Let’s talk about the activities list. There are plenty of ways to shape your overall college admissions process—after all, everything you do in high school culminates in your senior year. While you may not be able to control your future, you can start preparing for it. Engaging in meaningful activities outside of the classroom throughout these four years builds your story; but how do you then describe them in a meaningful way when it’s time to apply?
Our research team at Empowerly fields a fair few questions from our students regarding how to best present their extracurricular activities and offers some invaluable advice. Below is some specific advice from the team on quick ways to enhance your activities list in your college applications.
Firstly, how do you start your activities list?
“Typically, your activities list should be crafted and refined with your counselor. You and your counselor should discuss how to order the activities, edit the descriptions to be clear and concise, and how to most accurately showcase your accomplishments.” (A)
Should you rank the entries in a particular way?
“In general, you want your list to be ordered in a way that highlights your tenure, leadership, and commitment to excellence. We recommend ordering this list based on the depth of knowledge required to undertake the task, level of responsibility/leadership, selectivity (how competitive was it to be selected), and longevity. If there are any awards or leadership positions that have not yet been included, it’s recommended to list them first in the activity details section in the Common App.” (A)
Other items that might count for your “additional information” section could include news articles or coverage for your activities, or the enumeration of multiple lesser awards within one central activity (like speech and debate).
What does the ranking process look like? How do I determine what is most important?
“Separate your activities into four tiers, going from highest being the most impressive, to lowest being the least.
- The first tier should be rare or exclusive activities, which highlight your leadership or high achievement. This can be something like being the president of a club that you founded at school, or a prestigious summer program not many people get to do.
- The next tier is activities not as rare, but still showing high levels of leadership. This can be things related to community service or other part-time extracurriculars that you are proud of.
- The next tier should highlight activities that aren’t as prestigious as the first two tiers but are related to your interests outside of school, perhaps activities related to what you hope to study in college.
- The final tier should be your least competitive activities that most students are involved in, such as general school club and organization memberships for which you don’t hold leadership roles.
College admissions officers will also be interpreting how you list your activities as indicating what is most important to you. Nonetheless, it’s best to put your most impressive activities towards the top of your list and the less important ones at the bottom.” (D)
What if you run out of room?
“When listing positions in the activities section, we recommend using space as efficiently as possible, especially if you have several activities you wish to list. In this case, this would mean combining similar activities, especially when working for the same organization. [For instance, the Common App activities section allows 50 characters for position/leadership description, 100 characters for the organization name, and 150 characters for activity details, honors won, and accomplishments.] More information on how to write effective descriptions for the Activities Section is also on our Empowerly Blog.” (K)
“Not only do you have to be brief, but you’ll also want to utilize the restrictive word count to describe your activities and honors in the best detail possible. Active voice and action verbs are critical. Assume college admissions officers have not heard of your activity before, and focus on what is most important, rather than fluffy language. Be descriptive, but with brevity.“ (D)
What should be included in your activities list, and what should be left out?
“If you have trouble thinking about accomplishments, take some time to reflect on how the club managed to serve you and your growth as a person. Not every accomplishment has to be public service/leadership based!” (M)
“There is no ideal number of activities to put on your application. The ‘boiling down’ aspect is largely for students to self-evaluate and decide which of their extracurriculars helps demonstrate who they are as a student, leader, creator, worker, etc. Ultimately, if you are able to find value in an extracurricular (and be able to describe this value in the limited space provided), try to put it on your application. If your freshman/sophomore activities still resonate with who you are and how you would like to present yourself, you should include them.” (M)
“As far as what should be left out, you don’t need to scrape the bottom of the barrel to come up with ideas. If you only participated or attended, that experience is probably not that insightful about your character. Activities that may not be may good to include may fit several of the following criteria:
- Was in activity for a very short amount of time
- Learned nothing
- Contributed nothing to
When in doubt, consult your counselor. If you include the activity anyway, just put it lower on your list since they are generally ordered by importance in the application. In conclusion, exhaust your list of activities so long as they are worthwhile to you.” (M)
What if I don’t want to (or can’t) continue my activities in college? Does that look bad?
“For your clubs, it is alright to say that you will not be continuing all your previous activities. As you mentioned not all high school activities translate to college clubs and also colleges understand that college is more time-consuming and rigorous and you may not have as much time to pursue them in college. The main purpose of that box is to gauge interest in currently existing organizations at that college.” (A)
Ways to make your activities list stand out from the pile
“Give short, verb-based descriptions that can get the point across while suggesting some level of prestige or utility the club provides.
Here are questions to consider:
- What was the activity? (This one may be easy to forget if you’re busy listing your accomplishments)
- Did you do something hard?
- Did you do something creative?
- Did you do something that someone else appreciated?
- What skills or information did you learn?
- Were you responsible for something?
Here’s an example so you can get a sense of what I mean:
- Position/Leadership Description: Chapter President
- Organization Name: Science National Honor Society
- Description: Organized science-based volunteering events, led monthly meetings, managed tutoring sessions, and guided struggling students in coordination with teachers.
For this example, I listed accomplishments in a way that speaks of my capabilities/productivity within the activity.
What if the club wasn’t actually that prestigious, however, and most of the club’s participation didn’t feel very productive? In the next example, I worded the primary purpose of the club in a way that reads as more productive and included a couple of one-off accomplishments that look attractive:
- Position/Leadership Description: Member
- Organization name: Art Club
- Description: Attended classes exploring 2D and 3D media techniques, volunteered with elementary school students, and had pieces chosen for display at the public library.
Even if 95% of the time in the club was spent just in attendance of these classes, you want your description to reflect any accomplishments/additional work you were able to access through club attendance. You want to express that you did more than merely participate, but also that you were able to engage and excel because of your participation.” (M)
How Empowerly can help you upgrade your activities list for college apps?
“For additional review, you have two options at Empowerly. Firstly, you could submit a research request with your activities list. We would be happy to answer any specific questions related to your activities and make suggestions on how they can be ordered and best worded. We can also provide general guidance, similar to that of your counselor.
Another option is to submit the activities list to the essay editing team who would be happy to edit the content.” (A)
To learn more about the Empowerly approach and how our expert research team helps answer student questions, click below. We would love to discuss how we can help.