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

Why You Need to Brainstorm at the Beach

Coauthored by Jason Vallozzi, Founder, Campus to Career Crossroads & Marisa De Marco-Costanzo, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Ivy & Quill. This blog has been re-posted from Jason Vallozzi’s blog: https://campustocareercrossroads.com/why-you-need-to-brainstorm-at-the-beach/ For further information regarding comprehensive college consulting services, please contact Jason Vallozzi directly at Campus to Career Crossroads.

As the summer beach season is in full swing, many rising seniors struggle with why they need to brainstorm at the beach about their personal statement for their college application.  Some rising seniors may even have supplemental essays to write for college admissions or honors colleges.  As the college admissions process is more competitive than ever for all students, a one draft script is not sufficient. 

The personal statement is the heart and soul of the college application.  One critical aspect of an effective personal statement is thoughtful and reflective brainstorming. It allows a student to bring forward his/her story in a unique and distinct manner.  It is so amazing to read a developed student personal statement that is not over-edited or parent influenced, allowing the student’s voice to resonate. 

Marisa De Marco-Costanzo, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Ivy & Quill Admission Essay Consulting and Editing Services, has assisted thousands of students domestically and internationally to have their best voice come forward in their personal statement and additional required essays.  I have asked her to share some helpful advice on how rising seniors can start the brainstorming process. These are her suggestions:

“When students are faced with the daunting yet exciting task of developing their personal statements, they honestly don’t know where to begin and tend to put it off since it may be intimidating to start an essay—especially one about their lives. Time and time again, students have expressed to me that they feel a great sense of pressure to tell a poignant and memorable story to college admissions officers yet they have no idea where to begin and they don’t really know what to say.

In order to put them at ease, I always start off our initial brainstorming and background information meeting by letting them know that the process of developing their personal statement can be broken down into steps, which leads to the final draft. Instead of thinking about the “big picture”, it’s better to approach it in smaller parts that organically come together. In this way, students can put their energies into becoming reflective, deep thinkers and storytellers rather than being too overwhelmed, which impedes their creative thinking processes and memory recall.

If a student doesn’t have the possibility to work with an independent consultant, they can go through the brainstorming process on their own and can partake in a “stream of thought” journaling activity that becomes enjoyable and most importantly, informative. One can either write their ideas down on a piece of paper or type them up on the computer so later on, they can refer back to their thoughts.

A student can start out by reflecting upon some guiding questions that they can respond to in order to start the brainstorming process. These questions include:

  1. What are my academic areas of interests and why am I drawn to these areas?
  2. What has been a major academic challenge for me and what steps have I taken to make improvements?
  3. What do I intend to study at college and why do I want to pursue this area? Why is this area important to me?
  4. What is my most enjoyable and/or important extracurricular activity and why have I committed to it? How has this activity positively impacted me and shaped my character?
  5. What is one of the most memorable experiences that I have ever experienced? Why is this experience important to me? How has it impacted me?
  6. What is something that I would never change about my life and why?
  7. How has my family upbringing impacted my life choices and who I am as a person as a result?
  8. What is the most meaningful and important thing about my life?
  9. What has been a major obstacle that I have had to face and how did I overcome it or what steps I am taking at present to overcome it?
  10. Was there ever I time where I felt excluded from a group? If so, how did it make me feel and what did I do to navigate the situation?

Once the student gets their ideas down, they will go back and read through them in order to “pull out” some possible topic ideas for their personal statement. Yet ultimately, they will settle on a topic that can best be adapted to match one of the Common App prompts and that can be translated into a personal narrative essay that shows creativity and dynamic storytelling.”

Writing is a classical communication skill that stands the test of time.  So instead of looking at your upcoming personal statement as another “college to-do item,” take the time to consider it as an opportunity to enhance your writing abilities.  Perhaps, sharpening your writing skills may even launch you back to the beach in a professional position that affords you a generous salary and paid vacation days.

About the guest coauthor, Jason Vallozzi, Founder, Campus to Career Crossroads:

The mission at Campus to Career Crossroads is to develop a supportive and individualized partnership with students and their families in order to help them successfully navigate the transitional and complex stages from high school to career.  Jason possesses over fourteen years of experience in post-secondary admissions and over four years of high-level talent acquisition in the retained executive search world which brings valuable insights to his clients.

Jason is an active member of numerous professional associations such as the Independent Educational Consultants Association, National Association for College Admission Counseling, and Pennsylvania Association for College Admissions Counseling. He is the Regional Leader for the Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan chapter in the Independent Educational Consultant Association.  Jason is also involved in continuing professional development courses through the UCLA Extension College Counseling program. He is a magnum cum laude graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications. 

For inquiries about one on one college to career planning services, please visit www.campustocareercrossroads.com

Call to All Juniors: Get a Jump Start on the Personal Statement

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”

School is almost out and the idea of taking in some sun, traveling, hanging out with friends, reading a great book, going to concerts, seeing an awesome summer flick at the movie theater, or even earning some money by doing a summer job or taking on an internship are all valid thoughts that should rightfully be on the forefront of your mind. Yet for better or for worse, there is something else to add to this list…and that is plan for the personal statement.

For those of you who don’t know what the personal statement is or you have kind of heard about it but don’t really fully grasp why it is important, this essay is considered to be your true moment to shine when applying to college. Of course schools will highly consider your grades, SAT/ACT scores, honors and achievements, and extracurricular participation. In theory, admissions officers will see you in terms of stats rather than as the individual that you truly are. Yet, once they read your personal statement, they start to get a sense of how you live your life, perceive the world, and how you have been shaped into the person you are. (Helpful reference: a personal statement is a personal narrative essay that is about 650 words which tells your unique story that nicely matches up with one of the given Common App or Coalition App prompts.)

The personal statement essay (along with the supplemental essays required by some schools) may seem challenging at first and quite frankly, it could come off as being intimidating. Yet once you digest the fact that this essay is about YOU, you should start to feel more confident since you actually know yourself/your story best. At this point, this is when you can start to do some “soul searching” and inner reflection through the form of brainstorming. Once you start to reflect on various life events and experiences that could be worth telling, you can then go into developing an outline that could help you organize your thoughts written down on paper (or of course typed out).

From there, you can flow into the drafting process once you have settled upon your idea. After you have roughly written down your story, you will go back to clarify the essay’s content. This self-revision process will take multiple rounds of review and making changes. Once you feel good about how your essay has developed, it is a wise idea to ask a trusted friend and/or family member to look over your personal statement so that they can give you feedback. Or even better, you can always reach out to a professional admission essay consultant, who is truly a valuable resource (we’re here to help you, just reach out and ask how to learn more).

Once the content and structure of the essay are set, you have arrived at the final step, which is the editing and proofreading process. This entails carefully evaluating language/word choices, the stylistic tone, ensuring that you have spelled all words correctly, and that you have used English grammar and punctuation correctly.

As expressed above, the process of developing an outstanding personal statement takes time. Therefore, give yourself the summer before senior year to go through these steps without feeling the immense pressure that the start of school brings.

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

“Writing Successful College Application Essays”

Ebook written by Andrea Schiralli with contributions made by Marisa De Marco-Costanzo. They are the Executive Directors and Co-Founders of Ivy & Quill. Browse this excellent resource by downloading it for free that features sample admission essays along with quick analyses and tips. UC sample essays are also included. For any inquires please contact us.

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

Tackling the Common App – Prompt #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This essay prompt seems to defy most applicants’ inclinations to brag. It is far easier to bask in success than to tell strangers about a failure. It takes confidence to acknowledge and examine your shortcomings. The description of the failure should be clear and concise. Spend the majority of the essay discussing how you responded to the failure and 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 is the most important part of this essay. Include a thorough self-analysis and introspection which shows that you are self-aware.

The point of this essay is to show that you can evaluate, learn from, and move on from your failures.

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 #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

Stylistic Tips: What to Avoid

Wordiness and repetition. More often than not, students can cut at least a quarter of their essays and lose no meaningful content. Avoid repetition, fluff, and verbal fillers—there is no place for excess in a piece which is meant to be as engaging and effective as possible.

Making your essays dramatic, boring, or impenetrable.

Vague language. Never use words like “stuff” or “things;” they are far too imprecise. Even writing “this aspect of society bothers me…” is too unclear. What “aspect” are you specifically talking about? Do you really mean society as a whole, or just one specific group? Be clear and remember that admissions officers are not mind readers.

Clichéd metaphors, similes, phrases, or expressions. For example, avoid: “He is one in a million,” and terms such as “my global perspective” or “my potential as a future leader.” Clichés make essays sound uninspired and unoriginal—could you really not come up with a way to say something that hasn’t already been overused to the point of exhaustion? Clichés only show a writer’s lack of creativity.

Overusing the first-person. Most college admissions essays ask you to write about yourself anyway, so they are obviously going to be written as first-person narrative. Overusing “I” is an easy mistake to make. More than once per sentence is generally too much. Instead of using “I” all the time, use different pronouns or simply omit them.

Example: I love eating desserts so I started baking classes on the weekends. In particular, I focused on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. I really enjoyed these courses, and they’ve added a lot to my life. → An obsession with desserts drove me to attend weekend baking classes, focusing on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. These courses were very enjoyable and added a lot to my life.

Going off on tangents. Not all information about a certain experience, event, etc. needs to be mentioned. If content is not related to your main point or serves a purpose, exclude it.

Excess expletive constructions. Expletive constructions usually begin with “there” or “it.” “There is/there are,” “it is,” “it seems,” and the like are usually unnecessary. In an expletive construction, the “there,” or “it” do not serve as pronouns (aka they have no antecedents, meaning that they do not refer to anything); rather, they are merely empty subjects followed by a conjugation of the trite verb “to be.” To keep sentences engaging, use meaningful subjects and verbs.

Example: There were two girls in class who had problems with math. → Two girls in class had problems with math.

Example: It is Monday that I get to see my teacher again. →  On Monday I get to see my teacher again.

Don’t overuse flowery language. Too many adjectives, adverbs, and pompous words can ruin the reading experience by creating a suffocating feeling. Rather, use strong verbs to breathe some life into your essay.

Example: He lovingly gazed into her eyes and paused for a brief moment. Then, he took her soft, delicate hand in his, and whispered, “Will you marry me?” → He gazed into her eyes and paused for a moment. Then, he took her hand in his and whispered, “Will you marry me?”

Weak verbs. Just as strong verbs can make an essay, weak ones will ruin them. It’s inevitable that you will often use the verb “to be,” but do not overuse it. When another verb is possible or preferable, opt for it. The example below, though grammatically correct, is stylistically lacking. Notice how the bland verb “is” is replaced by “deserves” and “trace.”

Example: My mother is responsible for shaping me into the person I am today. She is not aware of her influence on me, however. →  My mother deserves credit for shaping me into the person I am today. Though unaware of her influence on me, I can trace my success back to her.

Unnecessary use of the passive voice. Using the passive voice—in other words, creating a sentence in which the object takes the position of the subject—is not grammatically incorrect, but over or unnecessary use makes essays wordy and confusing.

Example: The window was left open by Joe. (passive) →  Joe left the window open.(active)

Example: The ball was thrown into the goal by Sally. (passive) → Sally threw the ball into the goal as hard as she could. (active)

Note that the aforementioned passive examples are awkward. While reading the sentence, the reader wonders who is performing the action and is left guessing until the sentence’s end. To avoid confusion, place the subject in the typical subject position, at the front.

However, sometimes you would actually prefer to use the passive voice. If the focus of the sentence is the object, rather than the action, you should use the passive voice.

Example: As it was hit by a baseball bat, the precious Faberge egg shattered. (active) →  The precious Faberge egg shattered as it was hit by a baseball bat. (passive)

By: Andrea Schiralli