Admissions officers at U.S. colleges care very much about your academic credentials—no surprise—and they also care about your life outside the classroom. There’s a section in the Common App called “Activities” where you are invited to showcase those extracurriculars from all of your high school years.
Although the Common App makes it optional whether to report your extracurricular activities, we recommend that you always report something in that section. If you have more than one activity to list, the Common App asks you to list them in order of importance to you, so start with the most important one and work backwards.
First, think broadly about your activities. What are you doing when you aren’t in school, working, eating, or sleeping?
Now you can start narrowing down. If you have a lot of activities, you don't have to list every single thing in the application. In fact, you shouldn’t list everything, unless your list is otherwise really short.
You don’t have to use up all seven activities slots in the application form. Three meaningful ones make a better impression than listing three meaningful ones and tacking on four fluffy ones. Instead, list the ones that are meaningful and then stop.
How do you figure out what’s meaningful?
In evaluating your activities, admissions officers are looking for evidence of what we call the Core Four:
What are you passionate about? People generally express their passions by devoting their thoughts, time, and energy to them. Where are you devoting most of your thoughts, time, and energy?
What do you do well? Your accomplishments generally announce your talents, but you want to go beyond just announcing your talents and describe (even briefly) how you have developed your talents. Admissions officers want to see that you are more than just a gifted slacker. They want to see that you challenge yourself, that you have a work ethic, and that you are striving to become better.
What have you made happen? What have you started? What have you led? Where have you created your own opportunities? Where have you gone above and beyond? When admissions officers talk about students with initiative, they are talking about students who make things happen or who lead others. They are talking about students who start clubs or lead teams, think up and do projects on their own, seek out challenges, and generally use their efforts to create opportunities for themselves and others. You get no points for initiative when all you do is join, enroll, show up, or meet the requirements.
How have you changed, grown, or learned from your experiences? How have others benefitted from what you have done? What have you added to your classroom, your school, your community, your family, or the world? Admissions officers want to see that what you have done mattered to someone.
Many activities might demonstrate just two or three of the Core Four, and that’s OK. If you have an activity that demonstrates all four, list that one first.
What if your activities aren’t structured?
Activities don’t have to be structured (through a school club, for example) to be meaningful.
If you spend your free time writing poetry, do include that.
If you spend most of your time outside the classroom caring for a sick relative, do include that.
Those are important activities for you, and admissions officers will want to know about them. If you don’t list them, they’ll assume you’re spending that time goofing off. You do want to get credit for the meaningful, non-goofing-off time.
What if you spend a lot of time at a paying job?
If you spend a lot of your time outside of school working at a paying job, whether it’s babysitting, folding shirts at the Gap, or scooping popcorn at the local theater, those should go into the Activities section too.
The application form lets you designate the activity as “Employment,” and if you’re spending a lot of time working, that will allow admissions officers to understand why you might not have as much time to devote to other kinds of activities. In the admissions world, there is nothing wrong with non-glamourous jobs.
Inline has lots more tips about how to maximize the Activities section of the Common App. Download your free Standard version here.
Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.