Kristina’s 6 Steps to a Standout Common App Activities List

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The Activities section is probably my favorite part of the entire Common App, because—when done right—it shows you a pretty accurate cross-section of who someone is. Not necessarily their heart and soul (THAT would be what the Common App essay is for), but the kind of person they are: what space they would occupy on a campus, what type of people they would probably associate with, and how they would generally spend their time. That’s actually quite a bit of information! And it's information that colleges take seriously as they build their incoming classes.

It actually reminds me of the old Facebook, or even MySpace or Friendster (before your time!) or OKCupid (which you should NOT be on!). On all those sites, you'd write a profile and list your favorite books and music and movies and quotes. You know how you silently size people up based on how they consume culture, no matter how open-minded you believe yourself to be? (“He listens to Ariana Grande?! Pass!”) Well, college admissions officers don’t “judge” you per se…but they do mentally put you in the appropriate category in their mind by reading your Activities List.

Think about it this way: each college needs to fulfill specific needs on its campus. Drama department, choir, squash team, debate team, sustainable farming club...they need to make sure they have really talented and skilled students to do all of those things. They NEED to know if you’re going to audition for the musical or if you’re likely to run the organic garden. Otherwise, they might end up with too many sopranos and not enough kale! Or even worse, too much kale and no sopranos! (IS that worse?)

Basically, your Activities List should do two things: it should give the college admissions reader a sense of what spaces and roles you'll occupy once you get to campus, and it should show that you'll be an asset in those spaces and roles.


So with that in mind, here's my six-step method for creating a winning Activities List.


1) Brainstorm

First, write down every activity you do! Every club you’ve been involved in during high school. Any job or internship you’ve done (babysitting counts!). Any volunteering you’ve done. Church or synagogue groups. Any extra classes or lessons you’ve taken in the past 4 years outside of school. EVERYTHING.

Please don’t feel limited by formal clubs and groups. If you have a hobby or interest that takes a ton of your time, that’s legit! Do you spend most of your hours trading cryptocurrencies, even though you do it completely on your own? Or organizing Magic the Gathering tournaments for your friends? Did you teach yourself how to play the guitar by obsessively watching YouTube videos for weeks on end? Those are going on your Activities List!


2) Refine

Now, write down which grades you’ve participated in each of your activities (9th through 12th). Write down how many hours you spend on it weekly, as well as how many weeks you likely spend on it a year. Write down any titles or awards associated with it. Yes, you get to write your Awards in a separate section, but this step will help you determine which activities are the strongest, and therefore the most deserving of the limited space on your list.


3) Group

If you are like 99.9% of the students I work with, there are some common themes here. Put all the visual art activities together. Cluster all the sports together. Put all the music or drama together. All the volunteerism together. The pre-med/STEM stuff together. Debate/student government/political stuff together. Baby-sitting/camp counselor/tutoring middle-schoolers/caring for kids stuff together. You get the idea. 


4) Prioritize Your Groups

Now you have some decisions to make about ordering your list! Which group gets priority? This is an art more than it is a science, so you may have to shuffle your list around before it feels right. However, there are some things to keep in mind:

·       You probably want to put the group with the most activities in it first.

·       If one of your groups is related to the area of study that you indicated you'll be pursuing, that gives it higher priority.

·       Discontinued activities get lower priority on your list. For example, if you have just as many activities in your “Sports” category as you do in your “Music” category, but you recently quit sports and now only do music, music takes precedence.


5) Prioritize Within Your Groups

Now that you know which group of activities comes first, second, third, etc., you need to put the individual activities in order. Here are a few rules of thumb:

·       Activities that are more recent should come before activities that you discontinued.

·       Activities that take more time (hours per week and weeks per year) and have more accomplishments associated with them should come before ones that aren’t as big of a time commitment and don’t have any awards or titles attached.

·       If an activity can act as a bridge between two others, put it between them.


6) Get Your Wording Right!

You don’t have many characters (150!) to describe everything you've done, so give the Cliff Notes version! Here are my favorite ways to get the most information packed into those tiny slots:

·       Put as much information as you can in the title. Instead of “Volleyball,” try squeezing in “Varsity Volleyball; Captain (12th), MVP (10th-11th)." Instead of “Singing” or “Chorus,” put “St. John’s Chorus, Soprano Section Leader.”

·       In the main description, don’t worry about complete sentences! Focus on getting a diverse group of action verbs in there instead. I wouldn’t say, “I sing in my church’s chorus every Sunday and sometimes sing solos during special concerts. This past year, I was selected as the soprano section lead”—nope, you’re never gonna finish that sentence with the character limit! Instead, I’d write: “Sing in my church’s chorus every Sunday; perform solos during special concerts; selected as soprano section leader for past two years.”


And voila! An Activities List that gives a complete, compelling picture of you to an admissions reader.

Follow these six steps, and you'll be getting the maximum information into your Activities List and giving the clearest and strongest possible picture of yourself as an applicant. You may need to rearrange and tweak your Activities List after following these general steps, but with a little massaging, you’ll be able to communicate at a glance what your passions and interests are to any college admissions counselor. Best of luck to you! And if you need any help, you know how to contact me.