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

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

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