalized, online interviews are becoming more common. Interviews are usually 15-25 minutes long, though they may be shorter or longer.

Does the interview help international students, or does it lower their admission chances? Whether an international or American applicant, whether or not the interview increases or decreases your chances of admission fully depends on how you perform. It is thus important to fully know yourself and your interests so that you feel confident speaking about them. It is also important to possess basic conversational skills (remembering that a conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue; being polite and poised; speaking fluidly; sounding enthusiastic rather than indifferent or listless).

If the school offers the option for an interview, you should definitely take it because it shows that you are truly interested in attending. If your non-native English skills are making you hesitate in signing up for the interview, immediately vanquish such thoughts! Don’t worry about making small grammatical mistakes or that your pronunciation isn’t up to par—the interviewer wants to evaluate you as a person, not as an English speaker! Interviewers and admissions officers alike are well aware that once you spend a few months studying and living in America, your English will skyrocket anyway.

Sample Interview Questions (and what they’re really asking)

Tell me about yourself.

This deceptively simple command speaks volumes about its respondent. How do you define yourself? Do you define yourself by your ethnicity, your (religious) beliefs, your personal characteristics, your interests, your strengths, your goals, or your dreams? Your response will probably incorporate many of these elements. How you choose to convey yourself to others indirectly shows your priorities or character traits that you value the most. Don’t use hackneyed adjectives such as “persistent” or “empathetic” or a “global citizen.” In fact, don’t even describe yourself with adjectives-ever! Your actions should speak for themselves.

Why do you want to apply XX University?

Schools want to know that yes, you have done your research and that you aren’t simply applying for the school’s location, reputation, or prestige. Is the major or academic program unique from how it’s typically offered at other colleges? Is there a specific course or curricula requirement you’re itching to take? Does the department boast prominent researchers, some of whose work interests you enough to consider joining their team? Check out the website for your major’s department to get clues. Are there any special academic opportunities such as academic fraternities or dual Bachelor-Master’s programs? Also browse the college’s clubs listing and see if anything interests you. Is there an intramural sport you would like to join? Or an international club? Do any of the school’s mottos, values, or traditions speak to you? By mentioning specific aspects of the university, you show that you have put ample thought into where to spend your prime youth years.

What do you like to do for fun?

Rather than repeating interests already evident in your essays or activity’s sheet, what else do you enjoy? Are you a bookworm? An avid gardener? A promising baker who likes to create meticulous desserts? A hardcore gamer? No matter what you choose, be sure to mention what you enjoy about each activity. And as always, be specific. Don’t tell me you like to read. Tell me you’re obsessed with 19th century Russian literature. Don’t tell me you like to watch movies on the couch with your sister. Tell me your favorite moments are watching chick flicks with her while bingeing on ice cream—and then list some movies you guys adore and/or some of your favorite ice cream toppings! If you are so passionate about an interest already mentioned in the rest of your application package, you can mention it again but simply gloss over it and expand on something else. Remember, in your overall application package you want to showcase different facets of yourself to prove that you’re a multidimensional human rather than a one-trick pony.

Why do you want to major in XX?

I’m sure that you’ve already spent significant time already thinking about your intended major. Now’s the time to share what spurs your interest in this field with others. Don’t choose shallow reasons such as job security or a high salary. Rather, think about what fascinates you about this field. What about it makes it worth devoting four full years and perhaps even a lifetime to? Will the major be a stepping-stone to graduate studies or toward achieving certain career goals?

What are your academic strengths?

When discussing your academic strengths, explain how you’ve capitalized on them. If you’re an excellent organizer, how have you applied this to scheduling your activities and coursework? If you’re an excellent leader, how have you demonstrated these abilities through group projects? If you’re an excellent chemist, what particularly challenging experiments have you completed? How do you plan on continuing to use your strengths?

What are your academic weaknesses?

Colleges are aware that all humans are flawed, and they want to see that you have the drive and intelligence to succeed despite challenges. Try revealing strategies or specific approaches you’ve taken to improve your academic weaknesses. Maybe your pronunciation or grammar was skewed and you started watching more American television series to get a more natural feel for the language. Maybe learned how to make use of fragmented time to cram in more activities. Most applicants choose procrastination, which is not something you want to admit to a college who’s hoping that at least some of its students will make achievements in their field. A lot of students also choose perfectionism as a flaw, which is an obvious humble brag. Don’t be that person.

What will you contribute to this school?

Colleges want to admit students who will not only take in terms of academic resources, but who will also give to the school. How can you improve the campus community? Play upon your strengths. Are you a talented violinist who wants to join the school orchestra? Do you want to serve as a peer tutor in any subject? Do you bring a fresh cultural perspective to the table? What would the school gain in accepting you? Be specific.

Where do you see yourself five/ten years from now?

Of course, no one expects you to have your whole future figured out, and colleges understand that plans are likely to change. What they do want is students with direction, students who set goals and are motivated to achieve them. Don’t speak in general, idealistic terms such as: “I hope to positively contribute to my community and improve this world through a fulfilling career.” What’s your dream job? What are some specific activities you’d like to do? Do you want to have your own family? Do you want to travel to certain countries? Do you want to regularly see your college or high school friends? Don’t limit your plans to professional goals.

What would you change about your current school?

Think about the strengths and weaknesses of your high school. What are some of its specific problems? What are the consequences of those problems? What steps would you take to make improvements? With this question, colleges are looking for your ability to identify problems and get a better understanding of what you’re looking for in a school. By learning what you’d change, they get a chance to learn more about what matters to you. Be specific and respectful, and never talk badly about your own teachers, school, or country’s educational system.

Whom do you most admire?

From this question, colleges can get a sense of your values. Many students choose a historical figure, teacher, or parent for this response. You can be a bit bold and choose a character from a novel, a celebrity, or even a superhero if your reasons for admiring that individual are solid. What has that person done that is so worthy of your respect? What admirable traits do they possess?

What’s your favorite book?

Your entertainment interests (e.g., favorite books, movies, television shows) reveal a lot about you. When you’re answering this question, think about why you enjoyed this particular book so much. Was the plot stimulating, full of twists and turns? Was the protagonist a positive role model? Was the writing style humorous? Was the dialogue hilarious? Did you particularly enjoy the writer’s tone? Did one of the characters resonate with you? Has this book exposed you to a new genre, literary movement, author, or writing style? Has it shaped your perspectives or beliefs?

Tell me about a challenge or failure you’ve faced. Did you overcome it? How did it affect you?

Throughout your life, it is unavoidable that you will experience challenges, setbacks, and failures. As the educator Dewey used to say, “failure is just a learning opportunity.” Admissions officers want to see that you can mess up here and there but that more importantly, you can assess and grow from your mistakes. The ability to objectively consider the consequences of one’s actions and in turn learn from them is a sign of a mature individual, the type of student any college would desire in its student body.

When responding to this question, quickly and clearly describe the challenge/failure and then focus on how responded to and what you learned from that experience. Be honest in describing your reaction to the failure. Were you angry at yourself? Surprised? Did the failure motivate you to act? The lessons learned from the failure are the most important part of this essay. Include a thorough self-analysis and introspection that demonstrate your self-awareness. The point of this question is to show that you can evaluate, learn from, and move on failures.

Do you have any questions for me?

Remember that the interview is a two-way street, and don’t be afraid to show up to your interview with a small list of questions. Some things you could ask: What was most memorable about your time at the college? If you could do it all over again, would you change anything about your college experience? What was your favorite course or professor? Is there any event or activity I should definitely not miss out on? If you can’t find the answers on the school website, you could also ask questions about academic programs, specific courses, the “vibe” on campus, tidbits about the school’s customs and history, or highlights in the local community.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Tackling the Common App – Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This prompt is very broad, as there are a plethora beliefs or ideas to be questioned. Was the idea you questioned your own, your family’s, or your school’s? Or was it even broader than that, such as a socially accepted or cultural norm? Whatever belief you choose to discuss, make sure it is central to your identity.

The first two parts of the prompt ask you to address why you challenged the belief in the first place. What motivated you to act? The last question basically implies, was your decision worth it? Was your action worth the consequences and efforts? If not, that is okay. College is all about questioning beliefs and testing out ideas.

By: Andrea Schiralli

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

Essay Topics to Avoid

Your heroism. If you saved someone in a swimming pool and that experience really changed you, okay, write about it. Just make sure the essay does not come off as arrogant. Be humble when describing your heroic (a word to avoid in the essay, by the way) efforts.

Pity me! Topics that call upon self-pity may even raise a red-flag as to how ready you are to handle college at this point. Save these topics for a psychology class or your diary.

Excuses. Related to “Pity me!” excuses (divorce or death in the family, moving to a new school, etc.) for bad grades should be explained in a supplemental attachment. Most applications provide an area where you can explain extenuating circumstances which may have affected your academic record. Keep these short and sweet, and most importantly, far away from your main essays.

The travel itinerary. So many students write about traveling that it is no longer a unique topic. If one excursion changed you for the better or opened your eyes in some way, focus on it. Just make sure to explore the important aspects of the journey in-depth and introspectively, rather than providing an itinerary of places you’ve been to.

Touchy religious or political issues. Major issues such as abortion, the legalization of marijuana, and overseas wars are extremely divisive. Though you may be convinced your arguments are solid and that your point of view is “right,” no one likes being lectured to. The risks of offending the admissions officers are too high, so save these types of essays for history, political science, or sociology courses once/if you’re accepted.

Dating/sex life. Writing about a steamy or controversial topic may be an easy way to grab attention, but it will likely just embarrass your reader. Avoid topics you would not feel comfortable speaking to a stranger with. Some aspects of life are best kept private.

Drug use. Every college has to deal with on-campus substance abuse. Even if you’ve overcome the hardest of addictions, your admissions essay is no place to mention it.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Types of College Application Essays

Though some schools (e.g., Wake Forest, UChicago, Brown) will have their own bizarre essay prompts, most college essays can be grouped into a type, the most common being:

The Personal Statement: The first essay prompt in the Common App is a perfect example of an essay that asks students to write about themselves. It goes: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

When responding to this prompt, choose an experience or activity that played an important role in your life but that does not appear somewhere else on your application. For example, if your transcript and extracurriculars include a lot of orchestra classes and music prizes, do not write about playing the violin. Remember, the whole point of the essay is to show admissions officers a side of you that the rest of your application does not reveal. Show that you are multidimensional human being!

Your Favorite Activity: Choose an activity you are passionate about—be it a sport, random hobby (e.g. stamp collecting), or extracurricular activity (e.g. volunteering, hiking on weekends).

When responding to this prompt, think about what you do in your free time. Why is whatever you choose to write about your favorite activity? How do you feel when you are engaged in it? Show that you have a deep passion for something and that you have an intellectual understanding of it.

Why School?: This essay prompt specifically asks you why you want to spend your prime youth years at the college in mind. The prompt may ask: “Why is this college a good fit for you?” or “Tell us about your career goals and plans you may have for your studies.” This essay allows you to show your interest in the school and why you are a good fit.

When responding to this prompt, it is crucial to do a lot of research into the school and into the specific program you are applying to. Is the major or academic program unique from how it is typically offered at other colleges? Is there a specific course or curricula requirement which you’re itching to take? Does the department boast prominent researchers, some of whose work interests you enough to consider joining their team? Check out the website for your major’s department to get clues. Browse the college’s clubs listing and see if anything interests you. Is there an intramural sport you would like to join? Or an international club? By mentioning specific aspects of the university that appeal to you, you show that you put a good amount of thought into your application decision. So, be specific.

Here, you also want to show that if admitted, you would make positive contributions to the school community. Play upon your strengths. Are you a talented pianist who wants to join the school orchestra? Do you want to serve as a peer tutor in any subject(s)? Do you bring a fresh cultural perspective to the table? What would the school gain in accepting you?

Intellectual Curiosity: You may be asked to describe an idea, experience, or work of art that has been important to your intellectual development. When responding to this prompt, think about what some of your favorite subjects are. What do you enjoy reading up on in your free time? Is there a particular novel or academic text that  has inspired you to think differently? If so, how has it affected the way you see the world?

By: Andrea Schiralli

Key Tips for Writing Your Personal Statement Essay

Start as early in the process as possible. The more time you have to write, the more revising you can do and thus, the better your essay will be. Also, procrastinating leads to unnecessary stress.

Brainstorm and make an outline before you begin. It’s amazing how many ideas you can come up with through effective brainstorming. Jot down aspects of your personality and strengths that you really want the admissions officers to know about. Crafting an outline will allow you to view the entire skeleton of your essay. Flaws in idea flow and organization will become visible.

Make your essay your own. Think about what you care about, sparks your interests, or motivates you, and then write about it. Don’t write about what you think admissions officers want to hear.

Don’t be common. Take a risk! Don’t write what everyone else is writing about. Read essays online, ask your friends what they are writing about, and then choose something completely different.

Allow your personality to shine. This is the only part of the application that allows admissions officers to see you from your own perspective. If you are generally a funny person, feel free to to sprinkle a few witticisms or silly metaphors in your essay, but don’t attempt to write an entire satire. Remember: the essay’s purpose is to convey your intelligence, passions, and strengths—not your sense of humor.

Stay focused. This is your chance to tell the admissions officers why they should accept you. They already have your activity sheet, so avoid making your essay read like a stale grocery list of your awards and accomplishments. Rather, choose one topic that really interests you, and write about it. Stick to the main theme throughout the whole essay. Even if the question is rather broad, your answer should be narrow. Through details and real examples, your writing will reveal your passions and personality.

Have fun! College admissions essays tend to lean more toward narratives and free-form writing rather than structured academic essays. They are meant to be written from the heart, so once you figure out what to write about (arguably the most difficult part), let the words flow.

Be specific, clear, and to-the-point.

Do not exceed the word limit.

Don’t plagiarize. This should go without saying, but don’t ever copy or tweak someone else’s essay. Even if you found it buried hundreds of clicks away from an initial Google search, admissions officers have literally read thousands (if not tens of thousands) of college admissions essays in their lives and more than likely will be able to spot plagiarism. Plagiarizing is simply unacceptable in America, and a plagiarized essay will be tossed in the trash.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Don’t expect a flawless (or even good!) essay on your first try. The pressure will stress you out and probably contribute to a frustrating case of writer’s block. Don’t worry about trivial things you can clean up later, such as grammar or spelling. First, simply get your ideas off your head and onto paper. Then, a few hours or even a few days later, look at your work with “fresh eyes.”

Edit. Go through your entire essay a few times and Spell Check (manually after running it on the computer, for mistakes such as “they’re” vs. “their.”). Remove frivolous words such as “very,” “many,” and “interesting.” These words weaken your writing. Check for grammatical and punctuation errors. You may want to ask someone who hasn’t yet read your essay to proofread it for you, as they are more likely to catch mistakes. Even minor mistakes show a lack of care for quality in your work.

Ask a friend or teacher for an opinion. When you think you are finally done with this grueling process, find someone whose opinion you trust (a scholarly friend, an English teacher, a parent, etc.). Ask them what you can do to improve your writing, and accept their feedback gracefully. Listen carefully and consider their suggestions. In the end, it is your essay, so make sure it stays in your own voice.

Read your essay aloud. Yes, aloud. Not in your head. By reading an essay aloud, you will be able to pick up any phrases that sound awkward or wordy while noticing which areas don’t flow smoothly.

By: Andrea Schiralli

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!