The Common App Activities section, along with the Common App essay, letters of recommendation, and supplemental college essays, form a critical part of the “non-quantitative” portion of your application. In the Activities section, you get the chance to describe the breadth of your extracurricular life and meaningful experiences that made you a great applicant for your chosen colleges. Not only do Admissions committees consider this crucial information to help them judge the applicant’s overall suitability for their program, but it also helps you demonstrate the unique skills and knowledge that will help you become an excellent undergraduate student.

In our guide, our college essay advisors take you through the writing strategies and best practices for crafting each Common App Activities entry. We also provide three examples of expertly-crafted activities sections to help you shape your own.


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Common App Activities: Overview

If you’re a high school student applying to schools that use the Common App, you’ve definitely got questions about how to craft a killer Common App Activities section. This feature isn’t unique to undergrad school applications. Most professional and graduate school applications also ask for similar details, and in that sense, this section has a lot in common with its medical school-specific cousins like the AMCAS Work and Activities section and TMDSAS Employment and Activities section.

While not especially complicated, it’s crucial to understand the structure and specific requirements of the Common App’s Activities section. Even at this early point in your academic career, you’ve amassed a trove of quantitative and qualitative data that can impress the admissions committee. That is, you have years of grades, test scores, and other “measured” achievements, alongside more nuanced and subjective activities like extracurriculars, hobbies, and ungraded academic pursuits. The Activities section of the Common App is your chance to list and describe the important details pertaining to your life outside of academia.

Why are qualitative details so important? Well, because we’re human beings. Purely numerical metrics like grades and test scores would be enough for admissions committees if we were some sort of computer species with identical personalities, drives, and pathologies; but fortunately for us, we’re complex and diverse individuals. Application components like the Common App Activities section permit you to describe the important non-academic factors that have shaped you, and to showcase your unique strengths to the key decision-makers.

What to Include in Your Common App Activities Section

In Common App, each entry in the Activities section is structured in the following way:

Now let’s see, in greater detail, how to complete these fields.

How to Fill Out Your Common App Activities Section

Activity Type

Select the category that best matches the specific activity. The Common App Activities section category options are:

A key tip for selecting categories is ensuring you have a good variety throughout your list, and that they match the activities in question as closely as possible. For instance, an entry for a school robotics club could certainly be categorized as “Academic,” but “Robotics” is much more specific and attention-grabbing. Similarly, a student who has participated in historical research with a religious organization could potentially select either “Religious” or “Research”—the right choice is ultimately whichever category hasn’t been used for another entry, in order to maximize diversity.

You can add any “non-academic” activities in the Common App Activities section, i.e., anything that isn’t explicitly a part of your schoolwork and didn’t involve an instructor’s grade. This can include sports, clubs, hobbies, jobs, and any other applicable activities.

You can list up to 10 activities. This may sound like a lot – especially if you’ve prioritized academics throughout high school – but remember that you don’t have to add 10. You can focus on your high quality experiences, even if you have only 7 or 8. There’s also a lot of flexibility about what you can include. At the same time, we recommend telling a cohesive story with all of your application components, including the Activities section. Your entire application should demonstrate that you are the perfect fit for the colleges you’re applying to. To meet these requirements, you will have to spend a significant amount of time choosing the right activities and describing them accurately.

It’s worth noting that while the Common App Activities section includes an “Academic” category, this is specifically not for grades or tests, but rather non-coursework activities relating to scholarly pursuits like Quizbowl or independent studies.

Remember, you also need to list the activities in the right order since Common App requires a ranked list of activities. Figuring out which activity is the most crucial is one of the trickiest aspects of writing this section. We’ll discuss strategies for which activities to pick and how to rank them later in this blog.

Something to keep in mind: it can be overwhelming to choose and organize your Activities section. Whether you have hundreds of experiences to list or just a few to choose from, having the right strategy for categorizing and describing the activities is key. If you are having trouble with creating your own entries, do not hesitate to reach out to college admissions consulting services. These professionals can really help you make the Activities section your own.

Position/Leadership description

Limited to 50 characters, this field is straightforward but can be somewhat tricky if your activity didn’t afford you a specific description. For instance, if you volunteered for a community cleanup project then you might select the “Community Service/Volunteer” category in the Activity Type field, but this would necessitate repeating the word “volunteer” in the Position description field. Redundancy, as in most situations, is generally frowned upon in the Common App Activities section. Instead, consider “Environmental” for your category, and add “Cleanup Volunteer” as your position. Again, there’s an aspect of fine-tuning each of these fields, so be patient and don’t shy away from experimenting with different combinations of descriptors to ensure things read clearly and don’t repeat.

It's common, if you have enough space, to make some notation of activity duration in this field. If your position was simply “Intern,” you’ll have more than enough room for “Nov 20** – Dec 20**.” If you’re tight on space, your grade number can suffice as well, “11th-12th” and so on. Dates or duration won’t be vital for every entry, but in general, it’s a good idea to include them.

Organization Name

Limited to 100 characters, this is the simplest category by far. Although some activities won’t have a corresponding organization to name, most will. In general, it’s better to include activities associated with a specific organization rather than wholly self-directed experiences. Nonetheless, if you do have an important and meaningful self-directed activity to include in this section, you can simply leave this field blank or say “Not applicable” rather than “None.” For example, if you furthered your interest in mechanics by building a working model of a TV by yourself, without any guidance or supervision, this could be an impressive “self-directed” activity and when you add it, you can add “Not applicable” in the Organization Name field.

Description of Activity

This is the real meat of the Activities section and will be the most challenging, even for experienced writers. Limited to a mere 150 characters, you’ll use this space to describe the entry’s activity in some detail. This is an extremely small amount of space in which to explain important and pivotal events, so let’s turn our attention to the finer points of how to make your activity descriptions pack a punch.

Check out this infographic:

How to Make Your Activities Section Stand Out

Although there are important aspects of the first three fields to consider, the most important, by far, is the activity description. Let’s discuss how to make those 150 characters sing with significance.

1. Be Concise

This may seem counter-intuitive initially, especially if you’re just fresh off writing your elegantly crafted college essay. However, the strict limitation on character counts in the Common App Activities section means that you cannot afford to abide by the normal rules of grammar and syntax. For instance, consider these two descriptions of working as a reporter on a school newspaper:

Throughout my time as a reporter for the X High School Ledger, I worked on stories that covered school charity work, musical performances, and more.

What’s essential in this description? The types of stories written, of course. Which is why “and more” is such an unfortunate ending. Admissions committees want to see what you’ve been up to, not just an implication. Contrast that with the following:

Covered school-sponsored charity drives, musical performances by band/theater classes, school clubs, and city events. I also edited peer articles.

The second description is action-packed and full of details that show the reader that the student also worked as an editor for the paper, not just a reporter.

The principle here carries for any and every entry in your Activities section—the goal is to clearly deliver as much relevant detail as possible while minimizing bland “connective tissue,” so to speak. For example, if you’re talking about your Debate Society experience, you simply do not have the space to include the details of all your most persuasive speech topics, no matter how passionate about them you are or how well they were received. Instead, you can mention how many debates you’ve participated in, any awards you’ve won, and other such quantitative details. Always choose the points that are most impactful and focus on having them read as clearly as possible without sacrificing coherence.

2. Focus on Quality by Including Quantity

It’s essential to balance both quality and quantity in your Activities section. What does this mean? Your activities themselves should be high “quality”, based on the principles for selecting activities we will describe later in this blog. And what’s even more crucial is adding a quantitative description to make these high quality entries as impactful as possible. For instance, consider these descriptions for an entry on student government:

Oversaw multiple projects to improve our school’s auditorium, as well as annual clothing drives which supported local orphanages.

How many is “multiple?” How many annual clothing drives exactly? Using numbers and other concrete quantitative notations can define the otherwise indeterminate frequency and volume of a given activity. So:

Oversaw 7 cleanup and improvement projects for our school auditorium, as well as 3 annual clothing drives to support 2 local orphanages.

Concrete, clear, and a fair bit more impactful than “multiple.”

Another tip? When describing current activities, make sure you use the present tense. For example, if you currently volunteer at a retirement home, you can add this description:

Drive patients to their medical appointments, organize monthly raffles, and assist with an ongoing digitization project, as well as janitorial tasks.

3. Avoid Redundancy

This is a simple general guideline that’s mercifully easy to implement. Simply put, if a word or piece of information is in one field of your activity entry, it probably doesn’t need to be in another. Moreover, it will likely come off as sloppy or poorly edited if there is repetition from field to field. We mentioned this in relation to the Position/Leadership description field, but it’s even more important in the activity description field.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to our entry on working for the school newspaper:

Covered school-sponsored charity drives, musical performances by band/theater classes, school clubs, and city events. I also edited peer articles.

Assuming we have added “Reporter” in the Position/Leadership description field, we have no need to repeat it in the description. We can instead simply say that we “covered” specific events. Likewise, if you’re describing a part-time job, you should never include the space-wasting phrase “Worked as a ____” in your description. They already know your position and organization, so keep those 150 characters free for the important duties and accomplishments you amassed in that role.

4. Think Cohesively

It’s vital to approach your activities section as a whole, at least at the planning and organization level. By this we mean curating your activities in a way that shows development of who you are. There should also be some kind of overarching thematic connect that speaks to your passions, ambitions, and key strengths.

The ranking of activities is just as crucial as the activities you select. If your activities are all over the place thematically and in the wrong order, admissions committees will have a much harder time distinguishing you from the crowd.

Most students find that the chronological strategy works best to organize this section. Ideally, your activities have evolved and become more sophisticated or advanced over time. For instance, starting out with a beginner’s martial arts class early on, and placing in a tournament later on, and so on.

If you were student council president your senior year, for instance, you’ll want to anchor that toward the end of your activities. Similarly, for a part-time job you maintained throughout all of high school, place it at the top of your list and work toward the present as you move on. The Activities section doesn’t include a designated space for dates, but this is exactly why ordering your activities can be helpful in providing a sense of narrative and development.

However, there’s a big caveat to this: always start with the most notable activity/activities first, and then move into chronological order. Many students miss this critical instruction provided at the top of the Activities section:

“Please list your activities in the order of their importance to you.”

The logic for this is obvious: grab their attention and then finish painting your picture. Additionally, this will establish a lofty accomplishment at the outset and then provide a clear sense of the steps taken to arrive there. If your biggest achievement is a youth internship with Facebook, start there and then lay out the steps you undertook to become skilled in computer science or programming.

Let’s take the example of one of our students, Ashley, to understand how to select and rank activities.

Ashley has a passion for chess, and was President of her high school’s chess club. She also won first place in the Ohio under-18 state-level chess tournament. Additionally, she has YouTube channel about chess strategies that has over a 1000 followers. Her other key interest is in music, and she plays the harp in her high school orchestra. She also tutored students in harp-playing. She worked as a sales associate at her local indie music store and was promoted to assistant manager in her junior year. In addition to this, she’s a member of other school clubs like Nature Club, Foreign Film Club, Music Club, and so on. So, which of her activities should she pick? How should she rank them? Let’s take a look at a correct and incorrect example of the list of activities Ashley can include:

Incorrect example:

  1. President of High School Chess Club
  2. Lead Harpist in High School Orchestra
  3. Member of Nature Club
  4. Member of Foreign Film Club
  5. Member of High School Music Club
  6. Learnt Basic Mandarin in Mandarin Club7
  7. YouTube Channel “No Mess in Chess” with 1000+ followers

Correct example:

  1. 1st Place in Ohio Under-18 Chess Tournament
  2. YouTube Channel “No Mess in Chess” with 1000+ followers
  3. President of High School Chess Club
  4. Lead Harpist in High School Orchestra
  5. Tutor at Whistles Musical Academy
  6. Assistant Manager at Mystery Tunes
  7. Sales Associate at Mystery Tunes
  8. Member of High School Music Club

Can you see why the second example is a more successful example of a Common App Activities section?

The former example does not focus on her most impressive activities and simply reads like a list of clubs she participated in, or like a high school resume. She doesn’t even mention her winning first place in the state level chess competition and omits her work experiences altogether. On the surface, it seems she has ranked the activities in order of importance. But there isn’t any logic to the flow from one activity to the next. This list is not likely to stand out to the admissions committee or properly communicate Ashley’s strengths.

Need to write a high school resume as well? Check out this video for helpful tips!

The second list is well-organized, cohesive, and narratively powerful. She has included a sufficient “range” of activities to indicate her strengths, but at the same time, she’s focused on the related activities that build a clear narrative of pursuing her passions of chess and music. And while she could have listed 10 activities, and certainly had the extracurriculars to do so, she chose to focus on her 8 strongest, most thematically coherent entries, and left out the largely inconsequential activities like miscellaneous club participation. She also cleverly grouped her activities by theme while also clearly indicating her most impressive achievements right off the bat.

Now, let’s look at some more examples to understand how all these strategies should come together to create an effective and impressive Common App Activities section.

3 Examples of Common App Activities Sections

Student 1: Jessica Chen

Lead Violinist (11th-12th)

Williams High School Orchestra

Led violins in 4 concerts throughout the school year, helped direct orchestra functions, Tulsa Young Musicians Recognition (20**). 

Choir Violinist (9th-10th)

Williams High School Orchestra

Back-up violins in rehearsals and 2 concerts throughout school year, organized multi-school orchestra mixer events, coordinator for 3 fundraisers. 

Talk Show Host (11th-Present)

“Zings with Zyna”, Local Access Television Cable Program

Scripted, hosted, edited, and directed local-politics themed talk show. Interviewed local politicians like the mayor and city council members. 

Staff Member/Performer (11th-12th)

Six Pennies Tulsa, Community Youth Theatre

Performed in 5 benefit concerts in last 2 years, organized fundraisers for Goodwill, managed and organized 6 community outreach events. 

Arts Mentor (10th-present)

Little Wonders Club, Summer Hobby Mentorship Program for Underprivileged Kids

Mentor kids in K-5 grades. Help organize annual plays, conduct choir, and provide musical and dance training (30 hrs a wk, 12 wks/yr). 

Intern (Summer 20**)

Krackles Indie Music

Wrote weekly blog posts about latest record releases, assisted with social media marketing campaigns, coordinated merchandising with advertisers (200 hours). 

Head Coach (11th-12th)

Little League Girls’ Baseball, amateur baseball league for grade 5-8 girls

Selected line-up, organized practice sessions, modeled drills and proper running techniques, coached team, coordinated practice session timings. 

Second Base (10th-12th)

Williams High School Girl’s Baseball Team

Played second base for 3 years (500+hrs). Team won district championship 2 years in a row (11th-12th). Most Improved Player (10th). 

Volunteer (Summer 20**)

Tulsa Helpers, Disaster Relief Organization

Mobilized community donations to help wildfire victims. Stitched over 30 new clothes for affected homeless. Event coordinator for 3 fundraisers.  

Student 2: Mira Reddy 

Software Development Intern (11th-12th)

Google

Selected twice to serve as an intern dev, participating in 3-4 projects each summer focusing on research and machine learning (500+hrs). 

Founder and President (10th-12th)

Milton High School Computer Science Club

Designed and organized projects including school hardware repair, PC building workshops, and monthly Saturday speedrun contests. 

Student Teacher (Summer 20**)

STEM Minds Day Camp

Led online engineering activities for 4th and 5th grade students, designed projects, and held Q&A sessions on engineering education. 

Volunteer Medical Intern (Summer 20**)

Projects Abroad (Ghana)

Participated in community outreach focusing on nutrition and cardiac health and door-to-door canvassing for blood donation (120 hours). 

Volunteer (11th-12th)

UBC Geering Up Engineering Outreach

Co-led weekend workshops and classes for K-8 students focusing on coding and computer science (400 hours). 

Part-Time Repair Tech (11th-12th)

Motherboard Computers

Laptop and desktop computer repair for both Windows and MacOS machines, sales, and customer education. 

Reviewer (10th-12th)

On Cinema Blog

Wrote 800-1200 word analyses of current films bi-weekly, focusing mostly on fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. 

Winner (11th)

American Computer Science League All-Star Contest

School team won the ACSL’s Senior Division prize in Bit-String Flicking, and placed 3rd in the Karnaugh Maps invitational. 

Volunteer Tech (12th)

Kelowna Senior Center

Run monthly diagnostic checks, upgraded machines from Windows 8 to 10, and installed proprietary anti-virus on all systems. 

Student 3: Ben Morris 

Founder and President (11th-12th)

Biology Honors Society, George Henley High School

Organized meetings, prepared the agenda, coordinated 6 field trips to clinical settings, wrote and maintained weekly blog. 

Tutor (10th-12th)

Math Honors Society, George Henley High School

Taught trigonometry and precalculus strategies, aided school SAT prep in Math, and provided faculty with input on potential curriculum. 

Percussionist (10-12th)

George Henley High School Marching & Jazz Bands

Played various percussion instruments including snare drum, marimba, and drum set, performing 4-6 concerts per school year. 

Vice President (11th)

George Henley High School Student Council

Co-planned 5 dances, 2 school-wide community service projects, and 8 monthly charity pancake breakfasts to benefit St Jude’s Children’s Hospital. 

Butcher and Salumiere (10th-12th)

The Whole Beast Artisan Salumeria

Crafted small-batch cured and smoked meat products including uncommon items like lonzino, N’duja, and coppa di testa, (15 hrs/wk for 2 yrs). 

Host (11th-12th)

“What’s Your Beef?” Podcast

Self-made project. I interviewed my coworkers at the Whole Beast and grew to include local chefs and food makers. Produced 36 episodes in 2 yrs. 

Academic Mentor (11th-12th)

Salt Lake Community Center

Assisted K-6 students with homework and ran reading groups focusing on young adult fiction and young-reader chapter books. 

Volunteer

Salt Lake Public Works (Summer 20**)

Participated in repainting and rust removal projects, including bridge repair and public library beautification (200 hours). 

Intern (11th-12th)

Lay Zen Teachers Association

Drafted internal communications materials and assisted with event planning for meditation retreats in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona (12 hrs/wk, 4 wks/yr). 

Student (Summer 20**)

Utah State University Youth Engineering Intensive, Summer Program for High School Students

Participated in 200+ hours of workshops and discussions groups focused on tech and physics. Delivered 4 group projects and wrote 1 research paper. 

Looking for the top high school summer programs? Check out these lists:

All of these are examples of well-organized Common App Activities sections, with succinct activity descriptions and a clear, logical flow. For instance, in the first example, Jessica lists a range of activities to show different skills and interests, but groups them thematically to build a consistent narrative. First, she starts with describing her impressive formal musical accomplishments, followed by her television and theatre experiences and sports interests, ending with an impactful volunteer experience. Most importantly, she backs up the quality of her activities with quantitative data in her descriptions, including exact hours, number of events, specific awards, key responsibilities, names of impacted groups, and so on.

Mira, in the second example, demonstrates a clear passion for science, computers, and technology, and most of her activities develop this theme. This Activities section is an excellent example of how to effectively communicate your best strengths and show your versatility as a candidate, while still building a clear narrative of commitment to one passion. Mira effectively uses the provided description space to talk about a variety of different skills and experiences, including concrete leadership experience, community engagement, technical skills, and formal recognitions. Though she’s added mostly traditional, STEM oriented extracurriculars, there is no redundancy, and each entry succinctly explains her unique strengths.

While Mira’s Activities section focuses on “traditional” extracurriculars, Ben, in the third example, shows us how to effectively add your “unusual” extracurriculars. Along with typical entries such as Honors Society, Student Council, and summer programs for high school students, he also includes his work experience at a Salumeria and his self-made podcast project. These don’t seem random or out of place as there is a thematic connection between the two i.e., Ben’s love for food. Crucially, the descriptions provide quantitative details such as number of episodes or hours completed, to show the effort he has put in towards this hobby. Including the names of the specific cured meats he specialized in adds a particularly personalized, interesting flair to his Activities section. Overall, there is a balance between his personal interests and impressive achievements that presents Ben as an accomplished, well-rounded human being with an array of interests. This kind of balance is important especially if you’re applying to competitive schools like Ivy League schools or UC schools, where every applicant is likely to have a full resume of challenging IB and AP courses as well as many amazing achievements in their Activities section. A couple of “unusual” interests, when described appropriately as Ben has done, can help to differentiate you from the crowd.

FAQs

1. What order should I list my entries in the Common App Activities section?

Common App instructs applicants to list their activities in order of importance. Keeping this in mind, we advise you to lead with your most impressive activity. Remember, admissions committees will pay the most attention to your first few entries, so make sure they are all memorable. At the same time, if possible, try and organize your activities chronologically and group similar activities together to create a more logical flow and to show how you built your skills over time.

2. Where can I indicate the duration and number of hours spent in the activity?

You can indicate the specific time period in brackets in the Position/Leadership Description field, for example: Volunteer (11th-12th) or Intern (Summer 20**).  You can also indicate the specific number of hours in the activity description field in this format: 12 hrs/wk, 4 wks/yr. Alternatively, you can simply include the total number of hours. Note that it isn’t necessary to include hours spent on each activity, but you can add it to demonstrate effort where applicable.

3. What if I can’t find my Activity Type in the Common App drop-down?

In that case, select the “Other Club/Activity” option and make sure to accurately describe your activity in the other fields. Tip: You can use the Organization Name field, which has an allowance of 100 characters (relatively more than might be needed for this field) to flesh out the details of your activity type, for example: Min Yeng Shao, Club to Promote and Practice Chinese Mandarin Culture.

4. How many activities am I allowed to include?

You can add up to 10 activities, but you don’t have to add that many. The key is quality over quantity, so if you only have 7-8 significant entries, you can opt to focus on writing fantastic descriptions for those rather than including any more insignificant activities. However, try to add at least 6 activities.

5. Can I add “non-traditional” activities like helping out at home, in my parent’s business, etc.?

Definitely! College admissions boards today prioritize diversity and inclusion in their admissions process, and part of that is acknowledging that students from diverse backgrounds often have non-traditional extracurriculars that are just as significant. For example, if, due to your socio-economic background or specific circumstances, you had to spend a lot of time helping out at home, and you couldn’t get time for too many traditional extracurriculars, then focus on what you learnt through that experience. You can be strategic while picking which aspects to focus on, so as to highlight your strengths and skills. For example, don’t just include routine chores or tasks that everyone might perform. Focus on activities that gained you specialized experience; maybe spending every afternoon babysitting your younger siblings taught you about leadership, childcare, and nursing. If you looked after your elderly relatives, you could talk about building important cultural ties and learning communication skills.

6. Where should I add honors and awards?

The Education section of Common App has a separate field for you to list 5 of your top honors and awards. You can include extracurricular awards here as well, but we recommend focusing on academic honors in the Education section and adding significant extracurricular achievements, such as team victories, to the Activities section.

7. How can I fit my key achievements in just 150 characters?

First of all, you don’t need to write complete sentences in your activity description. Use short, crisp phrases to communicate only the most important events and achievements. You can even use abbreviations, in a limited (and logical) capacity, to save space.

8. Is there any other scope for adding more detailed descriptions of my activities?

If there are specific activities you feel hold a special significance in your life, and that these must be communicated to the admissions committee, then there are other avenues open to you. If appropriate, you can work this theme into your Common App essay or one or more of your supplemental essays. There’s also an Additional Information section in Common App that allows you to add an (optional) explanation of extenuating or special circumstances. Just remember that admissions committees might be put off by unnecessary or repetitive sections of your app. If you can cover the significance of a given activity in lesser space, then always go for that option.

9. How do I decide which activities to include?

To narrow down your list of extracurriculars, focus on three aspects. First, does it speak to your strengths, unique achievements, and talents? Second, consider how it shows you to be suitable candidate for the colleges you’re applying to. For example, if you’re applying mostly to engineering and science-oriented programs, then selecting your science, mechanics, and technology related activities makes sense. Similarly, if you’re targeting the best undergrad business schools, then adding work experience, internships, self-started projects, and entrepreneur experiences will be a priority. And finally, consider the overall coherence and flow of your activities section. What is the overarching theme of your application? Are your activities backing that theme up? These are some critical questions you should be asking yourself.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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